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Speaking Up For Life: An Interview with Deirdre McQuade, the USCCB’s Director of Planning and Information | Valerie Schmalz | February 24, 2006

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a new pro-life spokesperson–Deirdre McQuade. As a volunteer at pregnancy help centers, as a student in theology and philosophy, and as National Program Director at Feminists for Life for the College Outreach Program, Ms. McQuade has melded her Catholicism, her strong belief in the Christ-centered dignity of women, and her belief in the sanctity of life. She holds a bachelor of arts from Bryn Mawr College and a Master of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Divinity in theology from the University of Notre Dame.

Valerie Schmalz recently interviewed Deirdre for IgnatiusInsight.com.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the nature of the job you are doing for the U.S. bishops? What exactly is the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and what does it do?

Deirdre McQuade:
The Pro-Life Secretariat works to teach and deepen respect for all human life, especially the most vulnerable — the unborn, disabled, elderly, and those who are dying. The Secretariat also advises with respect to public policy to protect the lives of those same vulnerable members of the human family. We work both within the Church and in the public square, and encourage local programs that assist pregnant women, disabled persons, the dying, and those who have been involved in abortion.

Led by 39-year USCCB veteran, Gail Quinn, our staff of eleven laypeople works under the guidance and direction of the seven bishops and archbishops on the Committee for Pro-Life Activities. Cardinal Keeler from Baltimore is the current committee chair; and Cardinal Rigali, the chair-elect from Philadelphia, will begin his 3-year term in November 2006.

As Director of Planning and Information, my role is to serve as the Conference’s primary spokesperson on abortion, euthanasia and related life issues. I coordinate news releases from our office, am available to the press for further comment, and appear on radio and television programs. I will also represent the bishops in debates, public lectures, and online in the blogosphere. I’ll encourage members of Congress to support pro-life initiatives; lecture on college campuses; and commission advertising campaigns to move the hearts and minds of thousands – basically, whatever it takes to proclaim the Gospel of Life in the United States!

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the big issues facing your office now?

Given the legal context we’re in right now, our focus is on the infamous 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. The precedent set by Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, makes it impossible to limit abortion on demand through federal and state laws.

Yet many people — including elected officials — are unaware of how indefensible the decision is on its own terms. Even legal scholars who support abortion rights have spoken strongly against the majority decision in Roe, since it boldly asserts a constitutional right to abortion without providing any serious legal rationale for it. Prominent pro-abortion pundits are speaking out against it, too, calling it a weak foundation for the "reproductive rights" they would like to see assured for years to come.

The recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings offered a teachable moment on Roe. Several Senators made their intentions very clear: in order to be confirmed as a new justice, one must commit to upholding the Roe v. Wade decision. Our EndRoe.org campaign called for an end to this "Roe litmus test." On completely secular grounds, we argued that since Roe is such embarrassingly weak constitutional law, it is an impoverished standard for the confirmation of any judicial nominee. Co-sponsored by the Pro-Life Secretariat and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, the postcard/email campaign mobilized pro-life citizens to make their voice known on the Hill.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you think would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned?

Even if Roe were overturned today, most of our pro-life work would still lie ahead. Policy decisions about abortion would finally be made by the citizens of each state through the democratic process, rather than by the courts.

While I hesitate to make hard predictions about the fate of Roe v. Wade, it has become clear that the majority of Americans do not support unlimited access to abortion. Far from it. In a 2004 Zogby International poll, 61% of Americans said abortion should not be permitted after the fetal heartbeat has begun — but this occurs early in pregnancy in the first month of fetal development, before most abortions take place!

In many states, this could lead to significant limitations on abortion — if not an outright ban of "the procedure." Other states would likely pass very permissive laws allowing for a wide abortion license. Hopefully the wiser states would have a virtuous impact on their neighbors.

The law also has a teaching power that often goes overlooked. Roe currently gives abortion the veneer of moral legitimacy. Many women, initially hesitant to abort their children, have bought into the lie that "if it’s legal, it must be OK." Their family, friends, and doctors often justify recommending abortion for this reason, as well. But if we could move beyond Roe, this false legitimacy would peel away. A patchwork of state abortion laws would raise deeper questions about the morality of abortion and its effects on women, families and the society at large.

IgnatiusInsight.com: So what are your longer-term goals?

Even while abortion on demand remains the law of the land, we need to do all we can legally, politically, and culturally to reduce the number of abortions. This entails, among other vital activities, helping to build a world where abortion is more and more unthinkable. NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and NOW insist on unlimited access to abortion, since they claim it is necessary for women’s health and wellness. Planned Parenthood's polling organization, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, reports that most women seek abortions due to lack of practical resources and emotional support. They often see abortion not as a choice among several options, but as their only way out of an impossible situation.

To me, that's like the desperation that drives a wolf to gnaw off her own leg to escape a deadly trap. But while abortion advocates say that women need access to abortion to be liberated from the "trap," those committed to the Culture of Life say: "Do not panic. Let us help you pry open the trap and bind your wounds!"

Better yet, we are committed to removing the social and economic traps so women no longer find themselves trapped in the first place! This is one distinct area where those committed to social justice can particularly serve the Culture of Life. It is incumbent upon the Church to work proactively on behalf of the poor and oppressed, such that they would not be tempted to resort to abortion as a short-term solution to the challenges they face. By refusing to exploit human life for profit or political gain, cultural leaders in academia, government, business, medicine and the media can raise the bar higher, acknowledging the true dignity of the person.

Finally, priests, deacons and teachers have a prophetic call to encourage the faithful — and through them, the whole world — to rely joyfully on the loving providence of God the Father for forgiveness and strength (cf. Luke 12:25-32). So many are dying to hear this word of hope: that it is possible to heal from past sins, and that through prayer and the sacraments, we have everything we need to choose well in the future.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You recently worked at Feminists for Life of America, coordinating their College Outreach Program. What is it about the FFL message that attracted you and do you see that as relevant to your work as a Catholic spokeswoman?

Feminists for Life’s mission is unique and powerful. It was started in 1972 by two women — before Roe was even decided — when the Ohio chapter of NOW forbade them to speak out on behalf of their unborn "sisters," calling for equal rights for those women still forming in the womb. A non-sectarian organization, FFL attracts a diverse and colorful cross-section of the pro-life movement: those with and without religious affiliation; men and women; Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. While these groups would clearly be divided on many other issues, they are united in recognizing the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. They are concerned about both the child in the womb and the mother who bears her. They know that many women regret their abortion and are working toward the day when "peace begins in the womb."

Many people ask me about the term "feminist" which in recent decades has come to be associated strongly with abortion advocacy. While a distorted feminism calls for unmitigated access to abortion, a healed and restored view of women is a powerful force in defense of both women and their children.

In Evangelium Vitae (99), Pope John Paul II called for women "to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation." This "new" feminism – which builds on the early pro-life feminism of the nineteenth century suffragettes – refuses to pit women against their own children. It calls for solidarity with the defenseless unborn and with women according to their proper dignity. Being truly pro-woman is about empowering women to make choices that both they and their children can live with.

At the USCCB, I now have the privilege of building on that pro-woman perspective with all the resources the Church has to offer: prayer, worship, and the sacraments — especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. The Catholic Church provides clear moral guidance and the resources to live it out with integrity and joy.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What qualifications do you bring to it — professionally and in terms of your Catholic and pro-life experience and background?

My career has been shaped by academic study, pro-life advocacy, and ecumenical bridge-building, all of which I trust will serve me well in this new post.

I was first inspired to become a voice for the unborn during high school at the national March for Life, and then co-founded Students for Life at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, highlighting the need for a new pro-life feminism on those pervasively pro-choice campuses.

After pursuing philosophy and theology studies at the graduate level, I counseled at a pregnancy help center where I learned so much more about the challenges women face coping with an unplanned pregnancy, including the terrible cycle of poverty.

In 2003, former president of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt, wrote a book called, "Behind Every Choice is a Story." I agree, behind every abortion, there is a story. But while she holds abortion up as an answer to these heartfelt stories, my colleagues refused to pit struggling women against their children. We cared for many single moms, offering free pregnancy tests, counseling, clothing, diapers, and referrals to other life-affirming services. It is a beautiful thing that there are many more pregnancy help centers in the U.S. than abortion clinics. My work at Feminists for Life then helped me to see the bigger picture, and how it is possible to make significant cultural changes one campus at a time.

My ecumenical work at the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and, later, with The Vine reminded me powerfully that Catholics are hardly alone in building the Culture of Life. My Lutheran, Mennonite, Orthodox, and evangelical Protestant friends — among many others — are deeply committed to working on behalf of women, the unborn, and the poor. Because not all of their own traditions offer sufficiently clear teachings on life and sexuality issues, our brothers and sisters in Christ often appreciate entering into thoughtful conversations informed by Catholic church teaching. I have been humbled by their openness and have learned much from their holy boldness, as well. Striving toward greater unity in the mystical Body of Christ will only strengthen our shared witness for the sake of his Kingdom.

Wherever I work, it is clear to me that the world is hungry for a clear word of hope. While many people have a hard time accepting the Gospel of Life, "those who have ears" (as Jesus says) are open to the life-giving teachings of the Church. It brings me joy to bear this word to others: a Gospel proclamation that engages the culture and equips us to live rich lives in the midst of many conflicting messages.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you see as the main challenges and goals of representing the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities?

In public outreach, our goal is to help build a world where human life is always loved and defended. This involves standing up for those with no voice of their own, advocating on behalf of women, and protesting all direct attacks against innocent human life. It is a work of the New Evangelization, transforming hearts and minds to embrace the truth about Christ and the human dignity he gives us. But it is a real challenge to confront the culture of death and reveal its deep errors while honoring the human dignity of its promoters at the same time. We are called to prophetic witness with charity, speaking truth to power with patience and respect.

To this end, we recently launched a new wave of the "Second Look Project" ad campaign primarily in the Washington, DC area. They appeared as the "Roe v. Reality" series on the Metro trains and buses, in major newspapers, and on the radio, challenging policy-makers and other culture-shapers to reconsider the radical abortion license that Roe ushered in.

The rather understated ads are based on our "Roe Reality Check" pamphlet debunking fifteen myths about the Roe v. Wade decision. Originally sent as a series of postcards to pundits and elected officials on the Hill, these well-researched facts are highly effective in reaching those who are confused or undecided about abortion policy. These facts are already percolating into more speeches and editorials than before.

Over a quarter million booklets have been distributed to parishes, schools and other organizations in the last four months alone! It is available for review in English and Spanish along with our ads and radio spots at: www.SecondLook.org. If you are interested in ordering them for your parish or group, please go to: www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/abortion/roevwade.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Knowing the science and understanding the political and economic forces underlying issues such as embryonic stem cell research, cloning, physician assisted suicide and other end of life decisions are clearly becoming as important in terms of U.S. policy as abortion and the death penalty. How do you think you will help the bishops and the Secretariat convey their ideas in an effective and convincing way — to policymakers and to voting Americans?

This is a real challenge in the 21st century. We now need to defend the dignity of human life in the lab, as well as in the womb, on deathbeds, and even on death row. The more sophisticated our technology becomes, the more cures and treatments are possible for suffering members of the human family. This is a great good, but it also presents a strong temptation to abuse that knowledge, exploiting weaker human lives for the sake of others.

As Cardinal Keeler said in his 2005 statement for Respect Life Sunday: "The 'healing arts' are moving beyond the field of healing into an ethical minefield, where technical knowledge can be used as much to demean life as to serve it." We must learn to speak out against the utilitarian ethic that engages in a simple calculus: merely seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. According to this ethic, the ends justify the means, no matter how much they may violate human dignity. From his or her earliest developmental stages, the human person must be held in higher esteem than unqualified progress, even if this requires suffering or sacrifices along the way. The inviolable dignity of life is the proper scientific rate-determining factor, not monetary profit, prestige, or even potential benefit to others.

For those who are concerned about conducting responsible work in the lab and in the news media, how do they break out of this utilitarian calculus? Who or what guides their considerations? What gives them the courage to serve the public good with honor? Who commends the professional sacrifices they make? Such encouragement would serve the Culture of Life significantly.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Where can Ignatius Insight readers go for more information on your activities?

Visit our websites and forward the links to your friends and family members — especially those who are confused about the abortion issue. Consider providing these links in your personal websites and blogs:


The Second Look Project offers information to help people make informed decisions based on fact rather than emotion. While abortion has been legal in the U.S. for three decades, polls continue to show that many people do not have very basic information about abortion, such as when during pregnancy it is legal, or why it is generally performed.


EndRoe.org allows visitors to e-mail their two U.S. Senators urging them not to require support for Roe v. Wade as a condition for determining a nominee’s fitness for judicial office.


General website of the Bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat, with a "button" for our comprehensive Roe v. Wade information page. It includes full texts of Roe and Doe v. Bolton, as well as commentary, relevant Church teaching, and the Bishops’ statements on U.S. abortion law.

We are constantly updating and improving our websites, so we’d love to get your readers’ input. Please let us know how we might make them more helpful and user-friendly.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Any closing words?

I’d like to offer a prayer for your readers:

As we seek to build a world where human life is always loved and defended, may you know the gentle encouragement of
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas and Protector of the Unborn. May her intercession draw all peoples to the source of life, Jesus Christ, who already reigns victorious over the culture of death. Amen!

• To reach the new Director of Planning and Information of the Secretariat for Pro-life Activities, call the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at 202-541-3070 or if you are interested in The Second Look Project you can reach Ms. McQuade here. For more general comments, e-mail her at prolife@usccb.org.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

U.S. Supreme Court Hears First Abortion Cases in Five Years | Jonathan M. Saenz, Attorney, Liberty Legal Institute
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci

Valerie Schmalz
is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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