A MUST-Read: NRL Academy Graduation Address

Last Friday, we held graduation ceremonies for the NRL Academy Class of 2009.  Below is the address that Burke Balch, who does double-duty as director of the Powell Center for Medical Ethics and as academic director for the Academy, gave to the students during the ceremony.  It inspired not only the students, but all of us in attendance and we wanted to share it with you.  Please forward on to any and all appropriate lists.

 If you’re interested in more information about the Academy, or are interested in sending a student to the 2010 NRL Academy, you can contact Megan McCrum at (202) 626-8825 or megan.mccrum@gmail.com.

 NRL Academy Graduation Ceremony, July 31, 2009
Burke J. Balch, Academic Director

            “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

             My friends:

            Let us tonight openly face the stern truth, directly and boldly: as we assemble for the graduation of the Class of 2009 of the National Right to Life Academy, there is all too much to unite our time with the darkest days of 1776 when Thomas Paine penned those lines.

            We have just seen the election of a President who is so sworn a foe of the helpless children yet within their wombs that he is pledged to support a bill that would strike down all legislation that might meaningfully protect any of them from violent death.

            The foes of life confront us on every side.  To the demand for unabated abortions is now joined a swelling call for euthanasia.

            The cry of almost all the seats of leadership, of the formers as of the purveyors of public opinion, seems ever against the protection of the helpless and the vulnerable.

            Do we look to the scientists, to illustrate with compelling proofs the humanity of the victims?  The National Academy of Sciences, the scientific journals, all the organs of the scientific establishment, with rare exception instead loudly agitate for inhuman experimentation upon the victims, and the exploitation of their organs for transplant.

            Do we look to the doctors, trained to heal and schooled to save life?  The American Medical Association, which in the 19th Century led the effort to protect unborn children, educating legislators and the public about their living existence from the very moment of conception, today lends its prestige and support to those of its members whose daily occupation is to kill them.

            Walk into virtually any campus, virtually any newsroom, virtually any place where the educated, the well-to-do, the elite gather, and dare to assert the human equality of the very young, of those not yet born–and you will be met less with rebuttal than with scorn.

            My friends, in America of 2009, you will know from all the organs of sophisticated opinion that abortion is respectable–and that we in the pro-life movement are not.

            It is, we think, the world turned upside down.  How can it be sophisticated and civilized to be discriminatory, and beyond the bounds of respectability to insist on human equality?  How can it be sophisticated and civilized to be violent, and beyond the bounds of respectability to call for loving alternatives to violence?  How can it be sophisticated and civilized to dehumanize and destroy the helpless and vulnerable, and beyond the bounds of respectability to seek their protection?  How?

            My friends, in history’s scale we are not alone in lack of respectability.  The well-known PBS series on the Civil War included this quote from historian Barbara Fields:

             Those appointed or self-appointed as spokesmen for “respectable” opinion in the loyal states agreed [that the war was an issue between free, white citizens: between unionists and secessionists] even when they disagreed heatedly on the conclusion to be drawn from it.  Some might believe that property rights, including rights to human property, must be held inviolable, others that slavery must not be allowed to spread, yet others that neither goal mattered compared to preserving the Union undisturbed.  Nevertheless, as respectable citizens of sound and practical sense, all concurred that the aggrieved parties in the struggle of North against South were white citizens, and that the issue should be decided on the basis of what would best promote such citizens’ desires and interests.

            But wars, especially civil wars, have a way of making respectability scandalous and scandalousness respectable, and that is just what the American Civil War did. Abruptly, people whose point of view had never been respectable became the voice not just of morality but of practical common sense as well: abolitionists, black and white, calling not just for the containment of slavery but for its eradication; free black people demanding a right to take an active part in the war; and especially the slaves themselves, insisting on the self-evident truth that their liberty, like everyone else’s was . . .  inalienable.

             In 1844, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem to summon his generation to the fight for what was right rather than currently respectable:

           Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,

            In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;

            Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

            And the choice goes by forever, ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

             Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,

            Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ‘tis prosperous to be just;

            Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,

            Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

             For what truth, for what good, do we of the pro-life movement fight?  You will recall that in Roe v. Wade Justice Blackman deemed it necessary, before elevating abortion to a constitutional right,  to try to discredit the Hippocratic Oath, by which for millennia new physicians had pledged to refrain from abortion and euthanasia.  The great anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote this about the epochal significance of that Hippocratic Oath, now cast aside by contemporary medical schools who substitute far other words for their graduation ceremonies:

             For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing.  Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person.  He with power to kill, had power to cure, including specially the undoing of his own killing activities.  He who had power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill.

            With the Greeks the distinction was made clear.  One profession, the followers of Asclepius, were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect.  The life of a slave, the life of the Emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child.

            This is a priceless possession which we cannot afford to tarnish.  But society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer–to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient.

            It is the duty of society to protect the physician from such requests.

             The man who was assassinated in Ford’s Theater right across the street from our headquarters, who died in a building just two doors away from where we gather tonight, wrote these words to the Congress:

             Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this . . . generation will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance or insignificance can save one or the other of us.  What we do will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.  We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.

             Solemnly I assure you: each of you is called to serve.  In what role and in what manner your individual contribution can best be given must depend on circumstances and your own appraisal of your talents and opportunities.   But whatever particular way you are called to serve –

            Let it never be said of this movement and of your generation that when the time of testing came, you fell away. 

            Let it rather be said, by the historians of the 21st Century, that in the darkest hour– when the fight for life seemed to tremble on the edge of being lost– a stalwart band yet raised high the torch of truth and the lamplight of compassion and with renewed effort and unremitting dedication found somewhere and somehow the way again to turn the tide and stem the age of death.

            We have done our best to help you take the torch of leadership from we who go before.  And now, we send you forth to bear onwards that torch of truth, that lamp of compassion– that fight for life– with our blessing, our support, and our hope.


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