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Mary Ann Glendon… A Voice For The Voiceless

November 17, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Mary Ann Glendon was born on October 7, 1938, in Dalton, Mass., a small town nestled in the Berkshire Hills. Her father was an Irish Catholic, her mother a Yankee Congregationalist. She learned a great deal from her mother’s religion about social organization and from her father, how Catholicism “enlarged the spirit, gave wings to the imagination, and lent meaning to suffering.” Catholic ceremonies, as she wrote, “spoke to me of a history before Plymouth Rock, and its liturgy linked me to every living Catholic on Earth.”
This openness to the lessons of history and the dignity of all human beings set the tone for her subsequent career in comparative law and as an advocate of universal rights.
Catholicism was her bulwark. “Amid the tug-and-pull of special interests and power politics,” she stated, “the Church has stood clearly, and often alone, for all the freedoms that flow from the image and likeness of God.”
Given her broad outlook, it was reasonable, therefore, that she would cultivate a strong affection for Plato who was able to synthesize philosophy, law, and the good of society. The University of Chicago, where such stalwarts such as Mortimer Adler, Richard Weaver, and Leo Strauss were teaching, while Catholic luminaries such as Jacques Maritain and Martin D’Arcy were frequent lecturers, attracted her.
She received her bachelor of arts, juris doctor, and master of comparative law degrees from the University of Chicago, practiced law in Chicago from 1963-1968, taught at the Boston College Law School and commenced her long tenure at Harvard Law School in 1987.
In 1995 Pope John Paul II appointed her head of the Vatican delegation to the United Nations Conference in Beijing and in 2004 named her president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science. In 2007 the U.S. Senate confirmed her as ambassador to the Holy See. From 2001-2004, she served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.
The study of law sharpens the mind and broadens one’s scope. These words, it appears, have served as a guiding principle throughout Mary Ann Glendon’s distinguished career. The law sharpens the mind by making distinctions such as those between guilty and not guilty, good and bad, true and false, and relevant and irrelevant. At the same time, it broadens one’s scope to include the many factors that are pertinent to a particular case. The law, for example, should avoid oversimplification and exclusion.
Dr. Glendon has been a stern critic of Roe v. Wade, to a large extent because of its narrow focus and, consequently, what it ignores. In her 1987 award-winning book, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, she employs Plato’s method of comparative law in examining the laws on those two subjects in 20 countries. Her conclusion is that the abortion laws in the United States reflect an attitude that is most impoverished. This is because Roe v. Wade is narrowly based on the view of the woman as an autonomous person, an individual who has a constitutional right to abort.
In that landmark 1973 decision Justice Blackmun was careful not to describe the fetus as either alive or as a person. To take one contrasting example, Helmut Kohl, who served as chancellor of Germany from 1982-1998, attested that his government’s policy concerning abortion “is to increase maternity benefits and child allowances to help people with raising children.” Roe v. Wade, given its absolute emphasis on the right of the mother, precludes such discussion.
Law is not simply a command backed up by a system of enforcement. As Mary Ann Glendon is at pains to point out, law tells a story. It tells a story about who we are, our origins, our future prospects, and what we value as citizens. The abortion laws in America tell a highly truncated story: that abortion is a matter of individual, private choice and the human fetus is not a person.
Law also carries an exalted significance. The protagonist of Plato’s Laws is a traveler from his native city, an old man who does not have a name. Plato refers to him as the Athenian Stranger. The Stranger asks: “Is it a god or some human being who is given credit for laying down your laws?” Although it is left to human beings to legislate, they should not be unaware of the transcendent implications that laws can represents.
In another of Glendon’s award-winning books, Rights Talk, she criticizes the one-sidedness of the radical individualism that is part of the American tradition. She offers examples of how rights without corresponding duties create very disturbing situations.
In one case, operators of a boat-rental service sat on the shore of a lake and watched an inebriated customer lose his grip on his overturned canoe and drown. A Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court voted unanimously that the defendants were under no legal obligation to heed the drowning man’s screams.
In a similar case, one judge stated that a person has no obligation to come to the rescue of an endangered child: “I am not liable in damages to the child for his injuries . . . because the child and I are strangers, and I am under no legal duty to protect him.”
Glendon sees this one-sidedness — rights without corresponding duties — as inimical to community. A true community is a fellowship of persons, not an aggregate of individuals or a collectivity of bystanders. Just as Glendon offers a voice for the unborn, she also offers a helping hand to those who are distressed.
Consistent with her pro-life, communitarian views, Dr. Glendon created a stir in 2009 when she declined acceptance of Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal. In a letter to President John Jenkins, CSC, which she made public, she reminded him that his invitation to pro-abortion Barack Obama to give the commencement address was a disregard “of the U. S. bishops’ express request of 2004 that Catholic institutions ‘should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles’ and that such persons ‘should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions’.”
Dr. Glendon subsequently received an award more in keeping with her convictions from the National Right to Life Committee at its Proudly Pro-Life Awards Dinner. Academic excellence and moral integrity make a beautiful marriage.

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