It takes an open and intelligent mind that always seeks truth, willing to go wherever that leads. Becoming a parent also helps.

One of the things I love about this book I’ve been reading, The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God, is its high-level of reasoning and engagement of critical thinking. I wasn’t exactly prepared for that when starting what I already knew was a touching biography about an exceptional life, the one Michael Pakaluk wrote about his wife Ruth after she died.

But I got a clue from the endorsement of scholar Michael Novak:

I have never read a more beautiful and touching book – a book about a joyous life and overpowering death, and grief and joy. Michael and Ruth Pakaluk’s account of love and grief towers head and shoulders above the justly acclaimed accounts of C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed and Sheldon Vanauken in A Severe Mercy.

Wow. High praise. And more from Dr. Peter Kreeft, a brilliant philosopher who knew Ruth Pakaluk well. Early into the book, I saw why.

Ruth Pakaluk entered Harvard an atheist and “enthusiastically pro-choice”, according to her husband Michael in his narrative that opens the book. They met and married while at Harvard, and together made their way through an eager intellectual and spiritual journey to the Christian and then Catholic Christian faith and the reasoned belief in the sanctity of all human life. Which was a rare journey in the higher echelons of academia, they discovered.

Ruth and I were astonished to witness this discourtesy and hostility to free discussion. We couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t immediately agree with [a] very reasonable proposal [for revising a state law]. But what most disturbed us was that on a university campus – supposedly dedicated to learning – those who disagreed with the speaker weren’t interested in arguing with him but instead tried to drown out intelligent discussion.

And this is only one snip from this compelling narrative. Ruth became a powerful pro-life activist and an even more powerful public speaker, and this really caught my imagination:

In debate she was so effective that abortion rights activists often refused to go up against her.

She was a force to be reckoned with, and the reckoning meant resorting to reason, and opponents in the debate wouldn’t or couldn’t do that. But she kept on.

When the Supreme Court came down with the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in July 1992, Ruth decided in light of it that the pro-life movement needed to change its strategy…Before Casey, the chief pro-life strategy had been to change public opinion sufficiently so that a pro-life president would be elected who, it was thought, would appoint justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade

After Casey, then, Ruth changed her efforts in the direction of influencing the culture, especially influencing individual hearts and minds through education.

Without drama or emotion, Michael weaves the straight-line narrative of Ruth’s journey that was loaded enough with both, the emotion of becoming the mother of seven children with all the drama of a dynamo managing home and family, while also managing political campaigns and educational initiatives and pro-life movement strategies.

It was actually having a child that converted her to the view that her highest calling was to be a homemaker – and from her descriptions of her first child it is evident that she was deeply in love with him and that therefore the central question of her daily life became how she might make life best for him.

That struck home, in the heart, as the same thing happened to me, and hapened again with my second son.

This is a powerful story. In the Introduction, Dr. Peter Kreeft says:

I have read and debated much about abortion, but I have never seen a clearer and stronger pro-life argument than Ruth’s.

And that’s intriguing, coming from Kreeft especially.

Here’s how Michael summarizes it:

The core of Ruth’s argument about abortion and human rights may be summarized in this way: Human rights are rights that pertain to us simply in virtue of the fact that we are human, not for any reason above and beyond that; the fundamental human right is the right to life, and so, if that right is denied, then all human rights are in effect denied; the thing growing in the mother’s womb is surely alive (otherwise it would not need to be killed by an abortion), and it is human; thus, to deny that the thing growing in the mother’s womb has the right to life is to deny that anyone has any human rights whatsoever.

Once, an interviewer of a student newspaper at a university where she was debating asked her, “So, it’s not a legal argument you are making but a humanistic argument?” Ruth replied, “It comes from this idea: either you think all human beings are equal, and you don’t kill each other, or you don’t. I have always seen abortion as an issue where you should not need to believe in God in order to be against it. If anyone wants to say human rights exist or that all human beings are equal, those statements are tautologous with ‘Abortion is wrong.’”

There it is. The clarity of logic and reason, and the beauty of truth.

Ruth came to a turning point in her search for the truth about abortion “in the used book section in the basement of Harvard Book Store,” when she came across one particular book by “a firm advocate of tax-funded abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy,” as Michael writes.

What the book made clear to Ruth is that people directly involved with abortion are well aware that they are killing human persons – because that’s how they themselves describe abortion…

We perhaps resist recogizing this because it is so shocking. But it was this recognition that led Ruth to reconceive the abortion controversy, not as a difference of opinion as regards some philosophical thesis – “Is the fetus a person?” as people often say – but rather as a difference in two cultures: given that (as everyone really knows) the thing in the woman’s womb is a living human, do we act on the principle that all human beings are fundamentally equal, or do we proceed as if we believe that it is permissible to kill some human beings to solve our problems? The first is the Culture of Life, the second the Culture of Death. These two cultures, she thought, were vyinig for the allegiance of the young people she was addressing, and her concern was to teach them what they should know in order that they might choose life.”

The entire rest of the book is in Ruth’s own words, in the letters she wrote to many people over the years. Providentially preserved, and eloquently spoken. As Peter Kreeft says of the book:

I invite you to meet a warrior for life whose pen is truly mightier than death’s sword.

Truly.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....