Update: Human Life Embedded at the very heart of the secular humanist program for abortion and euthanasia lies an anthropology — a vision of the human person and the meaning of human life. It is powerfully expressed in two famous works of fiction by Catholic authors.

One of them is Robert Hugh Benson’s century-old apocalyptic novel Lord of the World. Near the end of the story an idealistic and naïve young woman, disillusioned by the discovery that behind the benevolent mask of her profoundly secularized society lies a cruel and brutal reality, decides to end her life in one of the “Homes” established to provide this terminal service.

She chooses one in England in preference to the continent of Europe for fear that continental euthanasia facilities may be practicing human vivisection on their clients. “There,” Benson writes, “where sentiment was weaker, and logic more imperious, materialism was more consistent. Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.”

Only Higher Animals

The other book is Evelyn Waugh’s caustic 1948 satire of American funeral customs, The Loved One. Disappointed in love, a young female mortuary technician commits suicide. Her erstwhile suitor, a cynical Englishman who works at a pet cemetery, arranges for the disposal of her remains in its crematorium. And why not? The message of Waugh’s grim tale is the same as Benson’s: if materialism has it right, human beings are only higher animals, and can be treated as their slightly lower cousins are.

A radically different anthropology underlies these words of Pope Francis:

Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world. And every elderly person, even if he is sick or at the end of his days, bears in himself the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded.

The Pope’s stinging critique of today’s “throwaway culture” was contained in a message last September 20 to members of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. It came at a particularly timely moment, just after the release of his now-famous interview with several Jesuit journals. Some readers took his comments there, cautioning against placing near-exclusive emphasis on the Church’s teaching on the life issues, as signaling a retreat from those concerns.

Not so. “The first right of the human person is his life,” the Holy Father told the Catholic doctors.

In the United States, as the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade approaches, the fight to defend human life is raging more fiercely than ever. Forty-one years ago, the advocates of legalized abortion and their media supporters took it for granted that that was the end of it. The Supreme Court had struck down laws against abortion throughout the country, and the opposition would soon flicker out. Euthanasia, many supposed, would come next.

The people who thought that way could hardly have been more wrong.

True, there are still more than one million abortions annually in America. The United States continues to have arguably the most permissive regime of legalized abortion in the entire world. It isn’t just the number of abortions either. The U.S. is one of only nine countries that permit abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy and one of only four that permit abortion after the child is viable for any reason.

But pro-life progress in correcting the situation also is a fact.

For one thing, the supposedly scientific grounds on which Justice Harry Blackmun based the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade now are scientifically outdated at best. As a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document prepared for last October’s Respect Life program puts it, “Even abortion rights activists now concede the basic biological fact that human life begins at conception.”

As for euthanasia, despite strenuous efforts by supporters — efforts that date back to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century — only four states have so far legalized the form of “euthanasia-lite,” called physician-assisted suicide. The four states are Washington, Montana, Vermont and Oregon. Oregon was the first state to take this step back in 1994. In 2012, 44 persons hastened their deaths with doctors’ help there.

Also in 2012, to the dismay of euthanasia advocates, Massachusetts voters rejected a “death with dignity” ballot initiative in the November elections. Shortly before the vote, opinion polling had found more than 60 percent support for the measure, but when the time came, 51 percent voted against it.

Other Signs of Progress

Other recent signs of progress include these.

• As of last September, according to LifeNews.com, a pro-life Internet news source, 2013 was well on its way to setting a record for the most pro-life legislation passed in a year. Up to then, 48 states had considered some 360 measures intended to restrict abortion in various ways, and 69 of these became law. “The successful passage of common-sense, protective legislation demonstrates that elected officials have their pulse on the will of the people — not on the abortion lobby,” LifeNews.com remarked.

• Largely as a result of recent regulations making it either too expensive or too logistically difficult for them to continue in operation, as of September at least 58 U.S. abortion clinics had been forced to close their doors since 2011. That was one of every 10 abortion clinics in the country.

• The biggest single spur to such developments may have been the trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, which spotlighted details of his practice that horrified countless Americans. Gosnell was convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies dispatched by being jabbed in the neck with scissors after being born alive by abortion. He pleaded guilty to these and other abortion-related crimes and is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

But the other side is far from giving up the fight.

President Obama and his administration actively support abortion. In a statement last January for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the president hailed that ruling for its “historic commitment to protect the health and life of women.” In April, in an address to a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, Obama accused the pro-life movement of “an assault on women’s rights.”

As matters now stand, it’s relatively easy to get pro-life legislation through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But such legislation is virtually certain to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. If by chance a pro-life measure did manage somehow to slip through, President Obama could be counted on to veto it.

Meanwhile, government support for abortion is expanding via the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly opposed this aspect of the program, especially for coercing faith-based institutions and programs to cooperate in a system that requires insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs, contraceptives and sterilization. In a mid-September letter to the bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of USCCB, said: “We are united in our resolve to continue to defend our right to live by our faith.”

It’s ironic that, although Obama in his anniversary statement saluting Roe v. Wade, declared the decision’s “guiding principle” to be “government should not intrude on our most private family matters,” the pro-life movement’s central objection to Obamacare is the coercive nature of its abortion mandate. How far this reaches was underlined recently when the Little Sisters of the Poor joined other religious providers of employee health benefits in a class action lawsuit against the mandate. “We cannot violate our vows by participating in the government’s program to provide access to abortion-inducing drugs,” said Sister Loraine Marie, superior of one of the congregation’s three U.S. provinces.

Already, a challenge involving a private employer who objects to abortion coverage on conscience grounds has reached the Supreme Court (up to the time of writing, the court hadn’t said whether it would consider the case). The court also has been asked to consider an appeal from the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturning an Arizona law restricting abortions after five months of pregnancy. Twelve other states also have such laws.

Obamacare aside, pro-lifers’ worst nightmare about the Supreme Court is that the president might get a chance to name another one or two justices to the court and shift the balance definitively to the pro-abortion side. That would be the probable result if one of the four clearly conservative members now on the court (Justice Anthony Kennedy is a swing vote) were to leave while Obama is in office.

The status of euthanasia resembles the situation of abortion in some ways, but is very different in others. Currently, euthanasia is legal in only three countries — the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg — while assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland and, as noted, in four U.S. states. Whether legal or not, though, many observers believe so-called passive euthanasia via the withholding of food and water or life-saving treatment happens much more often than is commonly acknowledged, both in homes and institutional settings.

The setback dealt the death-with-dignity drive by Massachusetts voters in 2012 has apparently slowed it down for now, but supporters have by no means abandoned the fight. That is something they could hardly do inasmuch as support for the termination of life by assisted suicide or euthanasia is an important part of the ideology of secular humanism.

Not surprisingly, how most people view physician-assisted suicide depends heavily on how it’s presented to them.

A Gallup survey in May 2013 — the same month Vermont became the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide — found 70 percent of Americans in favor of letting doctors hasten the death of terminally ill patients “by some painless means.” But when this was described as helping people “commit suicide,” approval dropped to 51 percent, with 45 percent opposed. (The same question was first asked in 1996. Approval peaked in 2001 at 68 percent and has been dropping since then.)

As measured by polls, American public opinion on abortion presents a confused and ambiguous picture — nothing new, of course, since it’s been like that for many years.

Perhaps the most positive part of it is that, as a Pew Research report put it last August, “regardless of their views about the legality of abortion, most Americans think that having an abortion is a moral issue.” Overall, 49 percent hold abortion to be morally wrong and only 15 percent see it as morally acceptable, while 23 percent believe it simply isn’t a moral issue.

Among those who consider abortion wrong, the breakdown is this: white evangelical Protestants, 75 percent; Hispanic Catholics, 64 percent; black Protestants, 58 percent; white Catholics, 53 percent; white mainline Protestants, 38 percent, and religiously unaffiliated adults, 25 percent. By well over two to one, people who attend religious services once a week or more often are more likely to see abortion as morally wrong (72 percent) than are people who seldom or never attend (32 percent). For white Catholics, the percentage is 74 percent among weekly or more frequent Mass attenders and 40 percent among those who attend Mass less often.

According to Pew, attitudes on legal abortion vary markedly from region to region. Percentages range from New England, where 75 percent think most or all abortions should be legal, to the South Central region of the country (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas) where only 40 percent think that.

Summing up poll results over many years, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt wrote: “If you were going to craft a law based strictly on public opinion, it would permit abortion in the first trimester (first 12 weeks) of pregnancy and in cases involving rape, incest or threats to the mother’s life. The law. . .would substantially restrict abortion after the first trimester in many other cases.”

The message all this sends homilists and catechists is clear: Educate, educate, educate. People need to know both scientific facts and moral principles relative to abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. Especially, perhaps, they must grasp what Pope Francis meant when he denounced the “throwaway culture” that leads to “eliminating human beings.”

“Our answer to this mentality,” he said, “is a decisive and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life.”

MR. SHAW, OSV contributing editor, is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.