ROCHESTER — An 80-year-old woman voices deep regret over having had an abortion 40 years ago. Another caller seeks clarification of the church’s end-of-life teachings. A follow-up is made to publicize a Southern Tier pro-life event. Details are discussed regarding the donation of a new ultrasound machine for a local outreach center.
These are the types of phone calls Jann Armantrout typically might field within just a few minutes’ time in her role as diocesan life-issues coordinator. As she scanned her e-mail inbox one recent morning, she also came across inquiries about making end-of-life presentations in Buffalo and the Southern Tier along with two requests for support from Project Rachel, a diocesan ministry that helps people who have been involved in abortions.
Further diversity shows up in Armantrout’s travel itinerary, as this past month’s schedule reflects: She was in Elmira Sept. 13 for an appearance by Alveda King, a noted pro-life activist and the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was one day after Armantrout flew to New York City for a meeting of the Empire State Stem Cell Board’s ethics committee, of which she is a member. More recently she hosted a kickoff event Sept. 23 at the diocesan Pastoral Center to raise awareness on sex trafficking and human trafficking. Four days later, she began teaching a course on bioethics at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.
"It bounces all over the place," Armantrout said of her duties. "There are so many irons in the fire."
In between correspondence and personal appearances, Armantrout avidly scans newspapers and magazines for life-related stories. A recent one — an Aug. 10 New York Times Magazine feature on the growing incidences of women who conceive twins but, wanting only one child, opt to abort one fetus — roiled her so greatly that she mentioned it five times during a one-hour conversation.
"It’s unbelievable, the callousness with which we treat unborn life in this country," she lamented.
Armantrout pulls no punches in her speaking, writing and lobbying efforts — an essential quality when your office’s chief function is nothing less than defending life in all its forms. With additional present-day controversies brewing over such issues as stem-cell research and euthanasia, Armantrout said it’s more vital than ever for her to speak up fervently for life — and for the rest of the Catholic community to join in.
"There’s so much work to be done. There is a role for everyone, and we do need public witness," she said.
Long list of priorities
The Life Issues Office, a division of diocesan Catholic Charities, was established following the 1993 diocesan Synod, which established the consistent-life ethic (CLE) as a diocesan priority. This ethic urges Catholics to affirm God’s gift of life from the moment of conception to natural death. It calls for activism against abortion, the death penalty, hunger, poverty, euthanasia and violence.
Armantrout is part of a Catholic Charities justice-and-peace staff that also comprises Jack Balinsky, diocesan Catholic Charities executive director; Kathy Dubel, Chemung/Schuyler; Lynda Lowin, Steuben; Laurie Konwinski, Tompkins/Tioga; Ruth Putnam Marchetti, Wayne/Finger Lakes; Marvin Mich, Catholic Family Center; and Brigit Hurley, Catholic Family Center/Livingston. Together, they carry out CLE ideals while addressing such issues as economic justice, war and peace, and environmental concerns. Armantrout also maintains close contact with many parish justice-and-peace committees as well as Project Rachel, Birthright, 40 Days for Life and other community initiatives addressing causes encompassed by the CLE.
"We promote the dignity of all human life as an educational concept, as part of our spiritual formation and as part of our advocacy," said Armantrout, a member of St. Paul Parish in Webster who has served as diocesan life-issues coordinator since 2000.
Armantrout also is a vital member of the diocesan Public Policy Committee, as evidenced by her leadership on the committee’s 2011-12 educational issue of sex trafficking and human trafficking. In recent years, she also has sponsored public-policy initiatives for the committee on abortion and related topics (2002-03); ethical stem-cell research by promoting the use of adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells (2005-06); and opposition to the state’s Reproductive Health Act, which would relax abortion restrictions and legalize abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy (2010-11).
Whereas the list of causes runs long, Armantrout said that "abortion is called to our attention more often than other life issues because that’s where the most lives are lost. In the Diocese of Rochester alone, in 2008 there were 5,200 abortions. That’s a lot of lost life."
Yet because the consistent-life ethic forms such a wide umbrella, Armantrout strives to ensure there’s room for everyone who stumps for individual CLE priorities. For instance, she said some Catholics devote themselves to abortion issues, while others address poverty and peace.
"My mantra is there’s more than enough work for everyone to go around," she said. "It’s not an either-or. It’s all part of the (CLE) spectrum."
She lauded the "people of good will" who are such tireless activists that they willingly make themselves targets of public ridicule while protesting in front of abortion facilities. Others, meanwhile, risk being arrested while taking part in peace protests.
"They are on the front lines and I’m grateful somebody is there. I’m grateful to those people who are willing to extend themselves and follow Christ to the cross regardless of the implications," she said.
Yet "that is not the only way we can affirm the dignity of all human life. There are roles which are less zealous, if you will," Armantrout said, explaining that people also can make critical contributions by attending prayer services and writing to politicians.
While she wishes the overall level of activism was greater among Catholics, Armantrout said those who do advocate on behalf of CLE principles are well prepared: "The depth and breadth of their knowledge is far greater than we had 10 years ago."
The secular struggle
Based on what she perceives as a loss of Christian principles in bioethics as well as society in general, Armantrout said it’s more important than ever for Catholics’ voices to be heard.
For instance, she decries what she terms "the commodification of people" through "taking a woman’s body parts and offering her money," as exemplified by 2009 legislation that made New York the first state to approve taxpayer-funded purchasing of human eggs for research on cloned embryos. A woman can potentially earn several thousand dollars for this procedure.
Armantrout expresses further disdain for the growing trend of so-called "selective reduction" as highlighted in the New York Times Magazine article that so agitated her; the proliferation of involuntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, particularly for infants; and scientific advances toward the production of artificial uteruses and chimeras — organisms that have both human and animal cells in their bodies.
"It’s like, how did we get here?" Armantrout asked.
A major factor, she asserted, has been the dwindling public priority on Catholic teaching that reproduction should occur only within conjugal relationships. "The idea that a child is a gift from God, or a gift of your love for each other, has almost become remote in mainstream media."
Armantrout said these ideals have been supplanted by decisions she said are conveniently couched in the term "lifestyle choices" — cohabitation, having children outside of marriage, contraception, abortion.
"It’s about what I want. What we’re seeing here is the love of self in society superseding the love of God or neighbors," she charged.
Yet to address the damaging effects of these trends is to force people out of their comfort zones: "These topics are not easy for people to talk about in everyday life. This is not like dinner conversation," Armantrout acknowledged. On the other hand, she said those who bravely speak up in defense of life become unfairly labeled.
"The myth is perpetuated by mainstream media that pro-life people or Catholics committed to the teaching of the church are zealots and fanatics, and might even be violent," she remarked.
She said very few come close to fitting that description. Yet scant coverage is given when hundreds of thousands of people gather prayerfully and peacefully for the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
"Maybe you get a line on the national news. If 200,000 people ever assembled for anything else, there’d be press all over the place," she said.
Armantrout admitted that battling such injustices can prove tiring and frustrating, but she’s buoyed by the many successes that also occur. During her very first meeting on the Empire State Stem Cell Board’s ethics committee, for example, she was influential in altering the language of an informed consent form for women donating their eggs so that potential donors would be more aware of the ethical and health dangers involved.
She added that she’s excited about an ultrasound machine, funded by the Knights of Columbus, that’s due to arrive this fall at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center in Rochester. She further noted that an end-of-life seminar last year at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry was attended by 90 medical professionals, many of them not Catholic, proving that influential people in the secular world do care about the Catholic point of view.
So, Armantrout and her cohorts carry on their mission of promoting Catholic values, hoping that someday society will finally hear their message — even though it may well be a long time off.
"The challenges to life and dignity to humans are so extensive right now that I don’t see an end (to activism) in my lifetime. No, ‘Well, it’s a wrap,’" she said.