By Kathleen M. Gallagher
Very soon, I will retire from my position at the New York State Catholic Conference. I have worked for this organization for 38 years; I literally grew up here.
Lots of people have told me I’m not old enough to retire, that I should stick with it. You know what? I’m old enough.
I’m old enough to remember having meaningful conversations with elected officials to help shape the most effective family-friendly policies in our state. Now I’m old enough to have witnessed some of those very same policies disappear.
Case in point: I used to walk the halls of the Capitol together with the National Organization of Women in mutual efforts to ban surrogate motherhood for profit, and in 1992 I stood behind Gov. Mario Cuomo when he signed that ban into law. In 2020 I cried as his son Gov. Andrew Cuomo unraveled those protections for women and children.
I’m old enough to remember how hard we advocated for the Prenatal Care Assistance Program to help low-income moms pay for their obstetrical visits and vitamins, only to see it get tied up in the courts. The NYCLU claimed the program was discriminatory because it didn’t pay for abortions. “Prenatal care,” we said in court papers, “look it up in the dictionary.” I’m so gratified we won that case (unanimously!) and delighted that the program continues to reduce infant and maternal mortality.
I’m old enough to remember working with a committee of moral theologians (shouldn’t there be some indulgences for that?) to craft a statement providing guidance for Catholics on end-of-life decision-making. Of all the projects I ever did for the Bishops’ conference, I think I am most proud of this one. It’s clear, practical, and usable. Once it was done, I was awarded a grant to develop a website — www.catholicendoflife.org — and a short video to explain the statement. Equally proud of these.
I’m old enough to remember the very day that Gov. Eliot Spitzer first introduced the radical late-term abortion expansion proposal. “There must be some mistake,” I recall thinking, “because no one would want to go this far.” No mistake. I aged considerably during the 12 years we beat back that bill, and I remember feeling physically sick in 2019 as government officials celebrated its enactment into law.
I’m old enough to remember meetings with Cardinal O’Connor and Cardinal Egan, with Gov. Paterson and Gov. Pataki, with Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, with rabbis and ministers and imams.
I’m old enough to remember countless discussions with state officials advocating for the rights of people with developmental disabilities to have their religious needs met in the communities in which they live.
Old enough to remember organizing lots of conferences and retreats for the state’s Catholic prison chaplains, a group of dedicated women and men I am so fortunate to know.
I’m old enough to remember coordinating Public Policy Forums, our powerful lobby day in Albany; beginning the Catholic Action Network, our electronic database of Catholics; and hosting “Capitol Compass,” our issues-based television talk show.
Old enough to remember conducting media training seminars for Catholic spokespeople, serving on the Board of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, leading the efforts of the Cardinal Cooke Pro-Life Commission, building an alliance of formidable and diverse organizations against assisted suicide.
I’ve offered educational presentations in church basements, at national conferences, in seminaries and elementary school classrooms, even once on a cruise ship full of physicians! I’ve authored hundreds of columns on topics like human trafficking, stem cell research, capital punishment, domestic violence, euthanasia, the consistent life ethic, faithful citizenship, and so many more.
I’ve been vilified by those on the right because I’ve called racism a life issue and I’ve never protested outside an abortion clinic. I’ve been disparaged by those on the left because of a preconceived notion that I am a right-wing zealot and a “single issue” Catholic.
I’ve always tried to be a bridge-builder, to make “life” my single issue, to inspire everyone to know the truth that we are all connected, and disrespect for one human life over here only endangers other human lives over there. We must exclude no one from our compassion and mercy. I hope and pray that somewhere along the journey I succeeded, that a seed or two were planted that will take root long after I am gone.
I am grateful to Cardinal Dolan and the Bishops for allowing me to represent them for so long, and blessed beyond measure to have received a salary to advocate for moral principles in which I deeply believe.
Lots of people have told me I’m not old enough to retire, that I should stick with it. You know what? I’ve got my first grandbaby on the way and an art career to grow. I’m old enough. And I’m ready.
Kathleen M. Gallagher is retiring as the director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference at the end of January. She will continue to serve the Conference as a part-time consultant.