Respect for life begins with empathy


When Nora Dvorak read about the abandonment of healthy newborns, “I had a physical reaction like nothing I had before,” she told a reporter for The Catholic Messenger during an interview three years ago. That sick-to-her stomach feeling led Nora to work toward creation of Iowa’s Safe Haven Act to provide a safe place for abandoned newborns. The Des Moines Register reported this month that 46 babies have been taken to a safe haven (hospital or other healthcare facility) since the Safe Haven law’s enactment in 2001.

Nora, a persistent advocate of life from womb to tomb, died at the age of 85 on Oct. 3, the first week of Respect Life Month. This widow and mother of six children, social worker and volunteer, demonstrated empathy, an essential element for the flourishing of life. Our country desperately needs to recover a sense of empathy in the midst of a raging pandemic and mean-spirited election races at every level of government that seem anything but life-affirming.

“Live the Gospel of Life” is the theme for this year’s observance of Respect Life Month, inspired by the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life.” Now a saint, John Paul II defended the right to life for children in their mother’s wombs, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and the marginalized.

Respect Life Month ought to serve as a reminder to build, not block, relationships with others and to recognize our interconnectedness as children of the same God. We need to build on empathy, the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. To gain empathy, we must broaden our circle of “friends” — our preferred social media influencers, columnists and others who simply affirm our convictions.


Nora gained empathy through her reading and interactions with others. She learned more about the lives of refugees by accompanying them as they met the challenges of adapting to life in a strange new world. Those encounters helped her to build on empathy and broaden her awareness of human needs and potential.

That awareness led her to work toward the safety of newborns and of human-trafficking victims, among other people in need. She desired that all of them feel cared for and loved. The Pacem in Terris Coalition, affiliated with the Diocese of Davenport, honored Nora with its first “One Among Us Award” in 2017 for “her selfless dedication to the dignity of all persons.” She demonstrated empathy and affirmed life.

The pandemic affords us time to read, learn, reflect and pray about developing empathy that will transform our lives and in turn, the lives of everyone in our nation so that Respect Life Month becomes a year-round habit.

For starters:

• Read “Evangelium Vitae” (, St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Gospel of Life. Read Scripture. Start with Matthew 25, the Judgment of the Nations.
• Pray.
• Advocate. In 2021, the Iowa Catholic Conference will continue its work to encourage passage of an amendment to the state’s constitution to reverse the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018 decision finding a fundamental right to abortion. Sign up for the ICC’s newsletter at ( to keep up with this and other life issues.
• Request Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst and your representatives in the U.S. House to move forward with immigration law that is fair, just and non-discriminatory. Remind them that money allocated for a border wall would be better spent on educating children and creating desperately needed affordable housing.
• Volunteer at a pregnancy crisis center in your community.
• Become a pen pal to an inmate in a jail or prison. Contact diocesan Social Action Director Kent Ferris at ferris@davenport for more information.
• Call on our federal government to end executions.

Nora, thank you for showing us how to build empathy and to affirm life.

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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