During October, we in the Roman Catholic community commemorate our annual Respect Life month. The theme for this year's observance is a favorite of our new Holy Father, Francis: "Open your hearts to life."

This theme can be brought to bear in addressing many realities in life: marriage, abortion, domestic and sexual violence, the death penalty, racism, sexism, terrorism, sex trafficking and the environment, to mention a few.

I would like to reflect on two: marriage and abortion.

There is no question about the fact that marriage in our nation is in a state of crisis. Cohabitation is rampant. More than 41 percent of births occur outside of marriage and divorce rates are deplorable. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes, "In a rare convergence, liberals and conservatives basically agree on how this evolution grew from the fairly stable state of marriage 50 years ago to the chaos of today."

First, the sexual revolution overturned the old order of single-earner households, early marriages and strong stigmas against divorce and unmarried motherhood. In its aftermath, the professional classes forged a new path.

Family in danger
Today, couples with college degrees - especially graduate degrees - tend to cohabitate early and marry late. They delay having children and raise smaller families than their parents, while having lower divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.

For the rest of society, however, the path has been quite different. Among the lower middle class and the poor - black, white and Hispanic alike - intact families are now an endangered species.

For so-called "middle America," while the idea of the two-parent family endures, the reality is much more problematic: Early marriages coexist with frequent divorces and the rate of out-of-wedlock births keeps inching up. According to sociologists, this phenomenon has led to increased numbers of children living in poverty and fatherless homes, as well as to child abuse and neglect.

Efforts to reverse these dire trends should be imperative for every American. Indeed, unless this issue of marriage and family stability is addressed aggressively and constructively, our nation's well-intentioned efforts to improve education, to decrease unemployment and to bridge the income inequality gap will come to naught.

Talk about marriage
That is why the bishops of the United States are calling for a national dialogue on marriage - one that does not start off with judging or condemning others, but seeks to transmit our teaching about love, marriage and sexuality, at times in non-religious terms that reveal their truth, beauty and goodness.

Marriage is an integral part of God's plan for creation. This has been recognized by every culture, society and religion. Our own experience informs us of this. We all have the desire to know, to be connected with and to be loved by a mother and father, regardless of our relationship with them.

The experience of God's plan for creation has been stamped into our very nature. Rather than biological artifacts, moms, dads and siblings are part of our identity. That is why marriage is a gift that begins the irreplaceable circle we call family.

Hence, the great challenge of our day is to rebuild a marriage culture. Couples have a natural right to marry and baptized Christians have a supernatural right to the sacrament of matrimony. The sacred dignity of marriage needs to be restored and promoted by public policy, education, the arts and the media so that wedlock is understood once again to be the foundation of society, because it enhances the good of spouses and children alike and promotes a healthy and stable society.

Abortion connection
There is a relationship between the breakdown of marriage in our country and abortion. Today, unmarried women account for 85 percent of abortions.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has led to one of the most extreme abortion regimes in the world. Unfortunately, many today believe that Roe vs. Wade merely legalized abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.

The trouble is that the Roe court actually said abortion must be allowed for any reason in the next three months, as well. It then said laws against abortion must have a broad health exception, even in the final trimester, but only described the breadth of that exception in the little-known companion case, Doe vs. Bolton, decided the same day.

In Doe, the court announced that health, for the purposes of late-term abortion law, would be synonymous with the mother's "physical, emotional, psychological, familial [well-being], and the woman's age" - in other words, every reason a pregnant woman could give for seeking an abortion in the first place.

Together, Roe and Doe display a dramatic instance of the exception swallowing the rule, making the U.S. one of only nine countries in the world permitting abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy, and one of only four that allows abortion for any reason after viability. Yet most Americans still falsely assume that abortion is strictly limited after the first trimester.

New York's problem
That is why we bishops and others are so opposed to the 10th point in the otherwise admirable Women's Equality Act currently before the New York State Legislature. This agenda item states that it merely seeks to codify New York's law on abortion in order to bring it in conformity with federal law.

The current relevant statute in New York State is to be found in Section 125.05 of the Penal Law, which was enacted in 1970 and forbids abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy unless it is necessary to preserve the mother's life.

However, as noted above, in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton that abortion is legal at any time in a woman's pregnancy if it is deemed by an abortion practitioner to be necessary to preserve a mother's life or health. Given the expansiveness of this definition, the Roe/Doe standard establishes abortion on demand for any reason.

Thus, to insert this broad "health" exception into New York State statute will undoubtedly expand abortion, both in law and in practice.

Other standards
Further, if New York State law is to "be consistent with federal standards," then it should include these federal standards, as well:

•  a state-level Hyde Amendment to prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for abortions on demand, which has been approved by Congress annually since 1976;

•  a state-level partial-birth abortion ban to prohibit one particular method of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction, which was signed into law in 2003;

•  state-level statutory protections for healthcare institutions to safeguard them from discrimination based on their religious/moral objections to abortion, tracking the federal Church Amendments and Weldon Amendment; and

•  a state-level "unborn victims of violence" law to recognize the child in the womb as the victim of an assault or homicide, as federal law has since 2004.

Codification, in other words, is a two-way street, but the women's equality agenda to protect a woman's freedom to choose certainly does not seek to endorse these standards adapted by the federal government.

It should be noted that existing federal abortion jurisprudence does not consider abortion to be an unqualified right, nor does it maintain that regulations on abortion must measure up to the highest standard of review by the courts.

What could happen
In Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that abortion regulations are valid if they do not place an "undue burden" on a woman's right to the procedure. Thus, the vast majority of states (excluding New York) have enacted meaningful regulations on abortion, such as parental consent for minors, informed consent for pregnant women and restrictions on taxpayer funding.

These laws would almost certainly be struck down if abortion was defined as a "fundamental right" in New York law.

The court has also ruled that states may regulate and even ban certain forms of abortion after viability "in ways that express profound respect for the life of the unborn." It is precisely because of these court precedents, and possible future court decisions, that the intent of agenda item 10 in the Women's Equality Act is to expand abortion, enshrine it as a right under New York statute and ensure that New York's policies forever preclude pro-life regulations.

It is imperative, therefore, that we let our state legislators and governor know of our opposition to the abortion expansion provision of the Women's Equality Act.

We bishops and others are certainly aware of the difficulties a woman faces in light of an unwanted pregnancy. Hence, we have constantly supported public policies which will assist a woman to bring her unborn child to term.

Help here
We have provided or advocated for programs like Community Maternity Services in our own Diocese; the Early Childhood and Maternity Foundation in New York State; and Birthright chapters, which offer comprehensive and compassionate services to mothers coping with an unwanted pregnancy, assisting them with parenting, education and employment if they choose to raise their child, or with adoption or foster care services if they choose to terminate parental rights.

In addition to caring for mothers who bring their child to term, we have Project Rachel in our Diocese, which provides support and counseling for women who have had an abortion and are experiencing regret and looking for healing. (Contact Pat Mousaw, 222-1160, or see www.hopeafterabortion.org or call 888-456-HOPE.)

As Pope Francis has posited more than once, "God our Father never stops loving us and never tires of forgiving us." At our least sign of remorse, God fills us with consolation, peace and hope.

May our respect for the sacred dignity of marriage and our opposition to the taking of unborn human life bring these much needed realities into our own personal and communal lives.