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Commentary: Miss Pennsylvania USA celebrates real meaning of life

by on March 16, 2014 1:40 AM

A few years ago, around the time Tim Tebow burst upon the scene with his Heisman trophy and his refreshing piety, the genuflecting Florida Gator made headlines when he starred in a controversial commercial with his mother. Tebow’s mom had been urged to have a therapeutic abortion when she was pregnant with the future all-star, and had categorically refused. The commercial celebrated her “choice.”

Inspiring, right? Well, apparently not to those who lobbied to ban the spot from its Super Bowl slot. You’d have thought there was something shameful in the fact that a woman had made the courageous decision to bear her child, regardless of the possible repercussions to her own health.

The fact that the baby had gone on to become an exceptional and accomplished human being was particularly galling to those who saw the commercial as a subliminal, anti-abortion hoorah.

Unfortunately, society has devolved to the point where acknowledging the beauty of the choice to give, not end, life has become controversial.

No matter how you view the issue of abortion (and it’s no secret I agree with Mother Teresa that it’s the greatest moral evil of our time), there should be no hesitation to praise the accomplishments of those who survived that nihilistic threat that has become trivialized as “reproductive rights.” We should welcome the story of Tebow and his magnificent, stubborn mother. We should give great credit to Sarah Palin who made the “choice” to keep her son Trig even though she knew he’d be born with Down syndrome.

And, in Pennsylvania, we should take a moment to marvel at the exquisite young woman who is set to represent us in the Miss USA Pageant this year. Valerie Gatto is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, an active member of her church and community, a world traveler, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (her one discernible flaw, as far as I can see) and an exceptionally beautiful creature. It wasn’t until she was crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA, though, that the rest of the world got a glimpse of how exceptional she really is.

When Valerie’s mother was a 19-year-old aspiring law student, she was brutally raped at knifepoint and became pregnant. As she noted in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, her mother never planned to have an abortion even though she did consider placing the baby up for adoption after it was born. But Valerie’s close-knit family, including three generations of strong-willed women, embraced that nascent life just as her own mother had refused to extinguish it.

During an interview this past week, I asked our new Miss Pennsylvania USA to describe her mother, and this was the immediate and unfiltered response: “I’ve never met someone that would have been so selfless as to give up her own dreams to bring life into this world.” Usually, when we hear that someone has chosen to terminate a pregnancy because it would derail their professional or educational plans, we’re supposed to accept it as a legitimate choice. When you’re then presented with someone who suspended her own aspirations in the service of a profoundly higher cause, it puts that other choice into painfully clear perspective.

Valerie’s mother has been quoted as saying that her daughter was “her light,” which is fitting, since that daughter has made it her goal to illuminate the lives of others, particularly victims of sexual assault and abuse. Being open about her origins is one way that she’s chosen to show the world that it is possible to overcome tragedy. When someone like this strikingly graceful, preternaturally wise 24-year-old talks about her personal story, the sterile rhetoric of “pro” and “anti” activists sounds cold, hollow and largely irrelevant.

Asked what she hopes to accomplish by sharing that story, Valerie stresses that she isn’t using this to capitalize on the expected publicity it will generate: “I have always been open about my conception, and for as long as I can remember I’ve even shared it with strangers. (My goal) is to give back hope to the American people. I have the ability to show people that no matter where you come from and no matter your situation you can achieve your dreams by staying positive, working hard and making sacrifices.”

When my friend Lea Schiazza, a former Miss Pennsylvania herself, introduced me to this story, it wasn’t so much the drama that made an impression. Ironically, it was the tranquility that characterizes Valerie’s life, the certainty she has in the inevitability of her birth and the idea that she was created by a violent act but has turned that moment into years of triumph.

There are those who will predictably react to this column as just another salvo in the abortion wars. But Valerie Gatto’s story is bigger than politics, more eloquent than any manufactured rhetoric and far more courageous than any pink-sneakered Texas filibuster.

No matter what happens at the Miss USA pageant in June, she’s already taken the crown.

Christine Flowers, of the Philadelphia Daily News, is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.
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