The drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide that is underway across the country, including in Maryland and the District of Columbia, runs counter to the founding principles of the United States, the keynote speaker said at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Adult and Family Rally and Mass for Life, held Jan. 22 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Mark Pickup, a Canadian who has multiple sclerosis, addressed the rally as he sat on a motorized scooter near the cathedral’s altar. A noted pro-life speaker and writer, Pickup said the United States’ founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence “put the right to life first, because every other right depends on it.” He added that, “the Declaration of Independence and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights both declare a right to life, not a right to death.”

Addressing a crowd of about 200 people, Pickup warned about the tide of secularism that has swept through the United States and Canada over the years. “Every abortion in Canada is paid for by taxpayers, whether we want it or not. Last year, the Supreme Court in Canada struck down laws banning assisted suicide,” he said.

The campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide is a “cultural poison” spreading through state after state, Pickup said.

“The advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia are masters at twisting words and using euphemisms and making evil appear good and good appear evil,” he said.

Pickup noted how the phrase “‘medical aid in dying’ is meant to give legitimacy to killing ill people, (and) the phrase ‘death with dignity’ is designed to make assisted suicide look compassionate.”

When Pickup was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 30s, he went through periods of grief as he faced losing mobility in his hands, arms and legs, and once even sawed his prized guitar in half after realizing he couldn’t play it as he once had. In those moments of darkness, Pickup said he may have fallen prey to thoughts of assisted suicide, which some advocates now propose as a solution to people facing severe illnesses and disabilities. But Pickup said his understanding of Christ’s love and the love that he experienced from his own family now helps him, as a man in his 60s, understand what phrases like “quality of life” should really mean.  If he had let grief cloud his judgment and given into despair, Pickup said he would never have known his five grandchildren.

“What gives my life quality today is to love and be loved,” he said.

Pickup also addressed the reality of abortion, saying it is a tragedy that he understands personally, because as an 18-year-old, he convinced his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion, a decision that he said still brings him great sadness more than four decades later. He said he understood as a teen-ager, and knows now, that abortion choice involved the death of an unborn child.

“The mother of our aborted baby grieved too. I know – she’s been my wife for 42 years. That abortion is the biggest regret of our lives,” he said.

Noting that Pope Francis has declared this as a Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, Pickup encouraged anyone affected by abortion to seek God’s love and mercy. “This is the year to set things right,” he said.

Pickup said that in a culture that increasingly emphasizes personal autonomy, he prefers the concept of interdependence, which he said is central to the well-being of families, communities and nations.

Speaking about the God-given dignity of every human life, Pickup said human value doesn’t come from health, acquisitions or ability. “Our value comes from being image bearers of God and recipients of his immense love,” he said.

His own journey through suffering led Pickup to the foot of the cross, where he said he found meaning in Christ’s redemptive suffering and divine love. “I am continually encountering Christ along the way,” he said. “…We must be open to letting Christ use our pain, anguish and trials, to become more like him.” Along the way, Pickup said he has learned, “the point of life is love.”

Every life is worth defending, Pickup said, encouraging his audience to take that message to the streets of Washington and to their own communities. The rally participants gave him a standing ovation.

After the rally, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville celebrated a Mass for Life at the cathedral. The rally and Mass were sponsored by the archdiocese and by the Association of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities.

In his homily, Father Daniel Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, said the severe winter weather might mean smaller crowds for the annual March for Life, but he said the snowstorm might also mean that abortion clinics will be closed on Saturday.

Defending life can be challenging, the priest said, adding that it is fundamental for people to realize they are sons and daughters of God, and to treat others likewise. “Don’t be afraid. What we must do today, every day, is stand for life,” he said.

That can be difficult in today’s culture, when people deny the humanity of the unborn child, which the priest compared to high-rise buildings that pretend they don’t have a 13th floor. “I think we know, we all know deeply in our hearts, it’s a baby,” he said.

Father Leary encouraged people to rely on five virtues in their daily defense of life: to be joyful, thankful, generous, prayerful, and free from discouragement.

“The challenge for all of us is to not doubt that God is in the midst of everything,” he said.

On a day when blizzard warnings caused many people to stay at home, the priest asked the marchers to remember, “It makes no difference how many march. What matters is the love within our hearts as we march.”