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Pro-lifers must change more than the law

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 20, 2003

Three decades after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision, the American people remain as deeply divided over abortion as ever. Rather than being removed from politics, abortion is as firmly entrenched in each year's political debates as taxes and the federal budget. Instead of waning, this political conflict is spilling over into the debate over such cutting-edge issues as stem-cell research and human cloning.

On the one hand, those of us who disagree with Roe should be pleased that both the ruling and the abortion policy it mandated remain in serious dispute. Elsewhere, where the issue was decided less heavy-handedly by democratic institutions and with somewhat greater concessions to those who object to abortion, there is no longer much debate. This has allowed pro-lifers to make progress that seemed unthinkable ten years ago, much less thirty. On the other hand, since abortion has become a proxy for so many other battles – the so-called "culture wars," partisan disputes between Democrats and Republicans, the moderate versus conservative debate among Republicans, presidential elections, judicial nominations – the politics often receive more consideration than the actual issue. First principles often take a backseat to political activism.

Several years ago, I participated in an abortion debate as a student panelist on the pro-life side. I was discussing the importance of cultural change to the pro-life cause when I made what I considered to be the perfectly innocuous comment that government could not "solve" or conclusively "end" the problem of abortion. While I did not, and do not, disavow the importance of legal protection for unborn children, one of the other panelists, a professional pro-life activist, practically ripped the microphone out from in front of me and spoke up to correct me. She thought I had made a fatal concession by suggesting that changing the law wasn't enough.

Did I? If nothing else, it seems pretty apparent that a country where there are as many as 1.5 million abortions a year – 1.6 million in 1990 – is not ready to change the law as sweepingly as pro-lifers desire. To ratify an anti-Roe constitutional amendment, elect large majorities of pro-life legislators or even to make a particularly strict abortion ban practically workable would require a level of public consensus that we do not presently have. But beyond that, an understanding of both human nature and the limitations of government action ought to indicate that changing hearts and minds is at least as important as changing laws, and probably more so.

It is precisely in this area that pro-lifers have made the most progress, even though their words and actions have sometimes lent themselves more to alienating mainstream Americans than persuading them. Politically, pro-life organizations and officeholders have mainly succeeded in blocking taxpayer funding and enacting minor restrictions, such as requirements that minors obtain parental notification or consent, with their biggest legislative achievements – bans on partial-birth and other late-term abortions –stymied by the courts.

The public's response to the moral argument has been far more encouraging – fewer women are having abortions, fewer doctors are providing them and fewer students want to learn how to perform them. As National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, one of journalism's most compelling pro-life voices, wrote in the magazine's January 27 issue, "Surveys attribute this reluctance more to moral qualms than to fear of anti-abortion violence or protest." Indeed, anti-abortion sentiment has generally been climbing in polls since the mid-1990s to the point where nearly as many people label themselves "pro-life" as "pro-choice" and even many people who are pro-choice agree that abortion entails the unjust taking of a human life. Minds are being changed, but more needs to be done.

Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) once famously quipped that pro-life conservatives believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. While some act this way, the actual logic of the position should dictate a respect for the innate value of all members of the human species – including pregnant women considering abortion. Pro-lifers must work to offer them viable alternatives and a strong support network, rather than simply demand that they alter their choices. Crisis pregnancy centers dedicated to these tasks have proliferated; they must seek to insure they are above criticism and genuinely focused on helping women– blogger and Jewish World Review columnist Eve Tushnet once outlined an excellent set of characteristics hey should demonstrate. As Paul Swope noted in a First Things article several years ago based in part on the report "Abortion: The Least Of Three Evils—Understanding the Psychological Dynamics of How Women Feel About Abortion," abortion is often seen as an act of self-preservation and thus a necessary evil. The new focus ought to be on people, acting through civil society, empowering women by expanding their choices rather than on government stepping in to limit choices.

This should not be pursued simply as a strategic move, but as an affirmative obligation that will need to be undertaken regardless of what the government's policy on abortion is. The inescapable fact is that elective abortions will always take place to some extent, no matter what the law says, as long as there is a perceived need for them. Addressing and reducing that need ought to become as central to the pro-life mission today as politics has been in the past. Far more needs to change than the law.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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