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The Abortion Debate’s Future

It may be "settled law," but it’s also a right that dare not speak its name.

By 3.23.03

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Thirty years after Roe v. Wade, the failures of the pro-life movement are fairly conspicuous. After all, that decision still stands and even some staunch pro-life conservatives -- notably Attorney General John Ashcroft -- are willing to refer to it as "settled law." Abortion is broadly legal throughout the duration of pregnancy and occurs in the United States at a rate of approximately 1.3 million per year. All this appears likely to remain true for the foreseeable future.

Its successes are far less obvious, but nonetheless real. Abortion is still a hotly debated issue, remaining perhaps the most divisive social issue in America. While the abortion debate occurs mainly at the margins in many other Western democracies, it is at the center of American judicial nominations, congressional elections and presidential races. The number of abortions performed annually has fallen from a peak of 1.6 million in 1990. Polls show most Americans supporting the pro-choice position in the abstract while favoring restrictions on most abortions in practice. Supporters of legal abortion rarely enunciate the word -- it has become, as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru has observed, the right that dare not speak its name.

The question of how those who oppose abortion as the unjust taking of a human life can build on their successes and overcome their failures is taken up in Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement (St. Augstine's Press, 256 pages, $20), a remarkable collection of essays edited by Teresa Wagner.

Wagner, a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council, has an impressive array of contributors. Those pondering the question include such religious right stalwarts as James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly; longtime activists including right-to-life founding father Jack Willke and NARAL cofounder-turned-pro-lifer Bernard Nathanson; journalists ranging from Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice to Richard John Neuhaus of First Things and Terrence Jeffrey of Human Events; and politicians ranging from Republican Congressman Chris Smith to Democratic former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. Christians, Jews and Muslims, men and women, seasoned veteran and newcomers add their perspectives. Their contributions address pro-life challenges in law, medicine and science, politics, religion, culture and a future that will include issues like stem-cell research and cloning.

But they do so without resorting to some kind of bland, party-line unanimity. Contributors differ sharply on whether the pro-life movement's recent incremental approach is moral or practical. Charles Rice criticizes pro-life compromises: "In any civilized, free society, the relevant question is whether innocent human beings may legally be executed." He argues that the focus on partial-birth abortion shows that the movement is "moribund" and any acceptance of the "nonpersonhood holding of Roe" leads from "one defeat… to another."

Clark Forsythe by contrast argues that pro-lifers "can stay out of the legislative process and do nothing, or work within the legal and political constraints imposed by the Supreme Court." He further contends that an "'all or nothing' approach… is not morally required and is almost always futile" in the context of democratic process. Legally, contributors range from supporting whatever restrictions are politically possible today on the way to shifting abortion policy back to the states all the way to endorsing Herb Titus's view that a pro-life president should simply renounce Roe as unconstitutional, affirm fetal personhood under the Fourteenth Amendment and instruct U.S. attorneys to be prosecuting abortionists.

This also accounts for differing political strategies. Congressman Smith defends his party's pro-life record as superior to the Democrats while exhorting his fellow Republicans to do more; Schlafly and Colleen Parro second this with a somewhat more critical eye toward their party's pro-life commitment; and Flynn and Mark Stricherz mourn the decline of the pro-life Democrats. Howard Phillips even shows up to say a word in favor of the Constitution Party. Paul Weyrich offers a welcome clarification of his 1999 letter on the proper place of politics. The common thread is found in their honest admissions that however well intentioned past pro-life political efforts have been, they have nevertheless failed in the most important areas.

Unfortunately, too much of the focus is on political failures. The uncomfortable reality is that many people who most need the pro-life message have the most negative perceptions of the messengers. Pro-lifers are seen as bereft of compassion, callous toward the needs and suffering of women and, worst of all, fanatical, doctor-killing hypocrites. Opposition to abortion is thought by many to end at the adoption of new government policies regulating women's behavior. Pro-lifers have contributed to some of these perceptions themselves.

The book could have profitably included a longer section on crisis pregnancy centers and their growing focus on meeting the needs of mother as well as child. Too often, if the public hears at all about these centers it is in the context of reports that they exist to mislead women. There should have been more examples of individual and collective acts of pro-life compassion, showing the promise of action through civil society as well as government.

Nevertheless, Back to the Drawing Board represents an auspicious start down the above road. Of particular note is Barbara Nicolosi's essay on Hollywood's pro-choice slant -- it is an excellent example of pro-lifers affirming the dignity of women and taking seriously the issues that cause them to consider abortion. Nor is it an isolated example -- this is consistent with the book's overall tone.

Back to the Drawing Board may not change many minds about the seemingly never-ending abortion controversy. That is not its main purpose. Its purpose is to seek direction and provide hope. In this, its contributors can claim some measure of success.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.