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National Catholic Reporter

Politics and the Prolife Movement

John Cavanaugh O’Keefe–a 52-year-old Harvard graduate, Vietnam War conscientious objector, and longtime pro-life activist–fervently believes legalized abortion in the United States will end. But not in his lifetime.

“The pro-life movement is going nowhere,” says O’Keefe. “After 30 years of work, the movement is dead.”

O’Keefe is not alone. “It would be both untrue and overly dramatic to say that the pro-life movement has lost,” according to Teresa R. Wagner, former antiabortion lobbyist and editor of the forthcoming Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement. “But we are not winning. And the sooner we face it, the sooner we change it.”

O’Keefe and Wagner are realists. Thirty years and 40 million legal pregnancy terminations after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, 1973, abortion competes with laser eye surgery for the distinction of being the most common surgical procedure performed in the United States.

While legislative fights over high-profile abortion-related issues continue to grab headlines–a proposed ban on “partial birth abortion” is the most recent example–the effort to overturn Roe is as far from reality today as it has been at anytime since Justice Harry Blackmun penned the landmark decision.

The venues for debating Roe change over time. At the center of today’s storm are judicial nominees, whose appearances before the divided Senate Judiciary Committee are designed to ferret out their views on the decision. Even here, President Bush’s nominees wave the white flag. Asked at a recent hearing if Roe was “settled law,” meaning that it should not be overturned, Bush nominee Miguel Estrada agreed that it was. Legal abortion in 2003, it seems, is as American as apple pie.

And yet.

American ambivalence over abortion is legendary–and maddening to the lobbies that have grown up on each side of the debate. Americans “think abortion should be legal, but they think it should be regulated,” says Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling, “and they’re much more comfortable with it remaining legal if they feel it is being regulated. And that, of course, is an unsatisfactory position to those who are either deeply committed to the antiabortion cause or to the pro-choice cause.”

Where pro-life and pro-choice antagonists see black and white, most Americans view grey: willing to restrict and regulate the practice in some cases (late-term abortions and parental consent for minors who seek abortions, for example), but unwilling to require a woman to carry a “defective” child, or one created through the violence of rape or incest.

How do Americans view legal abortion? A necessary evil, say the public opinion polls, lying somewhere on a fuzzy continuum between birth control and infanticide. The nuance expressed by the public–nearly half of Americans call themselves “pro-life” though most favor some version of the legal status quo–is not shared by their elected leaders. With exceptions that prove the rule, modern Democrats are “pro-choice,” while Republicans–especially those outside the Northeast–are “pro-life.”

That wasn’t always the case.

The shifting politics of abortion

In the late 1960s and ’70s, before positions hardened and the lines were clear, elected Democrats favored abortion restrictions in roughly the same numbers as their Republican counterparts; Republican governors Ronald Reagan (his libertarian instincts winning out) and Nelson Rockefeller (population control was a family cause) signed the most liberal pre-Roe abortion laws in the country; Jesse Jackson compared abortion to slavery, while Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt was a “Democrat for Life.” Five of the seven justices joining in the Roe opinion were Republican appointees.

It was in this muddled environment that the U.S. Catholic church’s heaviest hitters visited Capitol Hill, just 14 months after Roe.

Seated before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments on that day in March 1974 were Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol, then-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Cardinals John Cody (Chicago), Timothy Manning (Los Angeles) and Humberto Medeiros (Boston). It was time, the four argued, to nationalize a ban on abortion through a constitutional amendment that would “re-extend the protection of law to the unborn.”

Even by post-Sept. 11 standards, it was an era of turmoil. In short order, a president would resign, the United States would lose a war, and lengthy lines at filling stations would provide a visible symbol of a battered U.S. economy. But those were secondary concerns to the bishops, understandably perhaps, as the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic church had provided over the previous decade the only significant institutional opposition to liberalized state abortion laws. The Roe decision only intensified that commitment.

The subcommittee’s consideration of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, said Krol, “is an encouraging sign of forward movement which, we hope, will soon lead to congressional enactment …” Continued Krol: “I emphasize the word ‘soon,’ for this issue has an urgency shared by few others now confronting the nation.”

By the bishops’ reckoning, the pre-Roe legal changes promoted by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America amounted to nothing less than state-sanctioned killing on a potentially massive scale. It had to be stopped, and the political arena was the mechanism to halt the slaughter.

In 1971, the bishops organized the National Right to Life Committee as an arm of their Family Life office. Following the court’s decision, the committee would be spun-off into a separate organization, and today is the largest antiabortion organization in the country.

Pre-Roe America

“The rights that were upheld in Roe v. Wade are hanging by a very tenuous thread at best,” Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt wrote in a November 2002 fundraising appeal. The questionable presumption of that statement–that Roe faces extinction in the near future–is forgivable, perhaps, in the hyperbole inherent in direct mail money-raising appeals. But it also obscures Planned Parenthood’s history. In fact, the organization founded by Margaret Sanger as the American Birth Control League in 1923 has faced much tougher battles than it does today.

In 1955, when abortion was illegal in all but the rarest of cases, Planned Parenthood organized a conference on “Abortion in America.” That meeting spurred a movement that would knock down restrictive state abortion laws and in just 18 years provide a constitutional right to the procedure. It was a remarkable victory.

The time was right: Supporters of abortion liberalization were aided by the sexual revolution (the birth control pill was approved by the FDA for wide distribution in 1960), by the tragedy of the thalidomide and rubella babies of the era, and by growing antipathy toward powerful institutions, the Catholic church not least among them.

Access to legal abortion was promoted primarily as a woman’s health issue–it would eliminate back alley abortionists whose procedures, the advocates said, killed thousands of women each year. Plus, there would be additional benefits, among them a reduction in the number of unwanted children (those most likely, the reasoning went, to suffer from abuse and neglect), improved population control (Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, hit home with policymakers), and reduced social spending on the children of the poor.

In 1970, the National Organization for Women would make abortion rights a priority, formally linking the emerging feminist movement to the growing effort to repeal state abortion laws. By the end of that year, seven states–including New York and California–had overturned their bans and adopted laws based on a model promoted by Planned Parenthood and its allies in the legal and medical professions.

And then, in January 1973, the Supreme Court–ruling in Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton–found that the 14th amendment provides a fundamental right of privacy, that a decision to have an abortion should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor.

The following day, the bishops’ pro-life committee issued a statement: “Every legal possibility must be explored to challenge the opinion of the United States Supreme Court decision that withdraws all legal safeguards for the right to life of the unborn child.”

Post-Roe politics

In November 1975 the full body of bishops approved a Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, which called on each diocese to establish a pro-life office and supported political efforts to reverse the court’s opinion. It was a detailed strategy, one that called on the bishops to expend political capital and place abortion at the top of their social agenda, where it has been ever since.

Beginning in 1981, the mainstream right-to-life movement would place its hopes on an antiabortion president–Ronald Reagan’s conversion to the pro-life position preceded his 1980 victory. Combined with the first Republican Senate in a generation, pro-lifers sensed that a constitutional amendment was within their grasp. The effort was bolstered by new recruits–conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, the Christian right, had been energized by Reagan’s campaign and joined with Catholics in opposing legal abortion.

But pro-lifers split on tactics (should abortion policy be relegated to the states or should the fetus be declared a person?) and, in any case, didn’t have the votes to override the court.

While the mainstream movement pursued political objectives, others chose another course: nonviolent civil disobedience. The goal as they saw it: convert the public and its elected leaders through their witness, as Ghandi had done in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.

John O’Keefe–who has worked for many pro-life groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, Human Life International and the American Life League–was a proponent of “direct action.” Early on, he recalled, “It seemed obvious to me what you needed was a campaign of nonviolence.” A pamphlet he authored–A Peaceful Presence–described how pro-lifers could use the tools of nonviolence to change the status quo.

This article courtesy of the National Catholic Reporter. 

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