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Back to basics

Pro-life movement, with its defeat at the polls, enters a new era

The modern pro-life movement of the United States emerged in 1973 following the shock of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision. The movement's political emphasis brought about quick success as concern about abortion contributed to formation of a Republican/"Reagan Democrat" coalition that captured the White House and the Senate in 1980.

During the '80s, leading journalists and idea merchants remained supportive of abortion, and many people opposed abortion except for those they loved or hated-daughters of minorities. Yet a string of Supreme Court appointments seemed to portend a Roe reversal, and several court decisions restricted slightly the abortion liberty. Pro-life hopes were high.

Those expectations turned blue in 1992, as three Reagan/Bush court appointees joined two Roe holdovers to form a five-justice pro-abortion majority in the Casey decision. This month, a president who spoke softly on abortion but at least carried a big veto was voted into political exile, and so was a movement that had placed its hopes on politics.

In January, when pro-life forces gather in Washington for a somber march on the 20th anniversary of Roe, proclamations of imminent new victory will be few.

Twenty years! Twenty years of some success in holding the line: the number of abortions has not gone up since the late 1970s, even though unmarried pregnancies have increased sharply during that period. But running in place over 1.6 million new, small skulls each year satisfies no one

The main pro-life emphases for two decades have been political, legislative, and judicial, but other strategies also have emerged: the blockade approach of Operation Rescue and the compassionate ministry of crisis pregnancy centers are two of the options.

Now that the political approach seems to have crashed, will there be a shakeup in the movement? When will it begin?

The shakeup begins next Tuesday, Dec. 1, when it will be announced that Guy Condon, president of the legal-oriented Americans United for Life, is moving to a similar position with the compassion-oriented Christian Action Council. For Condon, who succeeded in expanding AUL's budget six-fold during his eight years there, the change is not a lateral transfer but an embrace of a different vision.

In an interview last week, Condon emphasized a point he had been making since before the election: "We are losing miserably the battle for perception and public conviction, which means the public is allowing the policy elites to advance the abortion agenda."

One problem, he said, is that "we have engaged in a top-down strategy, concentrating on litigation, legislation, and scholarship to influence the policy elites through the intellectual argument." Press accounts have made pro-lifers "appear to be fighting for a special interest, rather than serving the general public's shared interest."

Well-intentioned activities, Condon added, have given pro-abortion media an opportunity to make "pro-lifers look like 'fetus freaks' with no regard for the legitimate needs of the woman facing a crisis pregnancy or the needs of an unplanned child who is born." Gallup surveys, he said, "tell us that Americans are more likely to see pro-lifers as violent and uncaring toward women than those who are killing children and manipulating women to do so."

The clear priority, Condon continued, is compassion, not politics: "I believe that God is showing his people that we can no longer look to the institutions of power to fulfill his commandments to us. He's calling us to help one woman at a time, to help meet her medical, emotional, and spiritual needs."

Condon has many specific plans to discuss with the Christian Action Council board, which already has aided in the development of 450 crisis pregnancy centers. In general, he says, "We want to create a caring network that will make it easy to link up those who want to help with those who need help."

Condon envisions the network to include thousands of "caring network churches linked to local care centers and adoption centers nationwide," with families pledging to provide shelter for young women in crisis and homes for children in need.

Even some of the toughest anti-abortion crusaders are returning almost exclusively toward compassion and education. Judie Brown, the brassy leader of American Life League who actually opposed Louisiana's anti-abortion law because it was too weak (allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest), has said she's "through debating abortion."

In the current issue of ALL's magazine All About Issues, Mrs. Brown writes that "the reality of a hostile administration and unfriendly federal courts does, in fact, create a new freedom for the pro-life movement." That freedom, she says, is from politics.

"We're going to crank up the education," said Mrs. Brown, who told World she has turned down four debates in just the last few weeks. Not that Mrs. Brown has softened her no-exceptions emphasis, but she said 95 percent of her efforts will be directed toward pro-life education (through the Celebrate Life television program) and assisting crisis pregnancy centers and homes for unwed mothers.

In a just-concluded survey of 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, Mrs. Brown says she found they shared two common problems: a negative public image and difficulty in raising funds.

"In 1993, we're going to collect every success story from any crisis pregnancy center and share it with all 2,500 of them around the country," Mrs. Brown said of her effort to help the centers learn from what works. ALL will do a total of six mailings, and by the end of the next year "every crisis pregnancy center in the country is going to have a three-ring binder full of success stories."

Jim Smith, Washington lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has three simple strategies for this new phase of the pro-life movement: "Education, education, education."

Smith faulted those who wrongly relied on politicians and presidents to win the abortion battle for them. The Southern Baptist leader cited 2 Chronicles 7:14 to admonish evangelicals to "humble themselves and pray and seek God's face and turn from their wicked ways." Smith said: "Evangelical pro-lifers need to remember that our faith is not in politicians."

But for Smith, passage of the Freedom of Choice Act is not a foregone conclusion. He says President-elect Clinton, a Southern Baptist out of step with the denomination on abortion and many other social issues, "understands he was not elected with a mandate for a radical social agenda.

That, Smith believes, will keep Clinton from expending "political capital" on the Freedom of Choice legislation-although if the measure passes, Clinton will sign it.

Throughout Clinton's presidential campaign, he encouraged citizens to vote their pocketbooks. Throughout his presidency, pro-life citizens may vote with their pocketbooks. Thomas Strobhar, an Ohio stockbroker, heads the firm Pro Vita Advisors. "I'm seeing a greater interest in conscience investing," Strobhar says. "We should not patronize companies that run counter to our deeply held moral values, nor should we profit from them."

Strobhar charges no fees in helping pro-lifers structure their investment portfolios to avoid doing business with companies that support abortion. Since starting Pro Vita Advisors about three years ago, Strobhar has "answered thousands of inquires," and under Clinton he expects his mailbox will get even fuller.

Even Operation Rescue is taking a fresh look at its mission. With founder Randall Terry concentrating on his radio talk show, Operation Rescue National director Keith Tucci has taken the reins. Tucci says the seeds of this month's political defeat were sown 20 years ago when pro-lifers "tried to convince the world without first having convinced the church that abortion is wrong."

"Pro-lifers were convinced they were the 'silent majority,' " Tucci said. "We are not the 'silent majority,' we are a minority and we have to educate the American people"-beginning, he says, with the church.

The Operation Rescue leader has launched two new projects toward that end: the 12-week Impact Team program to train 23 new activist leaders, and the National Adoption Project to place "special needs" children into Christian Homes.

The adoption project is new for Operation Rescue. By the end of the year, the rescue organization will have spent $30,000 to support the program, and Tucci says it will spend twice that next year. The money will be used to help buy ads, produce a video, and generate publicity to bring to the attention of adoptive Christian parents "special needs boys and girls [who] are often tied up in bureaucratic red tape."

"We have people to match up parents with kids," Tucci says. They help navigate through the [adoption] process."

Impact Teams is vintage Operation Rescue. The first training "school" begins Jan. 18. Students of activism, Tucci says will spend about half their time in a classroom setting and the other half "in the streets."

For the 23 slots, more than 90 people have submitted applications, which are being screened carefully. "It's boot camp for the pro-life army," Tucci says, brushing aside suggestions that under Clinton, the penalties for rescuing will get tougher.

"We are counting on Clinton's overplaying his hand," explains Tucci. "His action will bring more Christians into the streets...I think it's recruiting season right now."

Tucci cited one Impact Team applicant, a business executive with six children, who said Clinton's election convinced him to join the rescue movement: "That was the final straw." He's been accepted.

Tougher Clinton administration laws against rescue won't deter Joseph Foreman either. "Clinton is no match for a believing church," Foreman says, "and Bush is no replacement."

While Tucci's branch of rescue is Christian activism, Foreman's is missionary work. Unborn children form a "group of people who are going to be murdered, never having heard the gospel," foreman said in a telephone interview from a Milwaukee jail. "This is a missions issue...Activism is legitimate [as] a political expression, but the missionary is somebody who goes there and brings the gospel, regardless of the political situation, to people who will not otherwise hear it.

"So what I am talking about is a missionary to the preborn approach."

This new phase of the pro-life movement does not mean pro-life political involvement will cease. "It would be a mistake to conclude that the public policy debate is over," warns National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson

There is little pro-lifers can do to stop executive orders by Clinton reversing Bush administration policies against tax-funded abortion counseling, referral, and fetal tissue research-actions Johnson concedes "will result in more abortions."

But NRLC's federal legislative director notes that the House of Representatives remains closely divided over the Freedom of Choice Act and federal funding of abortion.

Abandoning the public policy arena, Johnson says, "cedes federal policy making to the abortion pressure groups." These groups will demand laws making it difficult even to oppose abortion, whether through protests, direct action, or compassionate ministry.

Under new federal statutes, protests against abortion businesses could become unlawful or be kept far away from clinic buildings and property; crisis pregnancy centers could be restricted in their advertising and not allowed to appear in the same Yellow Pages classifications as abortion clinics; hospitals and pro-life health care workers could be compelled to provide abortions.

"If there's no effective opposition," Johnson says, "they'll walk all over us."

Some pro-lifers, though, are suing for peace-through a movement called "common ground." It's not a new idea. Prior to the 1980 election, a common ground meeting was held in Washington: It was presided over by feminist activist Eleanor Smeal. Although pro-lifers were skeptical and divided over whether to attend the meeting, some believed at the time it was possible to work together to reduce the abortion demand.

Representatives from a Cleveland group called People Expressing A Concern for Everyone, or PEACE, disrupted the meeting by bringing into the room "Baby Elizabeth, "a dead unborn child wrapped in a blanket. The meeting was over.

When pro-lifers won the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision in 1989, Andrew Puzder began trying to rebuild the dormant movement. Puzder, a St. Louis lawyer now living in southern California, wrote an op-ed article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calling for pro-lifers and pro-choicers to pull together toward a common goal of reducing the demand for abortion. Puzder was a key drafter of the Missouri legislation restricting abortions.

"If we can put aside for a moment our simple win-lose attitudes and approach this issue sensibly and calmly, perhaps we can jointly accomplish some good for those we all seek to protect." Puzder wrote.

Abortion business-woman B.J. Isaacson-Jones, who headed the Reproductive Health Services clinic, responded to Puzder's offer and agreed to meet-and thus began the current common-ground movement.

In Missouri, both sides have supported legislation aimed at helping pregnant crack-addicted mothers, expanding WIC funding, and preventing teen pregnancy.

Puzder added to the group Loretto Wagner, then legislative chairman of Missouri Citizens for Life (now Missouri Right to Life). "I was sick of being cynical and suspicious," says Mrs. Wagner, explaining that as a pro-life activist she felt alienated from "half of the world." She believes pro-lifers should appeal to the good in pro-abortion people: "I think all people are capable of good."

But some of Mrs. Wagner's fellow pro-life activists believed she was up to no good. At one board meeting she was instructed not to be a part of common ground efforts in her official capacity. She came under increasing fire from some board members and-although she says she survived a "no confidence" vote-resigned her official duties.

"I didn't want to be associated with such bigoted people," Mrs. Wagner said, adding that she still enjoys good relations with most members of MRL.

Samuel Lee, also one of the prime drafters of the Missouri statute, parts company with his colleagues in the common ground effort. "It treats each side as moral equals," Lee says. "That's what bothers me most."

Lee takes issue with the notion that pro-abortion forces are needed to help provide compassionate alternatives to abortion, which he sys pro-lifers have been doing very effectively for many years without the help of the abortion industry.

Although the political climate favors "choice," Lee says most Americans think abortion is a nasty business. He credits the pro-life movement wit successfully stigmatizing abortion and abortionists.

But the common ground approach, Lee believes, "Helps them with their goal: achieving legitimacy in society."

In 1978, when he was new to the pro-life movement, Lee broke bread with an abortionist and her lawyer (who 11 years later would make oral arguments to the Supreme Court in the Webster case) in an attempt to "understand" their side of the issue.

A year later, Lee attended the Washington "common ground" meeting. Lee believed at the time it was possible to work together to reduce the abortion demand; he resented the pro-lifers who crashed the meeting.

"At the time I was furious," Lee recalls. "As I look back, though, I think [what they did] was the right thing to do."

In Maryland, Frederica Mathewes-Green reflected on the failure of a $2.5 million pro-life attempt to win a referendum on repeal of that state's pro-abortion law. Mrs. Mathewes-Green, who was communications Director of the Vote kNOw Coalition, said, "That's a lot of money to lose, but perhaps the defeat was a blessing in disguise. Perhaps we'll be able to let go of our search for earthly power."

She added, "Perhaps we have been putting too much faith in working to elect legislators to pass laws that would compel people to agree with us. Under that strategy we were slowly losing ground. Now we are realizing the need to put first things first and help people to come to agree with us, before we can pass and sustain pro-life laws."

How to do that? The task is difficult, according to Mrs. Mathewes-Green, because the pro-life message "runs directly counter to the overwhelming spirit of our age, which is 'have it your way.' We were able to make people feel guilty, conflicted, but we were never able to convince them to do the right thing."

Since pro-lifers were "reminding our pleasure-loving, pain-avoiding culture of some unpleasant truths," it was easy for pro-abortionists to plant a "kill the messenger spirit."

In the Maryland referendum debate, according to Mrs. Mathewes-Green, "we said 'it's a bad law' and they got up and said, 'Yes, but those pro-life people are bad people.' It was like being on an eighth-grade playground, and we were the nerds."

Mrs. Mathewes-Green also pointed out that "trying to convince people the unborn child is a baby misses the mark, because people generally know that, but they don't think there's any alternative to abortion. The question they're asking is, how can we function as a society without abortion, and that's the question we have to answer."

She concluded, "If we play the same game they do we'll never win, because they can always out bid us. Our only hope is to put our hands and feet on the side of compassion and begin to live it. That sounds like an old answer and it is-some 2,000 years old-but it's the only answer."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Marvin Olasky

Nick Eicher

Nick is chief content officer of WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. He has served WORLD Magazine as a writer and reporter, managing editor, editor, and publisher. Nick resides with his family in St. Louis, Mo.