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One step forward

...

(with Roy Maynard in Dallas)

As the rain slacks off slightly, five pro-life protesters bring out their weathered placards and station themselves in front of a North Dallas abortion mill. It's still blustery, though, and a cold front is sliding down from the Texas panhandle, bringing a damp chill to this January morning.

The protesters are no summer soldiers or sunshine patriots. The 25th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision can be seen as a kind of Valley Forge-a bleak, soul-trying period in the long war against abortion. But it's no time for talk of surrender; Gen. Washington knew during that long winter that he had achieved a major victory just by keeping an army in the field. Similarly, there are signs that America is starting to turn away from abortion.

Just before noon, Philip "Flip" Benham, the director of Operation Rescue National, brings the news to the protesters: The abortion mill has closed. The North Park Medical Group cleaned out its suite in this ultramodern Dallas office building over the Christmas holiday. It left no forwarding number and no explanation.

The burly, mustachioed security guard who in the past had to help arrest and prosecute the protesters is ecstatic. "They're gone," he says as he unlocks the doors and gives protesters a tour. "Just cleared out. And I'm glad. What they were doing made me sick. I would have nightmares from the sounds I would hear."

Though America's abortion nightmare is far from over, there are signs that more and more women are waking up to the bloody reality of their "choice." The United States may still have the highest abortion rate of any industrialized nation where the procedure is legal, but the trends are encouraging. Thanks to the efforts of loyal troops like those in Dallas, numerous clinics have closed, leaving 84 percent of counties without a single abortion provider. In 1995, the remaining clinics killed 1.2 million unborn babies-200,000 fewer than 1990.

While abortion foes celebrate their gains, however, clouds are gathering on the horizon. New abortion techniques threaten to change the terms of the debate, render abortion statistics unreliable, and even split the historic alliance between Catholic and Protestant pro-lifers. It's a future scenario that few want to consider as America looks back at a quarter century of life-and death-since Roe.

Battle-weary soldiers are understandably eager to focus on the victories, such as the 200,000-abortion decline this decade, which they attribute to a combination of stricter laws and more successful abstinence education efforts. Abortion advocates, however, would deny them even that bit of satisfaction. They attribute the drop to both demographics (as large numbers of women grow older and less fertile) and more effective contraception (including Norplant and Depo Provera). But such explanations ignore one crucial fact: The decline in abortions has not been uniform across the country. In states where pro-life efforts have been most successful at changing the law, abortions are down dramatically, while in states with more permissive laws, the numbers are up slightly.

Pennsylvania, for instance, recently enacted the Abortion Control Act, requiring both parental consent for minors and a 24-hour waiting period for any woman seeking an abortion. Such restrictions seem to be having the desired effect. Abortions in Pennsylvania were down to a post-Roe low of 38,000 last year, compared to nearly 66,000 in 1980. That 42 percent drop is better than twice the national average of 15 percent, and it's unlikely, given the state's high Catholic population, that Pennsylvanians are simply using birth control in much greater numbers than the rest of the country.

With protective abortion laws proving themselves in states like Pennsylvania, pro-life advocates are redoubling their efforts on the national level. For the first time since Roe vs. Wade, both houses of Congress now have pro-life majorities, resulting in a number of victories last year: banning abortions in overseas military hospitals and federal prisons, disallowing federal health insurance plans that cover abortions, and blocking the confirmation of President Clinton's pro-choice nominee for surgeon general. Indeed, according to a study by the Boston Globe, pro-abortion advocates have won only 10 of the 81 abortion-related votes in Congress since 1995.

Most encouraging of all for pro-life forces is the crack that has recently appeared in the seemingly impenetrable wall of public support for a "woman's right to choose." According to opinion polls, the gruesome, late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion has for the first time caused a majority of respondents to call for outlawing one class of abortions altogether. The New Yorker reported recently that Americans are now evenly split between those who call themselves "pro-life" versus "pro-choice," compared to just a year earlier, when the "pro-choice" label claimed an 18 percent lead.

But even as public opinion seems for the first time to be shifting-however slowly-in favor of the pro-life position, a new danger on the horizon threatens to change the very terms of the debate. It's as if Washington's soldiers, shivering in the Valley Forge cold, suddenly had to face an incoming Scud missile with nothing but their muzzle-loaders and cannons.

That missile was launched early last month, when Jerry Edwards, a Planned Parenthood doctor in Houston, announced that over the past three years he had performed nearly 2,500 abortions on women as little as eight days pregnant. Using a syringe, Dr. Edwards can remove the gestational sac-complete with an unborn child less than an eighth of an inch long-in just two minutes. The procedure requires no uncomfortable scraping or noisy vacuuming, and since it takes place before the woman has even missed a period or experienced hormonal changes, it may hardly seem like terminating a pregnancy at all.

The news from Houston immediately made the front page of The New York Times, and Planned Parenthood clinics across the country announced that they, too, would soon begin offering the very early abortions. Predictably enough, abortion enthusiasts lauded the procedure as a breakthrough for women. "For most women, the sooner they know they're pregnant, and the sooner they decide what they're going to do, the better," said Michael Burnhill, vice president for medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "With these very early abortions, we're talking about a whole gestational sac that's the size of a matchstick head. It's nobody's picture of a little baby sucking its thumb."

That, for pro-lifers, is exactly the problem. Traditionally, doctors have been reluctant to perform abortions before the sixth or seventh week because inaccurate early pregnancy tests could result in botched operations. This gave pro-lifers the chance to point out how quickly an unborn child becomes recognizably a baby. And despite all their efforts to portray the child as nothing more than a piece of tissue, abortion advocates have never been able to erase completely that image of the little baby sucking its thumb.

But what will happen as more women opt for very early abortions, before the preborn child even has a thumb to suck on? How will abortion protesters make women think twice about ending their pregnancies once medical technology has smoothed the emotional edge off their arguments?

The troops in Dallas last week didn't have any easy answers. Kristene O'Dell, one of the protesters, had an abortion herself nine years ago. Now married and the mother of four, she's been active with Operation Rescue for a couple of years, but she knows the war is changing. "Frankly, I'm frightened by what I'm hearing about new procedures," she says as she leans on her sign. "You hear about how easy it's going to be, how it will soon be done in any doctor's office. It scares me."

Just moments later, a car slows at the intersection; the driver rolls down a window and asks Kristene a question: "What are you people going to do when women can just take a pill and it's over?"

"I don't know," she replies. "Pray."

The driver's question illustrates another challenge the pro-life movement will face in the coming months. While surgical abortion procedures like Dr. Edwards's are pushed earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, new techniques in so-called medical abortions threaten to blur the line between contraception and abortion-and in the process, perhaps, split evangelicals from their Catholic allies in the fight for the unborn. Thanks to FDA approval a year ago, women can now get prescriptions for high doses of oral contraceptives to be taken up to 72 hours after intercourse without prior contraception. In Washington state, some pharmacists are allowed to dispense the necessary dosage directly to women who ask, even without a doctor's prescription. For a week after intercourse, women can insert the Copper-T intrauterine device, which both stops any immediate pregnancy and serves as a long-term contraceptive. Finally, there is mifepristone or RU-486, the French abortion pill currently available only in select cities. Used alone, mifepristone is merely a more effective oral contraceptive, but taken in conjunction with another drug called misoprostol, it can cause an abortion even before a woman is sure she is pregnant.

All of these new techniques present a tricky new question for the pro-life movement: When does contraception end and abortion begin? In the eyes of medicine and the law, abortion takes place only after the fertilized egg has been implanted in the uterine wall-typically a week to 10 days after fertilization. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, note that life begins upon fertilization, when individual DNA is created distinct from that in either the sperm or the egg. Thus any procedure that destroys a fertilized egg-whether or not it is implanted in the uterus-would be murder.

But that seemingly neat definition begs yet another question: When does fertilization actually occur? An hour after sex? A day? Two days? Dr. Gene Rudd, an OB/GYN with the Christian Medical and Dental Society, says that because sperm are viable for up to seven days, the optimal window for conception is several hours to several days after intercourse. Even the National Right to Life Committee won't be too specific. In its response to the so-called morning-after pill last year, NRLC acknowledged that "some chemical compounds may work to either prevent fertilization or kill the developing human being which has begun to grow." It went on to urge women to consult with their doctors to determine whether, "in their best medical judgment," using the pills would prevent a pregnancy or terminate one.

That debate will likely gain prominence-and passion-as very early abortions become more common. If, as some abortion advocates predict, contraception and abortion blend into a "seamless web," will the pro-life movement itself come apart at the seams? Many evangelical women, after all, have never thought twice about using the pill or other birth-control devices. Catholic ethicists have long viewed that as inconsistent with a pro-life philosophy, but they have largely kept their views quiet for the sake of saving babies. Now, however, medical advances are forcing the Catholic critique to the surface.

"With 'technological progress' the moral case against contraception is even stronger ... and the Catholic position looks more and more prophetic," claims Ralph McInerny, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He predicts the new abortion technology will lead evangelicals to re-think their position in favor of contraception. "I think it's got to. Given the goodness of heart and the liveliness of faith there, it's got to carry over sooner or later. There's a continuing coming together on this issue. In the practical, moral order, it's just too hard to distinguish between taking a life and preventing one."

Many evangelicals would acknowledge that the "practical order" might make certain types of contraception questionable, but they would bristle at the suggestion that contraception is an absolute wrong in the "moral order." Many evangelical and Catholic pro-life leaders agreed in the 1980s to put aside their differences over contraception for the sake of the babies; any change in strategy now could seriously strain the alliance that can take some credit for saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

"I would be very sad if a schism were created in the pro-life movement over contraception when the issue is still abortion," says Laura MacLeod, director of legislation and public policy at Concerned Women for America. Although CWA does not take a position on contraception, Mrs. MacLeod predicts that if there were a squabble over the issue, "you would probably lose a lot of evangelicals simply because there's a lack of education" about the difference between contraception and chemical abortifacients. She says it is crucial that evangelical women become more familiar with the facts about chemical abortions so that they can make informed decisions. "It's just going to be a huge, huge issue, and it's one that no one is talking about."

That emphasis on education may prove to be the key not only to preserving the pro-life alliance but to advancing the pro-life cause in the next 25 years of life after Roe. Evangelicals and Catholics agree that very early abortion procedures-both surgical and chemical-will make it imperative to reach women earlier and earlier in their pregnancies with information regarding the choice they are about to make. Counseling centers in the Care Net system, for instance, compete with Planned Parenthood by offering very early tests that can determine a pregnancy in as little as 10 days after conception. But instead of a syringe, Care Net counselors then offer spiritual guidance, emotional support, and abortion alternatives to women who find themselves pregnant unexpectedly.

Even Operation Rescue, long regarded as the guerrilla wing of the pro-life movement, recognizes the need for new tactics in response to medical advances. In Dallas, OR's Flip Benham already has been mapping his strategy. "If the abortionists are talking about getting to them [the women] 8 days, 10 days after conception, we've got to get to them before conception," he says. "That's why we've got to focus more and more on abstinence education." To that end, OR volunteers are doing what other pro-lifers have done for years, taking the battle into the high schools to provide information about abstinence among girls who might otherwise be easy targets for the new abortion/contraception techniques.

So, examining new weapons and new strategies, the troops prepare for another 25 years of battle. Though no one expects the abortion forces to agree to an unconditional surrender any time soon, pro-lifers continue to see the enemy lines pushed back: One more law passed, one more child adopted, one more abortion business closed down. Granted, they're small victories. But the victims are even smaller.

Bob Jones

Bob Jones