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Pro-life priorities

Pro-life priorities

Abortionists, not scared mothers, are the opponents

Last month, Larry King hit George W. Bush with the question guaranteed these days to put a pro-life candidate in hot water. Mr. King asked, If abortion "is criminal, if it is some day determined [to be] criminal, shouldn't the mother be held liable?"

Gov. Bush responded that the question "misses the overall point; that people have got to understand that abortion is not a contraceptive; we should not have abortions on demand; that partial-birth abortion is dealing with a live child." Then he answered the question, "No, I don't think you ought to hold the mother criminal."

Some journalists thought that pro-life folks would attack Mr. Bush for stating that-but they were thinking in stereotypes, not reality. Pro-life people almost always see the abortionist as the profiteer, but the mother of the aborted child as a person who needs compassion, not incarceration.

That's the way it almost always was in the 19th century as well. In that century's first major abortion case, a Connecticut jury in 1821 sentenced the man who caused the abortion to two years in prison. In this and almost every other 19th-century case, the woman was considered a victim rather than a perpetrator, since many abortions occurred after the father of the unborn child refused to take responsibility.

The primary goal of legislators then was to get abortionists off the streets and into either jail or a decent occupation. States frequently gave women immunity from all prosecution in exchange for testimony. Even prostitutes, who made up a majority of most abortionists' clients, were not jailed for abortions they had, because legislatures wanted their help in nailing the abortionists.

States that did not give full immunity, such as New York and New Jersey, gave women immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. That's what the statutes said, but I've written two books on the history of abortion, and I don't know of women going to jail for their own abortions. The goal of legislation was not to punish women, but to contain the evil empire of the abortionists and to signal its illegitimacy.

Legislation was education, and 19th-century journalists also helped. In 1890 The New York Times described one abortionist, a Dr. McGonegal, as having "the appearance of a vulture.... His sharp eyes glitter from either side of his beaked nose, and cunning and greed are written all over his face." The Times in those days called abortion "the evil of the age" and sent reporters undercover into abortionist businesses to describe vividly the killing fields.

The 19th-century pro-life movement also knew the importance of culture as well as law. Our predecessors appreciated the educational impact of anti-abortion laws but did not expect much in the way of enforcement, and instead concentrated on ways to help women avoid abortion. They emphasized abstinence and, when that strategy failed, set up refuges for pregnant women and helped them place their babies for adoption.

Our strategy today, I'd propose, should be similar. We should promote crisis pregnancy centers and make sure that they meet high standards of performance; the movement to make them medical clinics is a plus. We should push for "second chance" maternity homes for pregnant young women. We should work to extend adoption tax credits, protect the privacy of those placing their children for adoption, and make sure our churches are adoption-friendly.

We can and should go much further in emphasizing abstinence. Although the federal government is currently budgeting $50 million for abstinence education, some cynical state officials in charge of the spending (and not constrained by adequate oversight) have used funds for head-lice inspections or for hockey leagues. Admittedly, both head lice and gap-toothed hockey faces can be sexual turnoffs, but that's not what the folks who battled for federal budgetary recognition of abstinence were hoping for.

Still, oversight is reportedly improving and the abstinence program overall is worth continuing. Its effectiveness could increase greatly under an administration sold on abstinence and committed to a message not only negative but positive, with an emphasis on reasons to be married. Some carefully targeted funding here could go a long way; I'm told, for instance, that $1 million could buy three pro-marriage rap videos that would play regularly on MTV.

But still, with all the positive opportunities, we cannot avoid dealing with the negative, and that means using all the legal means at our disposal to fight abortionists. Given the legality of abortion, we also need to help women make an informed choice. Next week, in our issue noting the 27th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision, I'll discuss ways of helping in that matter.