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Carol Tobias is president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Here are edited excerpts of our conversation shortly before last month’s March for Life in Washington, D.C.
What’s your earliest memory of any pro-life activity?
My mom was the Political Action Committee Director for North Dakota Right to Life. She sent questionnaires to state legislative candidates. I remember having all those questionnaires spread out on the table as she was trying to organize them. And in 1972 North Dakota had a statewide referendum on abortion: 78 percent of the voters opposed the pro-abortion measure.
You were 12 then. Had you learned that people are killing babies?
It was about that time. Mom talked about conversations she had with local ministers. I asked questions, and she told me what was happening.
Did that startle you?
I was shocked, and questioning: How could anyone even consider killing an unborn baby?
At what age do you think kids should learn about this?
At a young age they can learn about the beauty of life: Let them see pictures of babies in the womb, beautiful photography. I wouldn’t put an age on learning about abortion, because children differ in how they can handle the information—but let them gradually know what’s happening to these babies.
At age 19 you were working 9 to 5 as a bookkeeper and volunteering at the local Right to Life chapter?
I got to know people active at the state level. They asked if I’d move to Bismarck to run the state organization. I jumped at the chance, at the opportunity to spend my time in a very worthwhile movement.
In 1981 you went to Washington as the NRLC’s political director? Was that a decade of optimism?
The pro-life movement was instrumental in helping Ronald Reagan win the White House. Republicans elected many pro-life senators.
At the end of the decade Operation Rescue (OR) became the highly publicized face of the movement. Was that helpful or harmful?
It gave an outlet for people who weren’t happy making phone calls and lobbying legislators. I’d tend to say it was probably more harmful because the country at that time maybe wasn’t really open to those kinds of activities, sit-ins, whatever.
Did OR lead to killing more babies rather than fewer?
I know some OR people. Their hearts were so sincere that I am very reluctant to put that kind of connotation on it. But if those efforts helped us lose some elections, and then we got in one or two more bad justices who have been on the court now for 20 years, that might’ve extended the battle. Until we get more people in agreement with us, we need to be really careful that we’re not pushing them away into thinking we’re the crazy ones.
How extensive within the movement was the debate between the all-or-nothing folks (never support any proposal that leaves some babies unprotected) and the all-or-something folks?
There was a lot of frustration and anger. Some thought people were compromising too much. Others thought: If you do an all-or-nothing, you’re going to get nothing, and how does that help the babies?
What are the major similarities and differences between the pro-life movements of 1990 and 2020?
We definitely have more young people. They are seeing the unborn baby. And the social media aspect: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The pro-life message is getting out to people in so many different ways.
How important is the development of ultrasound in leading more people to call themselves pro-life?
That is a very large part of it. Women are seeing their babies. You can’t pass them off as just a blob of cells. Legislation has been a very good educational tool. People are learning with the partial-birth abortion ban that babies later in the pregnancy were being delivered, then stabbed in the back of the head with scissors. A substantial part of the country still believed abortion was legal for three months: They were shocked to find out it could be done on babies later in pregnancy. We started talking about unborn babies having their arms and legs torn off.
Three out of 4 Americans in one recent poll said abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. Those cases are unusual, so while we want all babies to have life, should we ignore those cases now and work in areas that have majority support?
I would love to be at the point where all babies are protected and we are arguing over rape and incest, the 1 or 2 percent. I’m not going to give up, but I’m willing to narrow down when abortions are allowed and keep pushing the boundary until we get to that point.
Pro-lifers are introducing bills about personhood, heartbeat, fetal pain, and so on. Which should we emphasize?
Until we get a Supreme Court that is going to dismantle Roe v. Wade, a lot of these arguments are—I don’t want to say not helpful, but we need to get a majority of people in this country electing a good president who puts good judges on the court, and electing senators who confirm those judges. If that doesn’t happen, if we get a pro-abortion president and a pro-abortion majority in the Senate, it doesn’t matter what our disagreements are. Our hands will be tied. Until we are confident that we’ve got those votes on the court, I would encourage people to focus on the things that will bring in pro-life voters or at least not alienate the “mushy middle” who are uncomfortable with making abortion totally illegal.
What do you say to people who are pro-life but believe President Trump is unfit to be president?
He’s doing everything we need him to do. He’s cutting off our tax dollars that would go to organizations like International Planned Parenthood to kill babies in other countries. He’s cutting off funding to them here in this country. He is allowing medical personnel to object to involvement in an abortion procedure or assisted suicide because their conscience or their religious and moral values tell them that’s wrong. He is putting justices on the federal bench who will look at the Constitution and not legislate. There might be some things you don’t like about this president, but he is doing what we need him to do to save babies.
So NRL’s greatest goal this year is to reelect President Trump?
We need one or two more judges on the Supreme Court. That’s not going to solve all problems, but if we can get the court to dismantle Roe and give us a 50-state battleground, we’ll save many more lives than we can now.
Pro-lifers in many states are disagreeing on the right strategy: personhood bill, heartbeat bill, 20-week bill. Does NRL have a dog in that hunt?
I really truly believe it comes down to the Supreme Court. Until we can get rid of a national law that has tied our hands, a lot of what we’re trying to do could actually be counterproductive. I understand pro-life people getting impatient: 47 years, how many more babies have to die? Let’s do something. But more people are agreeing that abortion is wrong. When New York and Virginia allow abortion through all nine months, people are flabbergasted and move to pro-life. We don’t want to lose our chance to change the Supreme Court and change Roe. So the battles we’re having are fine, but I would like them to wait a little bit.
So you oppose personhood bills?
We’ve never been in support because they don’t have any legal impact.
NRL opposes heartbeat bills for the same reason?
Our affiliates are split on whether to support them. We know certainly the pro-life movement wants to see them pass, but here’s my concern: If the American public isn’t with you, are we pushing them into the abortion camp when they walk into the voting booth?
I hear you saying that every time people see how radical the pro-abort agenda is, more move in the pro-life direction. Would you then say we should not rock the boat politically?
I think that I would. Lots of people are open to hearing our arguments, but they still think there are times when a woman should have that option. When they think we will ban all abortions right now, we’re pushing them to the other side. I’m hopeful that President Trump is reelected and we can settle this in a year or two. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think right now our position is: Don’t rock the boat.
Do you think John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh will push for a Roe reversal?
I don’t expect it. They’ve got a case coming up this spring out of Louisiana. I would not be surprised if they uphold the Louisiana law. I will be very surprised if they use that to dismantle Roe. I don’t think we’ll see that on a 5-4 vote. The country is so divided that I think the Supreme Court will want to have a 6-3 or 7-2 decision.
How can that happen, given the current makeup of the court?
My goal is to have four more years of Donald Trump as president, so at least two judges who usually vote pro-abortion are replaced.