I wonder whether Denes, in her abortion book, was echoing Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John, consciously or unconsciously, when she wrote about women coming out of anesthesia after aborting: “All through the afternoons, from this room and that, one can hear again and again hoarse, drugged voices mutter in anguish … ‘Has it been done?’ ‘It is finished,’ the nurses answer. ‘It is finished.’”
THE SECOND BOOK by a writer on the other side that pro-lifers should read is William Saletan’s Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press, 2003). The title surprises conservative pro-lifers: What, we won? Why didn’t anyone tell me? But the first chapter, concerning a 1984 attempted Arkansas constitutional amendment, clarifies Saletan’s thesis.
The amendment would have stopped any government funding of abortion in Arkansas. It also stipulated that the state’s public policy should “promote the health, safety and welfare of every unborn child from conception to birth.” Polls predicted a landslide win, but the amendment failed by 519 votes out of 633,000 cast. Why?
The answer lies in the effective messages the abortion lobby developed: (1) “The government is threatening to take away our right to own a gun and telling us where to send our children to school, and now they want to say women can’t have an abortion—even if they’re raped.” (2) “I’ll be hanged if I’m going to surrender my rights over family decisions to the government.” (3) Following rape, “You, your doctor, your preacher, your daughter have no say in this personal, private tragedy.”
Saletan shows that these appeals upset those on the cultural left. After all, for those who think abortion is a good problem-solver, treating rape as a special case discriminates between women who choose to have sex (they’re seen as guilty and must pay the price) and those who do not (they’re innocent, so they deserve a “get out of jail” card). For others, though, winning the referendum came first. The ACLU was willing to jettison the general issue and repackage the debate as a crime issue: “Protect Victims of Rape and Incest. Vote No! on Amendment 65.”
Feminist leaders prioritized winning the referendum, even though they realized that a rape exception to general limitations on abortion would give alleged rapists a new defense: They could say a woman was yelling rape so as to have an abortion. Feminists also compromised on claims to feminine autonomy when polls showed most Americans disapproved of abortion if the only reason given was “a woman wants to have an abortion”—but adding the words “and her doctor agrees to it” produced a 30 percent swing among respondents. Postulating a deciding pair created a pro-choice majority, even though a woman typically met the doctor who would perform the abortion only moments before it began.
Bearing Right also helps to explain why the abortion lobby castigates those like Magda Denes who support abortion sorrowfully, realizing that it means the killing of a human being. Saletan notes that, according to Roe, mothers’ rights during the first trimester absolutely outweigh unborn babies’ rights: “To prevent the latter from surpassing the former, pro-choice groups were determined to reduce the value of unborn life to zero.” Saletan also undermines the notion that “parental consent” is a vital pro-life tool: He points to studies that show parents with pregnant teenage daughters prefer abortion 4-1 when they first learn of the pregnancy, and 10-1 at the time of the abortion.
THE HALF-BOOK to get to my “2½ books from the other side” is Cynthia Gorney’s Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Gorney was a Washington Post writer and did not separate herself from its pro-abortion position, but she nevertheless empathizes with the book’s major pro-life character, Sam Lee of Missouri. I’m giving Articles of Faith a ½ because it’s 575 pages long and its exegesis of particular pieces of legislation is dated, but its dive into pro-life debates about strategy—see Chapters 4, 6, 8, 10, and so forth—remains valuable.
Gorney understands the pro-life strategic dilemma and summarized it well in a November 2004 Harper’s article: “In right-to-life ethical reasoning, a seven-weeks-pregnant abortion is as unacceptable as a thirty-weeks-pregnant abortion. [It’s like] distinguishing between the killing of two-year-olds and the killing of eight-year-olds.” And yet, Gorney continued, many Americans make that distinction, and many also make distinctions based on whether a woman is pregnant via consensual sex or force. So, should pro-lifers be all-or-nothing, or should we be willing to accept incremental improvements, if that’s all we can get?
“I feel that I’m actually killing them. And that kind of feeling I don’t like to live with.”
Gorney also recognizes the importance of personality in politics. She clearly admires Samuel Lee, who practiced nonviolent civil disobedience at abortion businesses starting in 1978, gained a long arrest record, and then realized “sit-ins worked only when they could rouse a community to action.” Lee learned how the Missouri Legislature worked and began humbly working for incremental legislation from an all-or-something position. In 1989, when Lee went to Washington to hear oral arguments in the Webster case his work generated, he slept the night before on the Supreme Court steps, and afterward watched “the newspaper people with their notebooks and tape recorders, the television people thrusting their microphones” toward the highly publicized leaders.
Gorney ends that chapter with this: “For a while Sam stood at the edge of the plaza, watching, his hands in his pants pockets and his spiral notebook jammed up under one arm. Then he walked down the courthouse steps and headed for the subway by himself.” The contrast of Lee’s humility with the personality of Randall Terry, who led Operation Rescue in 1989, is clear: “Terry appeared to be laboring under the impression that he had invented the concept of the large-scale clinic sit-in; … Terry lent himself to caricature, how precisely his carriage and language suited every secular cliché of the heavy-breathing right-to-lifer. He had worked as a used car salesman, a detail reporters repeated frequently and with obvious delight; he was partial to apocalyptic statements about ‘America’s future’ and ‘whether we’re ultimately going to be an ash-heap and a rubble-heap and live and die like jackals.’”
Gorney also notes how her press associates were complicit in hype: “All the O.R. blockaders put together added up to a tiny fraction of the right-to-life volunteers across the United States, but the media loved them; a rescuer transported by prayer made a snappier front-page photograph than a lawyer dictating reply briefs or a middle-aged homemaker folding flyers into envelopes.” Hype and hate created a wrong impression, but over time persevering compassion has become a larger part of the pro-life movement.
ALL THREE OF THESE BOOKS display the ability of the human heart to suppress unwelcome knowledge. One example from Articles of Faith: In 1979 a first-trimester abortionist, Michael Freiman, is learning how to do second-trimester killings by watching a fellow abortionist do one. Suddenly “a small arm with a hand on it dropped into the surgical pan. … He felt momentarily short of air, as though someone had punched him hard in the stomach. … What was wrong with him? Why was he suddenly thinking about Nazi Germany?”
The good news is that Freiman refused to do second-trimesters. The bad news is that he evidently kept doing early abortions, where distinct arms don’t drop into pans. Freiman died of lung cancer in 2014, and one woman posted this online: “He killed my unborn baby in 1978.”