A month before his death, Fr. Richard Neuhaus said, “Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States.” Neuhaus neglected to mention that the pro-life movement has endured for so long precisely because it has failed. On Jan. 22, the March for Life turned 36 years old. In that time, Republican presidents have appointed eight Supreme Court justices, but Roe v. Wade remains law.
The annual demonstration attracts nearly 200,000 abortion opponents to Washington, where the atmosphere on the National Mall shifts between hope and outrage, occasionally tumbling into the macabre. Ray Miller, who drove in from Annapolis, Maryland, wore a black robe and carried a plastic scythe in his right hand. In the other, plastic chains with severed doll parts painted red. From behind his Grim Reaper mask Miller explained in a nasal voice, “I found that this costume most concisely gets across the message that abortion kills babies.”
Nearby, the Sisters of Life, a community of nuns dedicated to protecting the unborn, prayed the Rosary. A choir from Liberty University rehearsed their hallelujahs. Some of the homemade signs were splattered with fake blood, others wryly announced, “Technically You’re Just a Blob of Tissue.” One group passed out buttons asking, “What the FOCA?”—a reference to the Obama-supported Freedom of Choice Act, which would overturn nearly all restrictions on abortion. Parochial schools like Christendom College canceled all classes to allow students to demonstrate.
For the past eight years, George W. Bush has addressed the march by phone, a gesture some activists privately considered offensive but publicly greeted with applause. Under the new administration, injury has been added to insult. Marchers expected the new president to meet their protest with an executive order overturning the Mexico City policy, which prevented U.S. tax dollars from funding overseas abortions. That blow fell the following day.
Yet the speakers and marchers were surprisingly gentle on Obama. Pastors pleaded from the dais for him to reconsider his support of legal abortion. Priests and rabbis quoted Obama’s inaugural rhetoric, saying that the unborn also deserve “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free” under our laws. Over and over, speeches asked how he could remain true to his commitment to civil rights and deprive unborn children of the right to life.
The effect of this on the conscience of the new president is unknowable. But one member of the Supreme Court has made it clear that the march will never influence his decision. In his dissenting opinion in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which reaffirmed Roe, pro-life justice Antonin Scalia wrote:
I am as distressed as the Court is .. about the ‘political pressure’ directed to the Court: the marches, the mail, the protests aimed at inducing us to change our opinions. How upsetting it is, that so many of our citizens (good people, not lawless ones, on both sides of this abortion issue, and on various sides of other issues as well) think that we Justices should properly take into account their views, as though we were engaged not in ascertaining an objective law, but in determining some kind of social consensus. The Court would profit, I think, from giving less attention to the fact of this distressing phenomenon, and more attention to the cause of it. That cause permeates today’s opinion: a new mode of constitutional adjudication that relies not upon text and traditional practice to determine the law, but upon what the Court calls ‘reasoned judgment,’ … which turns out to be nothing but philosophical predilection and moral intuition.
Protest movements are never dispassionate, and the March for Life gushes with emotion. As it ended near the Supreme Court building, woman after woman came up to explain why she regretted her decision to have an abortion. Their horrific stories brought tears to the crowd; their demands for “real change in Washington” brought nodding and applause.
The ease with which pro-lifers adopt Obama’s words shouldn’t surprise anyone. While the movement is a conservative social movement, dedicated to protecting the family from internal breakdown, it is also a liberal political movement, making the case for equal treatment under the law. This emphasis on egalitarianism draws from the same progressive traditions informing Obama’s rhetoric.
At the March for Life, conservative Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) compared the pro-life movement to the historic liberal campaigns to extend equality: “You are the new abolitionists. You are the new civil-rights movement.” At a Vigil Mass before the march, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali also took an anti-discrimination approach, demanding respect for human life “regardless of age, physical or mental ability, or stage of development.” The embrace of liberal arguments and tactics caused Neuhaus to wonder, “Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause?”
As a liberal political movement focused on jurisprudence, activism, and ballot initiatives, the pro-life movement has obtained modest restrictions on abortion that have helped to reduce its incidence in America by nearly 25 percent since 1990. The movement has also limited the moral coercion involved in abortion by restricting the use of tax dollars for the procedure with the Hyde Amendment and protecting pro-life doctors with conscience laws. Yet these hard-fought successes are jeopardized by the new administration’s promise to undo them all with the Freedom of Choice Act.
And as a conservative social force, restoring the habits of the “culture of life,” the pro-life movement is failing. While teenage illegitimacy is down, overall illegitimacy is climbing quickly. Taboos against premarital sex have long vanished. The sexual revolution is advancing to redefine the family in law. Medical scientists largely ignore the movement’s moral objections to embryo research.
For many pro-lifers, there is no separating the two sides of the debate. Last year Kristi Burton led a campaign in Colorado to extend the legal definition of person to include the unborn from the moment of fertilization—a liberal, civil-rights based approach that would criminalize most abortions. The initiative received just 27 percent of the vote. But Burton appeared at Washington conferences throughout the week of the march to sell other activists on her strategy because it provided opportunities to reach people personally. She has heard from dozens of Colorado women who decided not to terminate their pregnancies as a result of her campaign. Burton says, “We put the truth out there, and people’s lives were changed. Lives were saved.”
The internal divisions of the pro-life movement between conservative and liberal approaches can be difficult to untangle. The strident American Life League, which champions Burton’s strategy, is generally considered ultra-conservative, even as it makes “nondiscrimination” and “equality” its primary goals. Meanwhile, the more moderate-seeming incrementalists advocate a conservative, law-and-order approach to the issue, arguing for parental-consent laws and gradually building legal consensus for other restrictions on abortion.
In addition to these internal contradictions and turf battles, pro-lifers are stymied by a complicated, perhaps abusive, relationship with Republicans. The putatively pro-life party hasn’t delivered the goods. Shaun Kenney, the executive director of American Life League, complains, “We had a Republican White House and Republican Congress and the government is still funding Planned Parenthood? After Bush picked Harriet Miers, his popularity never got above 40 percent because he promised pro-life judges.” He insists that pro-lifers are committed to only one goal: “The sole issue is this: we want abortion ended. That’s it. All other issues boil down to practical insignificance.”
But Kenney’s own political analysis reveals that even the most committed pro-life activists are rarely single-issue voters. Asked whether Bush’s unpopular handling of the economy or foreign policy could have grievously hurt the GOP and indirectly set the pro-life movement back, Kenney avers that the “people who didn’t like the war always opposed the president.” If the war caused his unpopularity, Kenney argues, “then the surge, which is a wild success, should have reversed that.” Further, Kenny admits it was understandable that some pro-life legislation was not passed because “obviously, the war on terror takes precedence.”
At 36 years old, the pro-life movement is still energetic and indignant—and trapped. Every year of Republican rule has increased the suspicion that pro-lifers are the GOP’s useful idiots. Planned Parenthood still received federal dollars, and Congress never stripped courts of their ability to overturn parental notification and conscience laws. A human life amendment was ditched for Social Security reform. And just one year of unified Democratic rule in the federal government may undo a generation of small victories for the movement’s incrementalists at all levels. In desperation, pro-lifers may turn en masse to the “Personhood Now” strategy in an effort to impose a “culture of life” that the movement hasn’t built consensus for in the opinions or lifestyles of its fellow citizens.
At the American Life League’s conference on personhood following the march, Kenney admitted, “We’re waiting for a leader.” Unfortunately, Alan Keyes soon leapt to the stage and addressed the audience of about 100 people. He compared Obama to Cain, who killed his brother; to a “bad tree” in Christ’s parables; and to Hitler. The small crowd cheered. Pro-lifers are waiting still.