It’s Not the Pro-Life Argument That’s Losing
Ohio’s new pro-death constitution is evidence that pro-life leaders need to get back to basics.
The only thing less sacred than the republican government in the state of Ohio is an unborn child.
Tuesday’s dalliance with direct democracy in the Buckeye State led to a double-digit win for a radical ballot proposal amending the state constitution to sanction abortion with almost no limits. Favored by 57 percent of voters, Issue 1 is only the 20th ballot proposal Ohio has approved since 1912.
The trouncing of unborn children’s rights has already been celebrated as a win for democracy. As one abortion writer put it on her Substack, “F*** You, We Win.”
It would be easy at such a moment to sink our teeth into all the ugliness of the anti-life side, but it is much more necessary now to learn how to win. Nothing else will stop these heinous crimes from being repeated.
Winning is a skill that has eluded the pro-life movement from the beginning.
The very existence of Roe was proof the movement had lost the rhetorical battle before it had begun. Its overturn in 2022 came far too late to matter in terms of public opinion, which was settled in favor of elective abortion many years prior. Results like Tuesday’s are just the latest in a long line of proofs that what has been done to take back the public square since 1973 has been insufficient.
J.D. Vance, the junior U.S. senator from Ohio, zeroed in on this in a social media post on Wednesday: “We've spent so much time winning a legal argument on abortion that we've fallen behind on the moral argument,” he wrote.
Vance is right. Not only have we fallen behind on the moral argument, many have all but abandoned it. The pro-life movement has been rhetorically apologizing for Dobbs ever since it was handed down, trying to prove its moderation with compromise and side-stepping, as though suddenly ashamed of the belief that human life begins at the moment of conception. To this end, a mere 15-week abortion ban has been touted as the winning measure in moderate precincts. In Virginia on Tuesday, it lost.
In order to win, the pro-life movement must first reflect on the causes of its repeated failures, as The American Conservative’s managing editor Jude Russo pointed out in August. Then, it must regain confidence in the rightness of its own cause.
Pro-life leaders seem to have forgotten that second part especially. In the lead-up to the Issue 1 vote, Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine campaigned against its radical terms by moderating his own stance on abortion. Issue 1 permits abortion procedures all the way up to birth, allowing future legislation to limit only those abortions performed after an unborn child can survive outside the womb, typically no earlier than the 24th week of pregnancy. In cases of rape, incest, and when the health of the mother is at risk, again the constitutional amendment reverts to safeguard abortion rather than human life even after the 24th week of pregnancy.
Yet rather than champion the moral case for protecting the most vulnerable children, DeWine offered something of a quid pro quo to voters. He promised to draft a new abortion law with exceptions for rape and incest if Issue 1 should fail. (It is hard to imagine very many voters changed sides as a result of this political equivalent to a parent saying, “If you don’t get into the cookies, I’ll give you a gluten free fig bar instead.”)
This type of maneuvering is typically motivated by issue-specific polling, but it broadcasts weakness to voters, not to mention a lack of conviction in one’s own cause. Nothing suggests “there is no real moral case against abortion” like pro-life leaders continually moving the goalposts on when it is acceptable to kill an unborn child. The logic of moderation, which finds the middle point between two opposed ideas and sets up camp, is unconvincing always, but especially when life and death are involved.
Meanwhile, the pro-death camp is racking up fantastic wins, not by compromise or moderation but by precisely the opposite tactic. The extremism of Issue 1 is a perfect example of this. A mother’s “health” is defined sweepingly: In the past, Ohio courts ruled it to include factors as tangential as her general wellbeing and preferred family size. Moreover, the amendment does not limit itself to abortion alone. Along with potentially invalidating state laws which require parents to be notified that their child is seeking an abortion, the amendment to the Ohio constitution applies this subversion of parental authority to all “reproductive medical treatments.” Very likely, this could be construed to include gender-affirming therapy, which harms male and female reproductive health.
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But if life does begin at conception, the argument is neither too complicated for voters to comprehend, nor too bitter a pill to swallow. There is nothing backwards about laws against murder. There is nothing anti-woman about saving women’s lives. There is nothing “draconian” (it is always “draconian” for the Handmaid’s Tale crowd) about providing health care to everyone. If the pro-life leaders were willing to stand up and make these arguments, the story in Ohio may have been an entirely different one.
The pro-life movement would be in a very different place if its leaders spoke with the moral confidence of those who actually believe that life begins at conception, rather than harping on “15 weeks,” like Tim Scott in Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, as though heaven just handed down a ruling that a fetus becomes a human soul on Day 105.
The problem, then, is business as usual: The arguments for life have not been tried and found unconvincing;, they have been found hard and not seriously tried. But the cause is right, and the truth will prevail if given a chance.