Insider analyzes anti-abortion movement angst

by on February 20, 2009  •  In Reproductive rights

From The American Conservative, an essay sympathetic to the right-to-life movement finds it trapped in an abusive marriage to the Republican Party, divided between incrementalism and calls for a "culture of life," and fearful that limited legislative gains will be lost in the Obama years:  

As a 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.

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.

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