In a column that appeared in last Friday’s Washington Post, Frances Kissling, who served as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, offers some advice for supporters of legal abortion. Kissling acknowledges that recent pro-life efforts — specifically our focus on fetal development and our efforts to pass incremental laws — have been effective in shifting public opinion in a pro-life direction. She acknowledges that supporters of legal abortion are now losing, and that the pro-choice arguments that were persuasive in the 1970s are no longer working today.
As a result, Kissling suggests a shift in strategy. Specifically, she urges her pro-choice allies to support some restrictions on late-term abortions. She states that supporters of abortion rights need to “firmly and clearly reject post-viability abortions, except in extreme cases.” She even says that abortions in the second trimester “need to be considered differently.” Kissling encourages an approach that would mandate counseling for women seeking abortion in these circumstances.
In this editorial, Kissling is saying something publicly that many pro-choice activists and leaders have likely been thinking for years. The legality of partial-birth abortions and other late-term abortions has caused considerable damage to the pro-choice cause. In fact, the campaign to ban partial-birth abortion during the mid-1990s is what started the gradual but consistent increase in the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “pro-life.” Therefore, it is only natural that supporters of abortion rights would want to preempt future debates about the legality of late-term abortions.
However, there is clearly some risk involved with this strategy. If abortion-rights supporters fail to oppose restrictions on late-term abortions, they are at least tacitly acknowledging that some fetal life should be legally protected. This could lead to some potentially uncomfortable — and politically damaging — discussions about the exact stage in development at which unborn children merit legal protection. All of this could open the door for even greater protections for the unborn. On the other hand, it should also be noted that many countries in Western Europe restrict late-term abortions, and the legality of early-term abortions seems fairly secure in most of these countries.
On the whole, it is unlikely that the leaders of NOW, NARAL, and other pro-choice organizations will heed Kissling’s advice. Ever since the mid-1990s, organizations supporting legal abortion exerted a considerable amount of pressure on their allies in the Democratic party to oppose bans on partial-birth abortion. If abortion-rights groups backed down now, they would lose credibility in the eyes of their Democratic allies. In fact, one can only imagine how exasperated Democratic leaders would be to see supporters of legal abortion back away from a position that caused the Democratic party a considerable amount of embarrassment and political damage.
Of course, pro-lifers should be heartened by all of this. There is always plenty of intense debate in pro-life circles over various political and legislative strategies. The fact that a pro-choice leader is acknowledging our effectiveness should hearten those who have worked tirelessly — and often thanklessly — on incremental approaches. Better yet, the fact that our opponents are moving toward our position — albeit slowly and grudgingly — should give pro-lifers confidence as we continue our ongoing efforts to protect the unborn.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.