The current political environment makes pro-life activism too difficult for politicians. The media that most non-conservatives consume has a pervasive pro-choice bias that raises the costs for pro-life politicians and shields even the most radical pro-choice politicians from the consequences of supporting extreme policies. Changing the norms of the mainstream news and entertainment industries in the direction of greater fairness would be ideal, but that is a long-term project. In the meantime, pro-lifers would do better to give less money to the current crop of right-leaning super PACs and more money to a national effort to educate the public about the humanity of the late-term fetus and the radicalism of America’s abortion regime.
Mainstream-media outlets tried to downplay the Gosnell murder case, but many were eventually shamed into providing better coverage. The indispensable Mollie Hemingway provoked Washington Post health-policy reporter Sarah Kliff into dismissing the Gosnell murders — and the legal regime that allows late-term abortions and fails to provide effective regulation of the abortion industry — as a “local crime” story. That rationalization eventually collapsed, and Kliff ended up admitting that the Gosnell murders had become a national news story.
Mainstream journalists seem to have concluded that the problem with their Gosnell coverage was not that they had acted shamefully, but that they had allowed themselves to be shamed by conservatives. There was no shame in the coverage of the Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas. NBC Nightly News portrayed Davis as a heroine being picked on by mean Republicans. That she was filibustering to protect at-will late-term abortions went unmentioned. Bob Schieffer was similarly fawning on CBS’s Face the Nation, and managed to throw in a shot at Texas governor Rick Perry for making a “remarkably personal” statement about Davis. It probably made for a better story to have a villain. Schieffer did have the basic decency to ask Davis one question about her support of abortion after 20 weeks, and he mentioned that this position was unpopular among Texans. When Davis made her answer about women’s health, he did not pursue the matter.
The Texas Republicans will be okay in one sense — the Texas legislature is very likely to pass the abortion restrictions that initially failed as a result of the Davis filibuster — but pro-lifers will still pay a price. Some people (especially outside of Texas) will know the Wendy Davis story only as “Something, something, heroic woman standing up for women’s health and rights.” People who think well of her will be somewhat more likely to think well of her cause — especially if they have a clear idea of Davis as a heroine and only a vague idea of what she supports. Such vague impressions can be powerful. The incumbent president opposed extending protections to infants who survived botched abortions, and he paid no political price, while Todd Akin became the most famous losing Senate candidate in recent American history.
The problem is not that Americans are indifferent to newborn infants’ dying in abortion facilities from lack of medical treatment. Most Americans have never heard of Obama’s record on this issue. This is not merely a success for Obama and his media allies. Conservatives have failed to speak to those Americans who do not consume much right-leaning media such as talk radio and Fox News.
It is not for lack of resources. Right-leaning independent groups spent over $400 million on the 2012 presidential cycle. Much of this money went to partisan attacks on Obama’s bowing to China or Obama’s picking on old, white business owners. Since the election, the ads from right-leaning super PACs have focused on chasing the news cycle over issues such as how Obama’s press secretary handles questions on the fund-raising tactics of an Obama-supporting organization. There is no evidence that these mostly opportunistic attacks have done much to convince anybody of anything. For conservative donors who are trying to change minds, the current crop of right-leaning super PACS have been a lousy investment
The pro-life fraction of donors would be better off redirecting their money toward educating the public on a small number of issues. Restricting late-term abortions should be one of those issues. Instead of paying for ads mocking Obama’s performance in the first debate, donors could fund a campaign that focuses on the humanity of the full-term fetus. Pro-life legislators are working to mandate ultrasounds before abortions. Why aren’t conservatives making sure that more American voters see ultrasounds of an unborn baby? How many Americans who have now heard of Wendy Davis have never seen an ultrasound of a late-term fetus combined with a description of how that child could be legally destroyed? This failure of pro-life politics is not entirely the fault of the liberal media.
A plurality of Americans already support banning most abortions after 20 weeks. Focusing on the humanity of the late-term fetus would remind those Americans that some politicians support late-term abortions — and those politicians could be named. Focusing on the humanity of the late-term fetus would raise the salience of the abortion issue for some opponents of late-term abortion. It would probably even win some converts.
A media campaign that focused on late-term abortion could also make it easier for pro-lifers to seize the political middle. The current media environment allows pro-choicers to seem moderate even when they are extreme. The president opposed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, but somehow the top abortion-related issue of 2012 was abortions in case of rape. In the current media environment, pro-choicers usually get to pick their fights, and they will naturally try to pick fights that will make the pro-choice side appealing to moderates. Focusing on incremental abortion restrictions and the humanity of the late-term fetus would remind moderates of what they find disturbing about abortion and reveal the radicalism of many Democratic politicians.
A national media campaign would also lift some of the burden off pro-life politicians. The public won’t necessarily thank a politician who brings up abortion. This means that pro-life candidates are often in the position of having to either bring up the abortion issue out of nowhere or wait to answer a debate question framed by a pro-choice journalist. Even when a pro-life politician comments on abortion, the reporting on the comment will usually be filtered by pro-choice journalists, and the extent of the media coverage of a pro-lifer’s comment will often be proportional to how self-destructive it is. Todd Akin’s gaffe is now more widely remembered than Henry Hyde’s entire career. This dynamic raises the costs for pro-lifers while allowing radical pro-choice politicians to fudge their records. Obama does not have to worry about many follow-up questions regarding his history with the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.
That is where a well-funded media campaign could be so helpful. A media campaign can act as a heat taker. Many people did not want to hear about gay marriage either, and it was not the rhetoric of politicians that was most responsible for shifting public opinion on that issue. Messages in the wider culture made people aware of the arguments for gay marriage. Those arguments were made by people who were not running for office. They did not have to worry (as a politician would) about seeming obsessed with the issue. They could focus on making the public aware of the arguments.
It would not matter if journalists, entertainers, and Democratic politicians denounced a media campaign that focused on the humanity of the late-term fetus. It would only matter that the information got out, that more people visually identified the late-term fetus as a human being, and that the American people knew about politicians who would allow those children to be destroyed at will. It would also make it easier for pro-life candidates to talk about abortion. Right now, for some fraction of the population, all they know about a pro-lifer’s position on abortion is what they hear during a debate. Two minutes is too short for all but the most talented politician to start a conversation and explain a policy agenda in a hostile environment. If more of the public were aware of the arguments for incremental abortion restrictions (and the reality of late-term abortion), a pro-life candidate would not have to start from square one as to either sentiment or policy.
Pro-life donors could make it easier for pro-life politicians to talk about abortion. Pro-life donors could raise the political costs for pro-choice radicalism. Pro-life donors could change minds and help change policy. They would finally be getting something for their money.
— Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.