Politics & Policy

The Case for Pro-Life Optimism

Yes, Obama's election is a setback, but things aren't so bad as they seem.

The pro-life movement is despondent. During the recent election cycle, pro-lifers incurred a series of disappointing political defeats, culminating in the election of a president who steadfastly supports keeping abortion legal. Furthermore, some pundits suggest that the Republican party’s pro-life stance hurt its candidates, and thus the party should take a more moderate position.

Worse, the new president has pledged to support the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would give the legislative and executive branches’ seal of approval to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and roll back many of the pro-life movement’s hard-fought gains. Because of the recent electoral losses in the U.S. Senate, the pro-life movement is desperately scrambling to find 41 senators to mount a successful filibuster.

Is this the dystopian scenario we face today? Nope. What I have just described is the political landscape in 1993, the last time the pro-life movement found itself in the political wilderness. There were plenty of reasons for pessimism at the time, but the movement refused to give up and went on to make some very impressive gains during the 1990s–gains that remain today, and should give pro-lifers plenty of hope for the future.

One such gain is Republican strength at the state level. After the 1992 election, Republicans held control of both chambers of the state legislature in only eight states. After the 1994 election, Republicans gained control in eleven additional states, for a total of 19. Even though Republicans have fared poorly during the past two elections, this number has only dropped to 15.

This bodes well because states play a leading role in enacting pro-life legislation. Since 1992, approximately 17 states have enacted parental-involvement laws. Also, 28 states have adopted informed-consent laws, which give women seeking abortions information about fetal development, sources of support for single mothers, and potential health risks incurred by obtaining an abortion. And 24 states have enacted waiting periods. A number of articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals (and my own studies released by the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council) have found that many of these pro-life laws succeed in reducing abortion.

Further, the effort by pro-lifers to ban partial-birth abortion during the 1990s resulted in some small, but resilient, changes in public opinion. In particular, noticeably fewer Americans support abortion on demand. This shift produced real political results: Serious efforts to remove the pro-life plank from the Republican party platform have fizzled, and Democrats have tried to distance themselves from the abortion issue and do more, at least rhetorically, to reach out to pro-lifers. Neither Barack Obama nor John Kerry even mentioned his support for legal abortion in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Yet another reason for optimism: While the pro-life movement has not always invested a lot of resources in youth outreach, Students for Life of America (SFLA) has taken up the slack during the past few years. SFLA’s field program, which sends out representatives to help launch campus pro-life groups, has been very successful. Last year SFLA helped start pro-life groups on 94 different campuses. Currently, it estimates, there are 480 active campus pro-life groups in the country. Furthermore, its annual conference typically draws over 500 students. This year’s conference, which will be held this coming Saturday at Catholic University of America, might be even larger.

The pro-life movement has also reached out to women facing crisis pregnancies. The Silent No More campaign provides powerful testimonies from women who have suffered emotional and physical pain after undergoing abortions. Feminists for Life has made great progress in urging a number of college campuses to be more accommodating for single mothers. The Vitae Caring Foundation has conducted important research about the best ways of approaching women who are facing crisis pregnancies. It has effectively used this information in its nationwide television ad campaigns.

Other crucial bits of information in the abortion debate come from ultrasound technology–which has improved markedly since the early 1990s. In fact, many people’s first photo of their son, daughter, niece, or nephew was taken while the child was still in utero. Additionally, many crisis-pregnancy centers use ultrasound technology–and they report that only a small percentage of women who see an ultrasound of their unborn child go on to obtain abortions. Furthermore, 14 states have enacted abortion legislation that involves ultrasounds. Some states require only that hospitals offer ultrasounds to women seeking abortions, but four (Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana) require that ultrasounds be performed prior to abortions. There are currently not enough data to evaluate the effectiveness of these laws, but there is a good chance that they are an effective tool for protecting the unborn.

As the pro-life movement has gained ground, Planned Parenthood has faced more scrutiny. The organization is America’s largest provider of abortions, but for a long time it remained relatively uncontroversial except in pro-life circles. That is starting to change. Last spring, 189 members of the House of Representatives voted for Mike Pence’s amendment to make Planned Parenthood ineligible for Title X Family Planning funds. Also last spring, Lila Rose, a UCLA junior, produced undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood employees violating parental-involvement laws and failing to report cases of statutory rape.

All these changes would mean nothing if they did not achieve results, but in fact the number of abortions has declined. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of abortions performed in the United States peaked in 1990 and has declined nearly every year since that time. Among the 47 states reporting abortion data in both 1990 and 2005, the number of abortions had fallen by 22 percent. Many states that passed pro-life legislation have experienced even larger declines.

The thousands of pro-lifers heading to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life this week need not despair. The 2008 elections were certainly a setback, and pro-lifers need to be vigilant about countering the Obama administration’s inevitable efforts to expand legal abortion (at home and abroad). Fighting for the sanctity of life is seldom an easy task. In fact, enacting and enforcing pro-life laws and changing the culture are battles that will likely engage the right-to-life movement for years to come. However, as pro-lifers gather to protest the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should take heart. Despite the setbacks, we have made real progress. And there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

– Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.


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