Washington, D.C. — The last time the pro-life movement achieved a major policy win was at the turn of the century, when the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. Though incremental abortion restrictions have found a foothold in many states, the pro-life cause is routinely stymied and shunted at the federal level. Politicians on the left have radicalized on the issue even as politicians on the right have grown increasingly wary of talking about it at all.
And yet this morning, the foot soldiers of the pro-life cause are marching once again. They’ve shown up in Washington, as they do every year, to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
In recent decades, the anti-abortion movement has mustered more sustained political energy than most other causes, despite being largely frozen out of the highest levels of our politics. It takes unique perseverance to continue to show up at the table, decade after decade, despite losing almost constantly on nearly every one of its major policy objectives.
The people lingering on the National Mall have no reason to believe that their demonstration will effect immediate change in public policy. They have no reason to believe that the media will pay them any heed or give their cause its due. They have no reason to believe that, if they board buses from California and Nebraska and North Carolina, spend nights trekking the long miles to the nation’s capital, and stand in the snow for hours, the killing of innocent unborn children will cease.
But for 45 years, they have shown up anyway. Why do they do it?
They say they want the government to protect the right to life of every human being, including the unborn. They march on behalf of a class of human beings that can do absolutely nothing for them. They demonstrate for a cause that has nothing, ostensibly, to do with their own quality of life. Theirs is a movement motivated by selflessness.
Give them more, they say.
Those who lobby for the government-enshrined right to abortion, by contrast, want the power to eliminate the consequences of living a libertine sexual lifestyle. They want abortion available as last-ditch emergency contraception, the ultimate backstop against personal responsibility. They want to codify a woman’s ability to exercise bodily autonomy not only over herself but over the independent body within hers.
Give me more, they say.
Proponents of abortion rights would have you believe that the pro-life position is a lie, that the March for Life is a frightening freak show. They insist that opposition to abortion is motivated by a desire to control women’s bodies, to empower the government to dictate and proscribe personal choices. The fashionable progressive tactic is to dismiss pro-life activism as dominated by men eager to preserve their privilege and power by subjugating women.
They say the pro-life movement dreams of a Handmaid’s Tale world.
Are we to believe, then, that thousands of pro-life women — for there are women here, by the thousands — return to Washington every year because they are desperate to eliminate their own rights? This is an obvious, inherent tension in the core propositions of the pro-choice position. They insist simultaneously that women are autonomous individuals capable of thinking for themselves and that any woman who supports the right to life of the unborn does so only because she has been tricked by a cabal of men into lobbying against her own rights.
But, surrounded by thousands of men and children holding signs that say “Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman,” these women stubbornly choose to appear on the National Mall every January, for little political reward and no personal gain. If the pro-life movement is a long con, it is one of the least effective in history.
The pro-life movement presents what seems like a paradox. On one hand, its advocates have suffered a string of defeats, disadvantaged at the outset by having to fight abortion in the landscape Roe created. There has been a slow, minimal decline in the abortion rate, but federal law remains inhospitable to pro-life goals, and the pressure in liberal circles to adopt a no-exceptions defense of “reproductive rights” has intensified. Yet this movement, a supposed relic of a bygone era, has nevertheless persisted.
How to resolve it? It’s simple. These thousands of marchers believe what they say: that every fetus is a unique human being with the fundamental right to life, a right on which all of our other rights are predicated. What sustains the pro-life movement is that it has truth on its side.