Sunday, February 17, 2013
[University of St. Thomas law prof Chuck Reid has asked me to post this statement, and I am happy to do so.]
In my abortion columns written over the last five months, I have made it clear that I do not disagree in principle with the propositions that life begins at conception and that it is deserving of legal protection. My quarrels have been, rather, with the political strategies of the pro-life movement, as it has evolved over the last four decades.
Many readers have noticed this. A commenter on one my Huffington Post columns observed (I paraphrase): Reid's proposal to cooperate on a shared agenda with the left to reduce the rate of abortion is probably the only way forward for the pro-life movement. But this observer, who acknowledged that he/she was pro-choice, continued by noting that the pro-life movement would never follow. And then there were the editors at the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, who profiled my work in an article entitled "Changing Strategy on the Culture of Life." The editors certainly understood my work to speak to strategy, not principle. So, let's be clear upfront, my concern is centered in the world of prudential judgment, it is a matter of how to succeed given today's political realities. It is not an argument over first principles. As I have made very clear, the pro-life movement should be about saving lives in the here and now.
I have known women who have experienced the tragedy of abortion. There was the Jewish woman who received the grim news early in her pregnancy that her child was anacephalic -- developing without a head. The child could be expected to survive no more than a few hours post partum, if that. She was devastated and looked to the teachings of her faith which made it clear to her lights that abortion was recommended in such extreme cases to limit needless suffering. And then there were the Catholic women, several of them, I became acquainted with during my service as a matrimonial judge. None of them wanted to have an abortion. But they were lonely, desperate, their spirits crushed by boyfriends and families who abandoned them. Alone, lacking financial and emotional resources, they chose a solution for which they were truly sorry but which seemed inevitable at the time.
These vivid life experiences have taught me that the common denominator to the choice to have an abortion is desperation. I have yet to meet a woman who chose abortion to satisfy some desire for greater material resources. I am sure there are some who decide that they will never get that Mercedes Benz if they have a hungry mouth to feed, but those women are few in number. Desperation, hopelessness, a fear of being left alone in the world without means of assuming the responsibilities of childcare -- these are the great causes of abortion. Individual pro-lifers, and organizations such as pro-life pregnancy centers to which individuals devote their time, have recognized this, to their great credit. But the political strategy of the pro-life movement has failed to recognize it, and indeed increasingly stands in the way of it.
As I pointed out in one of my blogs, the modern pro-life movement sprang into being in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, in the early and middle 1970s. Its first serious involvement in politics came in the 1976 presidential election. Several presidential candidates made it clear that they were pro-life in at least a qualified sense of that term -- Sargent Shriver, Jimmy Carter, and George Wallace among the Democrats, and Ronald Reagan among the Republicans. Wallace and Reagan were the only two candidates who supported a human life amendment reversing Roe v. Wade and extending constitutional protection for fetal life. Critics at the time questioned whether Wallace and Reagan were acting out of expedience. Wallace looked like he was willing to try anything to energize a flagging campaign. Reagan, who actually repudiated a liberal abortion statute he had signed only a few years before as Governor of California, looked just as eager to find allies where he could take them in his challenge to a sitting President, Gerald Ford.
Whatever his initial motives, Reagan, at least, remained a steadfast supporter of the pro-life cause for the balance of his public career. His forces at the Republican National Convention succeeded in writing into the Party's platform a pledge to support a human life amendment to the Constitution reversing Roe v. Wade and guaranteeing protection for fetal life.
In retrospect, the 1980s were the halcyon days of the pro-life movement. Commentators across the spectrum voiced pro-life concerns. Nat Hentoff, the civil libertarian, joined forces with William F. Buckley. Jesse Jackson, Sr., contributed to the National Right to Life News. An interesting and eclectic group of Democratic office-holders -- Bob Casey most prominently, but also including Jim Oberstar of Minnesota -- sustained the movement on the left side of the political aisle.
This bi-partisanship has died out over the last two decades. Yes, there has been a hardening of views among Democrats. But the pro-life movement itself bears some of the blame. Its debates have lost touch with reality. Yes, it is all and well and good to insist on litmus tests -- rape and incest exceptions are the pro-life litmus test. The only reason Republican politicians succeeded in winning elections while taking an absolutist stance on rape and incest is because the voters by and large did not believe them. The voting public has always wanted to split the difference -- outlawing some means and methods of abortion while retaining others. (When the public realized a Republican Party politician was serious about denying access to abortion in cases of rape and incest, as was the case with Todd Akin of Missouri, even many ostensible conservative voters found themselves unable to offer support).
What has happened to the pro-life movement, in other words, is that it has backed itself into a comfortable and convenient cul-de-sac. It has become a small and exclusive circle that speaks to itself but has lost the ability to persuade the larger world. This is ironic, given the pro-life sympathies of large numbers of Americans. The pro-life movement has succeeded in persuading many of the importance of fetal life. Advancing medical technology has also played a role – sonograms and fetal monitors make the unborn child’s life vividly real. But voters are not ready to ban abortion in all circumstances, nor are they prepared to criminalize abortion. A black-and-white approach, prudentially and practically, is not the way to sway voters who appreciate the shades of gray.
How do we salvage the pro-life movement in a secular world where the voting public is sophisticated and nuanced in its approach to abortion and is motivated to vote for many reasons besides the life issues? I happen to think that this is an important question. I personally would like to see abortion disappear. And even though I know that this goal is not possible, I would like to work to minimize the number of abortions that actually happen in this country. I don't want the best to be the enemy of the good.
The pro-life movement, as presently constituted, will not succeed. Indeed, my deepest fear is that the movement will drift into total irrelevance as the once vital Prohibition Party has done. The pro-life cause, in other words, needs revitalization.
The first step of revitalization is to take account of the political landscape. A narrowly partisan pro-life movement has failed in its most clearly-stated aim -- the appointment of a sufficient number of pro-life justices to reverse Roe v. Wade. A Supreme Court with a consistent Republican majority has never been able to muster sufficient votes to accomplish this task. It should not be forgotten that the Supreme Court in Casey v. Planned Parenthood was 8 -- 1 Republican. And that the only Democratic appointment on that Court, Byron White, voted to reverse Roe. Indeed, in the forty years since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has always enjoyed a membership that has been majority Republican. If a majority could not be found in the circumstances of Casey and if a majority of justices lacks the will to reverse Roe today, it seems visionary to think that the strategy of changing the composition of the Court will ever succeed in reversing Roe. (It is true that Republican courts have been more sympathetic to incremental restrictions on abortion, but the argument could be made that a more bi-partisan pro-life movement might result in the appointment of Democratic judges more inclined to uphold incremental restrictions).
So, if reliance on the Republican Party has failed to achieve its promised goal, what then? It is my opinion that the time has come for bi-partisan cooperation on things that we can influence. And that is to strike at the root cause of abortion -- desperation. Empirical evidence is at hand -- abortion rates in large parts of Western Europe are one-half to one-third the rates experienced in America. Why? The abortion laws are, for the most part, as liberal in Europe as in the United States. There are probably multiple reasons for these differences, but on major explanation must be that Europe provides a robust social safety net for women in crisis. Subsidized day-care, intense early childhood development and enrichment programs, a dense network of government and private agencies ready to meet needs for housing, for food, for counseling, don't we want these things for at-risk children? Reduce desperation, and you reduce abortion.
The Democrats have always been the Party more likely to promote the creation of such programs. My personal quest is to see a million pro-lifers joining Democratic Party ranks, not as sell-outs to the cause of pro-life, but as eager cooperators in building the just social structures that can reduce America's tragically high rates of abortion. I can imagine such a group of pro-life Democrats serving as leaven within that Party, as effective witnesses for life, as reminders that life is more than the material world around us, that we are transcendent beings with souls worthy of respect. To revert to that anonymous commenter's observation I noted at the outset -- this is truly the only way forward.