Fighting for Life—A New Path?

2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark “Roe v. Wade” ruling which paved the way for more than a generation of legalized abortion in the United States. Although all of the justices that participated in this sad verdict have either retired or died in the interim, it would be wrong to suggest that abortion’s days might be numbered simply because a new group of judges could lean against the practice. Some observers have suggested that January’s March for Life in Washington was the largest such annual observance and the number of young activists gives hope for the future that the battle is not lost.

After four decades of precedent, practice, and the entitlement that grows with them, the thought that a simple majority of the Supreme Court or state legislatures could legislate away abortion seems misplaced. Ultimately abortion and other pro-life concerns are moral issues that can only be protected and defended by those who are conscientiously bound to them. Having a society in which citizens place a high value on the dignity of life can’t be created by law but only through ethical and moral instruction and personal reflection.

Many veteran observers of Washington and state-level politics have declared the legality of abortion to be a set matter after 40 years. However, polling data suggests there is still a sizeable portion of Americans opposed to the practice and even those who support some access to abortion appear uncomfortable with it. According to Gallup, only 28% of Americans believe abortion should be legal under “any circumstances.” A clear majority (52%) support a right to abortion “under certain circumstances.” The “circumstances” weren’t outlined in the poll. Sadly, 61% of those who support some legal access to abortion say it is permissible in the first trimester of pregnancy, the number plummets to 27% in the second trimester and a mere 14% in the third trimester. Another sign that Americans are psychologically or morally uncomfortable with abortion is that only 44% of those polled by Gallup self-identify as “pro-choice,” as opposed to 48% who describe themselves as pro-life. It appears, however, from the tenor of political advertising that pro-choice proponents use the “outlaw all abortions” club to beat pro-life candidates since the majority of voters want some access to abortion, however restricted. Politically this strategy seems to pay-off due to a misconception in the public in which hardship cases (i.e. pregnancy through rape or incest, threat to mother’s life, identification of probable birth defects) are mistakenly thought to be more prominent. In reality, the Alan Guttmacher Institute interviews with women who have had abortions reported that those scenarios constitute perhaps no more than 5%—and possibly as little as 1%—of all abortions. The reasons given most frequently were “unready for responsibility,” “can’t afford baby now,” and “concern for how baby would change her life.” While pro-life activists may work for, or try to influence, a legislative or judicial end to abortion, the only way to really reduce the numbers of women seeking abortions is to show compassion, respect, and be supportive to offer alternatives at a desperate time for many.

All pro-life organizations must renounce violence, take a less confrontational approach, and in my opinion, reduce the amount of graphic imagery often displayed on placards and literature. The simple act of abortion—the deliberate killing of an innocent unborn human being—is chilling enough to need be so in-your-face. If that weren’t enough, many women who have had abortions carry pain, both physical (from injuries during the abortion procedure) and emotional, for long periods of time afterward, as they inevitably come to terms in some manner with their actions. Simply and respectfully talking to the often poor and frightened women who seek out the clinics without raised voices is a better approach than looking for conflict or passing judgment. Funding or volunteering at an abortion alternative clinic is a powerful option for a pro-life activist. These centers can provide real help to the women in need by making available the myriad of resources available (counseling, adoption choices, pre-natal care, etc.) if they have a change of heart or just need support. If foes of abortion still need to rely on powerful testimonies about the horror of the practice, organizations like Pro-Life Action League have collected the stories of former abortionists, nurses, and clinic owners who became disenchanted with their involvement.

Pro-lifers would also do well to connect their opposition to abortion to other issues in which the dignity of life is being whittled away at. A society that treats its most vulnerable members—be they babies, the disabled, the aged, etc.—with disdain is not a healthy society. Pro-lifers will need to reflect whether their positioning on the political Right actually works against their aims. The government at state and federal levels can and should pay a role in developing more family-friendly practices that can make a vital difference in whether a woman sees an abortion as a viable option if she is in distress financially. According to Guttmacher, 42% of women who have abortions have incomes below 100% of the Federal poverty level guidelines. An additional 27% have incomes at 100% - 199% below the level. Enacting such simple legislation as raising the minimum wage and tying its rate to inflation (a measure that even the Romney campaign supported) might make some women feel less inclined to consider an abortion due to her financial straits. Enacting more options and support for family and pregnancy leave in the workplace would also make pregnancies—especially unintended ones—less onerous for women. Many states fund “alternatives to abortion” agencies that can reduce the practice. These are just the kind of social services that may be slashed by the current political associates of pro-life activists who recoil at just about any service government provides.

Besides taking a long look at their political alignment, pro-lifers should look more closely at where they can find ways to collaborate with other activists concerned about the dignity of life. The Consistent Life Ethic movement has been working to unite people across the political spectrum—anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, peace/disarmament, etc.—to support an overall social justice path. Can we see a day when the opponents of abortion might confer with those seeking a reduction in gun violence and sensible firearm restrictions? Let us pray and work for a more just society with less violence in all its forms.  

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk G. Morrison is involved with organizing the American Solidarity Party.