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Strange reversal

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared on Jan. 22, 1973, that women have a “fundamental right” to abortion, the ruling set off a vociferous and protracted battle marked by demonstrations and sloganeering, sit-ins and arrests, a barrage of legal challenges and, at the lowest point, bombings and shootings at abortion clinics.

Hardly a recipe for a successful society, according to James Davison Hunter, sociologist at the University of Virginia, who expressed deep concern for the future of the American enterprise in his book Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (Free Press, 1994).

Today, at the approach of the 25th anniversary of the ruling, some abortion foes, conceding defeat of their expectations that the landmark 1973 ruling would soon be overturned, are adopting new strategies for the long haul. A more seasoned, inclusive approach has shifted efforts away from a dramatic, all-out judicial or political victory and toward a broad moral consensus that abortion, if legal, should at least be contained.

The new strategy acknowledges the complexity of emotions and opinions on the issue, emphasizes moral persuasion over legal change and seeks ways to reduce abortions by channeling resources to pregnant women.

A series of developments “have really matured the movement,” said Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for U.S. Catholic bishops on abortion-related issues. Activists “are becoming acutely aware of the various and complex problems that lead women to seek abortions.”

The developments Alvare refers to include some small victories in court battles that compensate for the big defeat. All but 10 states now impose some restriction on minors seeking abortions, usually requiring parental notification or consent. Nineteen states have imposed a mandatory waiting period for women seeking abortions, and all but 17 states and the District of Columbia oppose public funding for abortions. Such state-imposed restrictions have been upheld by two Supreme Court decisions subsequent to Roe v. Wade: Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.

Nevertheless, activists were stunned and chastened -- and some ultimately convinced of the need for new strategies -- when a conservative Supreme Court declined in Casey to overturn Roe v. Wade, despite a plea from the Bush administration to do so.

A major development benefiting the antiabortion cause, according to Alvare and others, is the recent and ongoing national debate over the late-term abortion procedure labeled “partial-birth abortion” by its opponents. Although the procedure remains legal as a result of President Clinton’s veto in October of a Senate-imposed ban, abortion foes contend the issue has helped shift public opinion to their side.

“People are thinking more than before that they don’t like what abortion does to the child, and they don’t want to be on the side of that,” Alvare said.

Technology that allows physicians to monitor the growth of a fetus and other developments in neonatal care have also had an effect, “nudging people away from a permissive abortion stance,” she said. Citing polls that show that only 10 percent of the U.S. population subscribes to abortion on demand, Alvare said, “Certainly the population is ripe for considering forbidding more abortions than are presently forbidden.”

Help from ‘opposing camp’
Strong signals that that might indeed be the case have come from a surprising quarter: the opposing camp. Writing in The New York Times on April 3 of last year, and before that, in the Oct. 16, 1995, issue of The New Republic, feminist author Naomi Wolf called for a radical shift in language and philosophy by those who share her support for legal abortion. She urged abortion rights activists to acknowledge the moral implications of legal abortion.

“What if we transformed our language to reflect the spiritual perceptions of most Americans?” she asked in The New York Times. “What if we called abortion what many believe it to be: a failure? ... What if we called policies that sustain, tolerate and even guarantee the highest abortion rate of any industrialized nation what they should be called: crimes against women?”

In “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” the title of her article in The New Republic, Wolf sounded for all the world like Pope John Paul II when she castigated the abortion rights movement for a predilection for euphemism. When abortion rights activists denounce abortion foes for displaying images of fetuses and for using tiny feet as symbols of their campaign, then, said Wolf, abortion rights activists are “making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision.”

Noting that the photos of fetuses and the imprints of tiny feet are real images that should not be denied, she wrote, “Strong women presumably do not seek to cloak their most important decision in euphemism.” An abortion clinic that is “truly feminist” and “respects women” allows women to have not only an abortion but to face honestly “their sense of sin,” she said.

Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, decried the use of euphemisms in the debate. “Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception,” he wrote. “Especially in the case of abortion, there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as ‘interruption of pregnancy,’ which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion.”

Wolf said the abortion rights movement will ultimately enhance its appeal by a moral approach. “By refusing to look at abortion within a moral framework, we lose the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity,” she wrote.

The prevalence of “amoral rhetoric” -- words like “rights” and “choice” -- weakens the movement politically “because we lose the center,” she said. She urged feminists “to make room” for conversations about the moral framework of abortion.

Indeed, a group gaining attention for its recent renaissance is Feminists for Life, a 25-year-old organization that opposes abortion, along with capital punishment and euthanasia, as forms of violence and discrimination incompatible with a feminist ethic of justice. Serrin M. Foster, executive director, argues that abortion rights groups and abortion clinics are antifeminist when they fail to give women full information about the potential psychological and physical risks of abortion and about available alternative resources.

As part of its broad efforts to support women who want to become mothers, Feminists for Life became part of an unprecedented coalition between activists on both sides of the abortion issue during debates over welfare reform. The organization joined abortion rights groups to fight a freeze on benefits for women who bore additional children while receiving welfare.

Foster, hired three years ago when Feminists for Life moved to Washington, said she believes the group is “turning a corner” in efforts to show that abortion is alien to true feminism, taking up an argument that Catholic feminist Sidney Callahan put forth more than a decade ago. “What concerns me most about pro-lifers is that for so many years we’ve only done more of what never worked in the first place: yell, scream, alienate rather than helping people to rethink the issue,” Foster said.

As part of its strategy, Feminists for Life publicizes writings of early American feminists who crusaded for woman’s suffrage and were strongly opposed to abortion. The organization’s recent literature promotes participation in the 25th annual March for Life under the slogan “Marching in the Shoes of Our Feminist Foremothers.” March for Life is an antiabortion protest held annually in Washington since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Sam Lee, a 20-year antiabortion activist from St. Louis, agrees with Foster’s negative characterization of the movement’s image. “Pro-lifers have had a siege mentality,” he said. “I look at them, I love them dearly, but I ask myself, ‘Why would anyone want to join?’ ”

Formerly a leader in an effort that involved sit-ins at abortion clinics, now a self-employed lobbyist whose spiritual sensibilities are rooted in the Catholic left, Lee figures heavily in two new social histories of the antiabortion movement being published to mark the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. (See story, page 5.)

Initially, Lee said, antiabortion leaders put their hopes in various legal possibilities that would produce the dramatic change: a constitutional amendment to protect human life from the moment of conception; appointment to the Supreme Court, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, of conservatives who would look unfavorably on Roe v. Wade; court challenges to federal law that would give jurisdiction over abortion back to the states; and, finally, hope for legislative change in a Republican Congress.

It hasn’t happened.

While Lee intends to continue working for political change, he now thinks the political focus falls short. “I’m looking back on the past 25 years ... when many people, including myself, have worked for a political solution to a moral problem. But I think that in recent years there’s a growing understanding in the pro-life community that we need to help bring about broader changes in society,” he said. “If all we do in the pro-life movement is talk about the issue in political terms, people will think of it as a political issue rather than as a moral issue.”

Lee said he had been influenced both by a speech by William J. Bennett, secretary of education during the Reagan administration and a staunch abortion opponent, as well as by the pope’s Evangelium Vitae, both of which stress the need for underscoring the moral and spiritual dimensions of the issue and for providing compassionate support for women facing difficult life decisions.

“Our movement needs to be more inclusive,” he said. “I now think the way to lead people to embrace our position is to lead in steps.” He said he is beginning to think the best hope for the antiabortion movement may be in supporting women and “creating alternatives” to abortion.

A recent lobbying success Lee is proud of is a 50 percent tax credit for Missourians who give money to shelters for pregnant women. He hopes such bills, capable of drawing support from Democrats who would never support traditional antiabortion legislation, he said, will become a national model.

Working for ‘containment’
Bennett’s speech, delivered to the Catholic Campaign for America on Nov. 17, 1995, cites a book by historian Marvin Olasky, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, which tells the story of abortion in America before Roe v. Wade. Olasky reported that at the time of the Civil War, the rate of abortion in the United States was the same as it is today but was significantly reduced when activists began offering shelter and other kinds of support to women in trouble. This “life-affirming” model of “containment,” Bennett said, “is precisely the model antiabortion advocates should look to and learn from.”

Lee said he is convinced that is true -- although he realizes, he said, that many in the antiabortion movement would deride him for settling for too little. “This is a complete reversal of what I used to think,” he said. “It would have been heresy in the pro-life movement a few years ago and still is today among some pro-lifers.”

Lee’s rethinking is an example of what James Kelly, sociologist at Fordham and longtime analyst of the antiabortion movement, is seeing: considerable change in the approach to abortion, “mostly on the right to life side.”

“I am on the mailing list of almost all of the groups,” he said. “Without actually stating it, most of them are looking at the issue now in ways that securely link concern for the fetus with concern for women.” When the movement began 25 years ago, the focus was more on “sanctity of life” and “rights of the fetus” rather than concern for women, he said. Organizations such as Birthright, which provide services to women who want to keep their child, had a minor role in the movement, he said.

According to Alvare, the number of crisis pregnancy centers that provide services to women has grown dramatically over the years -- from less than 300 in the early 1970s to about 3,400 today, she said. Further, more than 100 U.S. dioceses have adopted Project Rachel, a post-abortion reconciliation program that helps women to work through conflicting emotions, including grief.

Kelly said he is impressed by the continued energy and creativity in the antiabortion movement -- energy “that you don’t really find on the pro-choice side,” he said. That observation is verified by a recent article in Fortune listing the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington as ranked by 2,200 Congressional insiders. Two groups that oppose abortion, the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee, ranked seventh and 10th, respectively. No abortion rights groups ranked in the top 25. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League -- NARAL -- is “lost in the crowd,” ranking 43rd, said author Jeffrey Birnbaum. “Maybe it’s because conservative groups often are better funded or that their members are more intensely committed to their cause,” he said. “Or maybe the reason is that Republicans control Congress.”

Fordham’s Kelly is a board member of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which has sponsored discussions among activists on both sides and holds out the possibility for activities rooted in common goals. Such efforts are challenging to people on both sides because it forces them to ask, “What does the integrity of my principles require?” he said.

Mary Jacksteit, director of the Common Ground Network, cites preventing teen pregnancy and encouraging adoption as goals both sides might share. There are values and agendas in both camps that can be furthered by cooperation, she said, “without requiring them to oppose one another. People are beginning to realize that they might have more success in achieving some of their common goals if the other group also supports them -- if, to put it crassly, they recognize, ‘Yes, there is something in it for me’ “ if both sides get together.

Even Kate Michelman, director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, has said that the league favors efforts to support women so that abortion becomes less necessary. But in practical terms, according to Michelman, abortion rights activists are forced to direct a lot of their energy toward legislation and courts to protect the legal option of abortion.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, urges renewed efforts to protect legal abortion in an era of increasing restrictions, to not back off of “rights” language in regard to women. At the same time, she said, proponents of legal abortion need to pay more attention to moral issues.

An uncomfortable space
“The space between what is legal and what is right needs to be filled,” Kissling wrote in the winter issue of Conscience, the journal published by her organization. “The area of moral uncertainty can be decidedly uncomfortable” for abortion rights activists, yet should be addressed. “We must lead a more meaningful public conversation about the morality of abortion. To believe that there is a fundamental right to choose abortion is not the same as believing that there are no moral dilemmas worthy of debate.”

Ironically, Kelly said, if efforts at real cooperation take root, they will have been made possible by Webster and Casey, the court cases of 1989 and 1992 that declared no clear victory for either side. Because the prospect for total victory or defeat is gone, “moral imagination and creativity” around the issue, including coalitions unthinkable in the past, may be a trend for the future, he said.

For sociologist James Davison Hunter, that trend holds out possibilities for more than the nation’s abortion war. At stake, he writes, is the revitalization of America’s public life, with consequences for divisions over other painful issues, including race, poverty, education and homosexuality -- indeed, he says, for the survival of democracy as an ideal and perhaps the survival of America as a nation.

Davison believes resolution of conflicts will involve deep soul-searching and honest discussion, however inefficient and tedious. He urges exploring issues in their multiple dimensions, allowing room for all voices and resisting the impulse to solve serious social problems primarily through power politics.

“In the special case of abortion, we may discover that the question is not about women versus unborn children but about what kind of society it is that creates this kind of forced selection to begin with,” he wrote. “The same of course holds for all the conflicts America endures in the end of the 20th century: They may all reflect false choices. It is only in the renewal of substantive democracy, however, that we will find out.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 1998