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New antiabortion strategy should ‘lead in steps’

One of the more telling photographs to run on the front page of NCR in the past decade showed five U.S. cardinals seated in a row at the 1993 March for Life in Washington on a temporary stage set up in front of the White House. At the podium, brows furrowed and making a point with a clenched fist, is Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

The photograph freezes a deeply disturbing and embarrassing moment for the U.S. church -- some of its most powerful leaders in the compromising position of appearing to be led by Helms, a manipulative and crafty politician who had the church where he wanted it.

That was always the problem with the bishops’ antiabortion strategy. Someone else always had the church where they wanted it, and the church was not only out of place, but it got almost nothing that it wanted.

As the culture observes the 25th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that established a woman’s “fundamental right” to abortion, the photo of the bishops and Helms should be hung in every chancery office as a reminder of how quickly and cynically Washington operatives can spend your political capital and deliver little in return.

As Pamela Schaeffer’s report last issue made clear, antiabortion forces appear to be changing tactics. “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,” Schaeffer wrote.

In the words of William Bennett, a former Reagan administration official and a high-profile activist against abortion, the strategy is based on “what the culture will give us.” And, in his assessment, it will give a lot. The polls consistently have shown that, away from the shrill voices on either edge of the debate, there is broad cultural consensus that, while people do not favor a legal ban on abortion, they also believe that far too many abortions are being performed and that there should be more common-sense medical controls governing the procedure.

Basing a strategy on such consensus may not satisfy those who believe that the only acceptable resolution to the abortion debate is a total ban. It is noteworthy that in a speech to the Catholic Campaign for America, a group closely aligned with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party as well as with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, Bennett received polite applause for his suggestion.

At the same meeting, the most extreme voices -- Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition, and New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith -- preached a no-compromise approach to the issue and brought down the house. It will take some restraint to build on what the culture will give.

One of those who was influenced by Bennett’s speech was Sam Lee, a 20-year veteran of the antiabortion movement. According to Schaeffer’s account, Lee said he came to the conviction that “our movement needs to be more inclusive. I now think the way to lead people to embrace our position is to lead in steps.”

In the past, NCR has been accused by the right fringe of being pro-abortion. The accusation is simply wrong. We have consistently advocated a different approach, one that is less accusatory and punitive and more intent on persuasion and on finding a solution in a more measured way.

On May 10, 1996, NCR wrote in this space:

“Perhaps it is time to set a new course, instead of continuing a policy that has both alienated the bishops from political progressives ... and has sometimes placed the bishops in bed with some of the most unsavory political conservatives.

“A far healthier and potentially more effective approach would be to work to build a broad-based coalition movement aimed at reducing the number of abortions in America. This effort would have to be inclusive and nonjudgmental. It would have to be open to all those who believe that 1.5 million U.S. abortions annually represents serious moral and social failure.”

Helen Alvare, the tireless spokesperson for the bishops on abortion-related issues, told Schaeffer that she also senses that the culture is ready to be nudged away from “a permissive abortion stance” and that activists “are becoming acutely aware of the various and complex problems that lead women to seek abortions.”

During the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations -- nearly half the time since Roe v. Wade -- the Catholic church, in the person of many bishops, concentrated most of its energy in influencing the political process. There is no kind way to describe the outcome. The bishops were used, shamelessly.

For all their troubles, they got nothing on abortion and the rest of their social agenda was kicked aside.

It is time to stop rewarding politicians like Helms and conferring legitimacy on ultra-right religious groups whose activities have nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels or with Catholic social teaching.

It is time to tap the energy of loyal Catholics who would be willing to work on real programs to contain and reduce abortions, who understand the complex problems that lead women to seek abortions, and who do not want to be associated with simplistic and angry all-or-nothing tactics or with the most extreme political programs.

The 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade should mark a clear opportunity for voices of compassion and reason.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 1998