The Magazine

The Times They Are a-Changin'

Don't look now, but the pro-life movement is winning.

May 1, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 31 • By MARJORIE DANNENFELSER
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THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT has witnessed a stunning turnaround over the past 10 years. A decade ago, on the heels of a 1992 election season dubbed "the year of the woman," the movement was deeply engaged in the fight on Capitol Hill to stop passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation that would have enshrined in law the "right" to abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy for any reason or no reason. With the pro-abortion Clintons in the White House appointing radical abortion-rights advocates to the Supreme Court and rolling back Reagan-Bush era executive orders limiting abortion, the pro-life movement clearly was on the defensive.

Today, the landscape looks very different indeed. Two new conservative jurists sit on the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John Roberts. Sandra Day O'Connor has been replaced by Samuel Alito. This is a potentially important development considering that O'Connor cast the deciding vote in the Stenberg v. Carhart partial-birth abortion decision and was the author of the "undue burden" test--an absurdly subjective standard that precludes almost any reasonable limit on the so-called "woman's right to choose."

The new Roberts court recently ruled in an 8-0 decision that statutes meant to fight organized crime racketeering could not be used against pro-life protesters convicted of violating trespass laws at abortion clinics. The court also declined to strike down a New Hampshire law requiring that parents be notified before their minor daughters obtain abortions, sending the case back to the circuit court for further review and chastising the lower court for overreaching on its decision overruling the Granite State statute. And another partial-birth abortion case is in the judicial pipeline and headed for the Supreme Court. Unlike Stenberg, which involved a state law in Nebraska, this case is a challenge to the federal law banning the grotesque procedure. Thus the new Roberts court will have the opportunity to revisit the previous ruling and subject O'Connor's "undue burden" test to rigorous constitutional scrutiny.

Moreover, legislatures in state after state have passed laws that enjoy overwhelming public support mandating parental notification for minors seeking abortions and requiring women seeking abortions to be fully informed about the medical facts and health implications of the procedure. In Michigan, for example, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a pro-choice Democrat, recently signed a bill requiring abortion clinics to offer women the opportunity to view ultrasound images of their unborn babies. Pro-abortion groups predictably opposed the measure, whose purpose is to fully inform women of the facts about fetal development before they make the potentially life-changing decision to terminate a pregnancy.

The most direct assault on abortion rights, of course, has come from South Dakota, where the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill outlawing all abortions in that state except for those to save the life of the mother. This puts South Dakota on a collision course with Roe v. Wade.

Clearly, the national tide is running strongly in favor of the pro-life movement. How are we to account for this reversal of fortune?

The polling on abortion since Roe has remained remarkably consistent: Most Americans support reasonable limits on abortion. In Gallup polling since 1973, fewer than 25 percent support the availability of abortion in all circumstances, so-called "abortion on demand." Thus, the position taken by the most extreme pro-abortion groups--the National Organization for Women, NARAL, the ACLU, and others--has the support of fewer than a quarter of the American people. A Zogby poll taken earlier this year found the majority of Americans, in some cases near 70 percent, support pro-life laws currently being considered on the state and national level--from prohibiting taxpayer funding of abortions to lifting requirements that health insurance plans cover the procedure to 24-hour waiting periods and parental notification laws.

The turning point for the pro-life movement may well have been the fight over partial-birth abortion. Most Americans had probably never heard of the procedure before former New Hampshire senator Bob Smith took to the floor of the Senate in 1995 with graphic illustrations of this gruesome procedure that entails a doctor killing a late-term, viable baby at the very moment of birth. Americans were repelled by the procedure and rightly recoiled. Few had suspected that the pitiless logic of Roe would produce this barbarous practice, one the American Medical Association says is never medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.