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Hidden Persuaders

The unheralded gains of the pro-life movement

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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Opponents of abortion are rarely interviewed on television these days. “It’s much harder to get on TV than it used to be,” says Charmaine Yoest, who heads Americans United for Life. Bookers of guests for news shows tell her, “We don’t want to talk about abortion. We’re tired of it.”

Photo of ultrasound

Perhaps the mainstream media are simply incapable of covering more than one social issue at a time. For the moment, the conflict over gay marriage and gays in the military is monopolizing media coverage, TV and print alike. Abortion is barely an afterthought.

There’s an upside to this for the pro-life movement, a benefit of benign neglect. Foes of gay rights are now seen by the press as fighting the bad war, roughly analogous to Vietnam. Pro-lifers are waging the good war, like World War II. “You get much less grief fighting against abortion than you do fighting to preserve traditional marriage,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

If only the media knew. They have missed the most important breakthrough in the struggle over abortion in years: the resurgence of the pro-life crusade. The press elite was beaten on the story by publications such as Christianity Today (“The New Pro-Life Surge”) and Baptist Press (“5 Reasons the Pro-Life Movement is Winning”).

That the pro-life movement is bigger is a given. It’s also younger, increasingly entrepreneurial, more strategic in its thinking, better organized, tougher in dealing with allies and enemies alike, almost wildly ambitious, and more relentless than ever.

All that is dwarfed by an even bigger change. Pro-lifers have captured the high moral ground, chiefly thanks to advances in the quality of sonograms. Once fuzzy, sonograms now provide a high-resolution picture of the unborn child in the womb. Fetuses have become babies.

Abortion advocates were among the first to understand how this would alter the debate. Two pro-choice leaders, Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling, acknowledged three years ago that “antiabortionists” had gained a significant advantage. Supporters of abortion, they wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “have had a hard time dealing with the increased visibility of the fetus.” To “regain the moral high ground,” they must deal with “a world that is radically changed from 1973,” when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide.

Pro-life groups, unlike advocates of easy access to abortion, have proved adept in accommodating to this new world. They’ve begun piling up successes. In 2011 alone, 24 states have enacted 52 new restrictions on abortion. Five now require an ultrasound before an abortion, two insisting that the screen be viewable by the mother. Four bar abortions after the baby is able to feel pain (at approximately 20 weeks). Eight have opted out of Obamacare. Five ban abortions by webcam (in which a doctor, not in person but videoconferencing with the mother, prescribes pills to induce abortion). Six trimmed or eliminated funds for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. Texas led with a $64 million cut.

The wave of state action shouldn’t be all that surprising. Republicans gained control of 26 legislatures in the 2010 election. Once advised to drop the abortion issue or suffer a certain decline, the GOP is now the nation’s pro-life party—and isn’t declining. In Congress, the House has passed two pro-life bills this year, one outlawing abortion subsidies in Obamacare, the other imposing a blanket ban on taxpayer-funded abortions. Both measures were deep-sixed in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Three pro-life trends have spiked in 2011. The first is the rise in opposition to abortion among young people. The under-30 cohort was the most pro-choice in the 1970s, second most in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they’re “markedly less pro-choice” than any other age group, scholars Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr have written. “Clearly, something is distinctive about the abortion attitudes of the Millennial Generation of Americans.”

Indeed there is. Millennials haven’t grown more religious, politically conservative, or queasy about gay rights. Nor do they go out of their way to vote for pro-life candidates. But they tend to see abortion as a human rights violation. Thus their resistance to abortion is gradually increasing.

You can see a manifestation of this generational shift at the March on Washington each January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. For years, the marchers were geezers, initially Catholics, then aging Protestants too. In the past few years, the march has been dominated by teenagers and people in their 20s, often carrying infants.

The second trend is the explosive growth of refuges for pregnant but unmarried women. These safe houses go by a multitude of names: Crisis Pregnancy Center, Pregnancy Resource Center, Pregnancy Health Center, Pregnancy Care Center, or simply Pregnancy Center. In Northern Virginia, Jim Wright, formerly in the commercial real estate business, calls the center he started Birthmothers.

They all do the same thing, nurturing single women during their pregnancy and recommending against abortion. The results are one-sided: 80 to 90 percent of the women who have sonograms at pregnancy centers choose to have their baby.

Today there are nearly three times as many of these centers (2,300) as abortion facilities (800 to 850). One reason for the disparity is that women stay for months in pro-life centers, but only briefly in abortion clinics. The Care Net network reflects the growth: 550 centers in 1999, 1,130 today.

Trend number three: the rejuvenation of old pro-life groups and the sprouting of new ones. Kristan Hawkins was a political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 when she responded to an ad for the newly created job of executive director of Students for Life. The group had been around for two decades, operating with a minimal staff and fewer than 300 chapters. Now Students for Life has 637 chapters, a full-time staff of 10, and a dozen regional coordinators. “We’re almost everywhere,” assistant director Tina Whittington says.

Students for Life has branched out. There are Black Students for Life, Medical Students for Life, Business Students for Life, and so on. The goal for its field coordinators is to start 10 new pro-life groups per semester and 20 a year. Students for Life has been revitalized.

David Bereit was a pharmaceutical sales rep when Planned Parenthood built a clinic in his hometown of Bryan/College Station, Texas. He organized a protest. That was just the beginning. In 2004, he created 40 Days for Life, which promotes prayer vigils outside abortion -clinics. He began with a single vigil in downtown College Station. Bereit says the number of abortions in his county fell 28 percent that year. By his count, his group has recruited 400,000 people who participate in hundreds of vigils in nearly 400 cities.

When he started 40 Days, “a lot of wind had left the sails of the pro-life groups,” he told me. “Now I see enthusiasm and hope I haven’t seen in years. The tide is turning against Planned Parenthood and abortion providers.”

In the case of Planned Parenthood (PP), that’s true. Killing the federal government’s subsidy of PP has long been a top priority for pro-life groups. In 2009, there were 1.2 million abortions in the United States. PP was responsible for 332,278 of them. About one-third of PP’s $1 billion budget comes from government grants and contracts.

But until Lila Rose came along, PP had proved to be an elusive target. The group said that none of the federal money subsidized abortions, an implausible claim. No one in the pro-life movement believes it. Money, after all, is fungible.

Rose, 23, is the newest pro-life star, the exception to the rule that the abortion issue attracts no media attention. (Since Faye Wattleton left PP in 1992, the abortion side has had no stars.) One of eight children of a Catholic family in San Jose, California, Rose became an antiabortion activist at age 14 and continued as a student at UCLA. At 15, she formed Live Action, which produces hidden camera videos exposing PP’s willingness to offer abortions to underage girls while avoiding their obligation to report cases where the pregnancies came from statutory rape.

“Lila created the moment,” Dannenfelser says. Rose did so by posing as a teenage prostitute impregnated by her much older pimp at a PP clinic in New Jersey. The clinic’s manager explained how she could get an abortion by lying about her age. The video became a sensation on the Internet. More important, it was viewed by Republican representative Cliff Stearns of Florida, chairman of a House subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Stearns was appalled at PP’s “manipulating this young 15-year-old girl to get an abortion.” He was also impressed by a report on PP by Americans United for Life (AUL). It cited eight areas of “scandal and abuse,” including misuse of federal funds, “failure to report criminal child sexual abuse,” and aiding people involved in prostitution and sexual trafficking.

On September 15, Stearns launched the first-ever congressional probe of Planned Parenthood. In a letter to Cecile Richards, the embattled PP president, he said his panel has “questions about the policies in place and actions undertaken” by PP and its affiliates, the handling of federal funds, and compliance with “restrictions on the funding of abortion.” He asked for an extensive collection of audits and documents.

Though Democrats were furious at Stearns, he’s treated the PP issue cautiously. He sought the approval of Fred Upton of Michigan, the energy and commerce committee chairman, before sending the letter. And public hearings will be held only if House speaker John Boehner agrees, Stearns told me.

As you might expect, Rose is excited by the impact of her incriminating videos at PP clinics. “You cannot argue with the videos,” she says. “They speak the truth, and they are indisputable.” Young people “are getting the truth about abortion in ways they couldn’t before. This is a movement that is just beginning and can’t be stopped.”

Look across the alley from the fifth floor office of the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) in downtown Washington and you’ll see two placards. They’ve been posted on the window of the office of a labor union in the adjacent building—for the SBA crowd to see. One says “Stop the War on Women,” the other, “Don’t Take Away My Cancer Screenings.”

These are the response of Planned Parenthood and its allies to attacks on what PP and the abortion industry actually do. Abortion? Forget it. (PP says it mostly does medical tests, and abortions are a sideline.) The “A” word is almost never uttered now by anyone connected to the abortion industry, which claims merely to support “a woman’s right to choose.” Choose what? They don’t say. Their opponents aren’t “pro-lifers,” but anyone who is “anti-choice.”

The language gymnastics and euphemisms reflect the forlorn condition of the pro-choice flock. They’re worn out. Many are in despair. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Newsweek of her anguish as she watched last year’s March on Washington. “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young,” she said. “There are so many of them, and they are so young.” Today, zeal and confidence and perseverance in the abortion battle are all on the antiabortion side. “There are more pro-lifers now, and they’re more determined,” says Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.

The abortion lobby has found its own target, the pregnancy centers. The aim is to compel centers to post large signs disclosing they don’t offer abortions or make referrals to places like PP that do. The assumption behind the effort is that many women go to the centers for an abortion, then get talked out of it.

This offensive has gotten off to a rocky start, partly because lawyers for the centers have mostly succeeded in blocking the posting requirement. Austin, Texas, is one of the few jurisdictions with a mandate in effect. In the state of Washington, abortion supporters sought an extreme version of a posting law. It would require the no-abortions-here message to be posted in at least five languages. “It didn’t pass, but it was a battle,” says Jeanneane Maxon of Care Net.

The pro-choicers also have pursued a quibble with the Susan B. Anthony List. They argue that Anthony, the leading 19th-century suffragette, was not opposed to abortion and that the SBA “cherry picked” a few quotes as evidence she was. True, Anthony concentrated on winning the right to vote for women. But SBA cites this forthright statement in an Anthony editorial:

Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who .  .  . drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime.

 

Challenging SBA and pregnancy centers shows a bit of resourcefulness by pro-choicers, but those are essentially rear guard actions. They can’t match the right-to-life movement’s imagination and entrepreneurship. Michael New, a soft-spoken political science professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is a leading pro-life thinker. He has studied the effect of state-enacted restrictions on abortion over the past decade and found they reduce the number of abortions. New (Dartmouth B.A., Stanford Ph.D.) hasn’t promoted his evidence through normal pro-life channels. Instead, he followed academic practice and submitted them for peer review.

That took three years, plus another year before his conclusions were published. He tested the impact of three restrictions: no public funding, parental involvement, and informed consent. He determined that all three reduced the abortion rate, particularly parental participation in the case of a minor. His article, “Analyzing the Effect of Anti-Abortion U.S. State Legislation in the Post-Casey Era,” was published in the March issue of State Politics and Policy Quarterly.

New’s article is hardly a page-turner. But his findings have been known to state legislators for several years, encouraging them to pursue limitations on abortion. He’s now studying whether involvement of two parents is more effective than one and which pro-life restrictions are the most effective. As unlikely as it sounds, New has become a star of the movement. The abortion side lacks a Michael New.

Fetal pain is another issue that has invigorated the pro-life movement in recent years. Improved ultrasound revealed to doctors that at around 20 weeks an unborn child reacts visibly to pain. “All the neurological equipment is present at 20 weeks,” according to Teresa Collett, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota and an expert on fetal pain. Fetal pain was recognized, Collett says, as an “independent basis for a state to protect the life of a child.” In Nebraska last year, the first law was passed barring abortions after an unborn baby begins to sense pain. Mary Balch of National Right to Life (NRL) played a key role in drafting the Nebraska statute. Fetal pain laws won’t have a dramatic lifesaving effect. Still, they’re significant. The incremental strategy pursued by most pro-life groups is based on the idea that antiabortion laws, even if narrow, build on one another. Fetal pain laws focus on the suffering of the baby, an asset in opposing a woman’s right to choose. And who in the pro-choice lobby is eager to gainsay the pain experienced by an unborn child? Dispute it and you’ll come across as cruel.

The ultimate goal of pro-lifers remains what it’s always been: overturning Roe v. Wade. They’re reconciled to jumping through as many hoops as necessary to get there. Americans United for Life specializes in creating model antiabortion laws for states. It also has a strategic plan for “reversing Roe” or “rendering it obsolete.” It starts with “saving babies now” and preparing states for the “day after Roe.”

AUL isn’t kidding about vitiating Roe without overturning it. The key is to burden the abortion industry with intrusive regulations. This amounts to using liberal means to produce a conservative result. “When you regulate something, you get less of it,” a pro-life leader reminds me. So precise conditions at abortion clinics would be imposed, as Virginia did this year. New requirements for safety, bookkeeping, record-keeping, and reporting would be applied. That’s not all. More laws limiting abortions would be needed, as would cultural efforts to shrink the demand for abortions.

The informal division of labor among pro-life groups leaves SBA with the conventional mission of electing candidates who are pro-life to Congress and defeating those who aren’t. The group had a sterling record in 2010, unseating 15 of the 20 Democrats who claimed to oppose abortion but voted for Obamacare. Dannenfelser intends to raise the bar on what’s expected from candidates SBA supports: no more toleration of candidates who are “rhetorically pro-life but not operationally pro-life.”

In the tradition of its namesake, SBA promises in its campaign for next year to “defend the wave of pro-life women elected in 2010, add to their ranks, and defeat pro-abortion women running for office.” By the way, four of the most enterprising and energetic pro-life groups—SBA, AUL, NRL, Live Action—are headed by women.

The big question today among pro-lifers is whether the movement has reached a turning point, with victory over abortion now inevitable. I’m dubious. AUL’s Yoest isn’t so sure either. She says pro-lifers have yet to win the argument that abortion, rather than empowering women, is harmful to them. New says America’s permissive culture is a huge impediment to closing off any right to an abortion. And Roe v. Wade stands erect nearly 39 years after it was decided. Who can be sure of its fate?

But real gains have been achieved by the pro-life movement and many, many lives have been saved—in 2011 alone. And bigger gains are bound to come as more babies are spared the abortionist’s knife.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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