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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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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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