Cover Story

One step forward

... and one step back: Pro-lifers still face challenges as new as was Roe vs. Wade in 1973

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade 25," Jan. 17, 1998

(with Roy Maynard in Dallas)

As the rain slacks off slightly, five pro-life protesters bring out their weathered placards and station themselves in front of a North Dallas abortion mill. It's still blustery, though, and a cold front is sliding down from the Texas panhandle, bringing a damp chill to this January morning.

The protesters are no summer soldiers or sunshine patriots. The 25th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision can be seen as a kind of Valley Forge-a bleak, soul-trying period in the long war against abortion. But it's no time for talk of surrender; Gen. Washington knew during that long winter that he had achieved a major victory just by keeping an army in the field. Similarly, there are signs that America is starting to turn away from abortion.

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Just before noon, Philip "Flip" Benham, the director of Operation Rescue National, brings the news to the protesters: The abortion mill has closed. The North Park Medical Group cleaned out its suite in this ultramodern Dallas office building over the Christmas holiday. It left no forwarding number and no explanation.

The burly, mustachioed security guard who in the past had to help arrest and prosecute the protesters is ecstatic. "They're gone," he says as he unlocks the doors and gives protesters a tour. "Just cleared out. And I'm glad. What they were doing made me sick. I would have nightmares from the sounds I would hear."

Though America's abortion nightmare is far from over, there are signs that more and more women are waking up to the bloody reality of their "choice." The United States may still have the highest abortion rate of any industrialized nation where the procedure is legal, but the trends are encouraging. Thanks to the efforts of loyal troops like those in Dallas, numerous clinics have closed, leaving 84 percent of counties without a single abortion provider. In 1995, the remaining clinics killed 1.2 million unborn babies-200,000 fewer than 1990.

While abortion foes celebrate their gains, however, clouds are gathering on the horizon. New abortion techniques threaten to change the terms of the debate, render abortion statistics unreliable, and even split the historic alliance between Catholic and Protestant pro-lifers. It's a future scenario that few want to consider as America looks back at a quarter century of life-and death-since Roe.

Battle-weary soldiers are understandably eager to focus on the victories, such as the 200,000-abortion decline this decade, which they attribute to a combination of stricter laws and more successful abstinence education efforts. Abortion advocates, however, would deny them even that bit of satisfaction. They attribute the drop to both demographics (as large numbers of women grow older and less fertile) and more effective contraception (including Norplant and Depo Provera). But such explanations ignore one crucial fact: The decline in abortions has not been uniform across the country. In states where pro-life efforts have been most successful at changing the law, abortions are down dramatically, while in states with more permissive laws, the numbers are up slightly.

Pennsylvania, for instance, recently enacted the Abortion Control Act, requiring both parental consent for minors and a 24-hour waiting period for any woman seeking an abortion. Such restrictions seem to be having the desired effect. Abortions in Pennsylvania were down to a post-Roe low of 38,000 last year, compared to nearly 66,000 in 1980. That 42 percent drop is better than twice the national average of 15 percent, and it's unlikely, given the state's high Catholic population, that Pennsylvanians are simply using birth control in much greater numbers than the rest of the country.

With protective abortion laws proving themselves in states like Pennsylvania, pro-life advocates are redoubling their efforts on the national level. For the first time since Roe vs. Wade, both houses of Congress now have pro-life majorities, resulting in a number of victories last year: banning abortions in overseas military hospitals and federal prisons, disallowing federal health insurance plans that cover abortions, and blocking the confirmation of President Clinton's pro-choice nominee for surgeon general. Indeed, according to a study by the Boston Globe, pro-abortion advocates have won only 10 of the 81 abortion-related votes in Congress since 1995.

Most encouraging of all for pro-life forces is the crack that has recently appeared in the seemingly impenetrable wall of public support for a "woman's right to choose." According to opinion polls, the gruesome, late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion has for the first time caused a majority of respondents to call for outlawing one class of abortions altogether. The New Yorker reported recently that Americans are now evenly split between those who call themselves "pro-life" versus "pro-choice," compared to just a year earlier, when the "pro-choice" label claimed an 18 percent lead.

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