Although the murder of abortionist Barnett Slepian hoarded the headlines, many abortion stories were of greater significance throughout the year.
The pro-life movement will likely remember 1998 as the year when an American consensus began to emerge: The sexual revolution is over, and its deadly attendant, unrestricted abortion, is wrong, even if it's a right. Partial-birth abortion was the wedge issue that worked. Even the pro-aborts acknowledge this.
"The strategy of the anti-choice movement to shift from broad public attempts to overturn Roe in favor of a more incremental approach is working," National Abortion Rights Action League president Kate Michelman said-and the key technique was "graphic publicity" about the procedure. What works in the public mind and what works in the courts, however, are two different things.
Judges blocked state partial-birth abortion bans in Iowa, New Jersey, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, and Wisconsin. The constitutionality of state laws forbidding the practice ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, forcing President Clinton to veto a partial-birth abortion ban helped demonstrate the extremism of the "pro-choice" side-for Americans, surveys show, are uncomfortable with unrestricted abortion.
A New York Times/CBS poll showed the number of people who think abortion should be restricted rose from 40 percent in 1989 to 45 percent, while the number of people who support unlimited access dropped, from 40 percent to 32 percent. While 61 percent say abortion should be legal during the first trimester, only 15 percent want it legal in the second trimester, and a mere 7 percent in the third.
The bottom line is the number of abortions, and that seemed to be decreasing. Comparing 1996 figures (the most recent available) with those of 1990, Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher Institute showed that the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion was down from 30 percent to 26 percent, and the number of abortions had dropped from 1.6 million to a still-chilling 1.3 million. One factor: the decreasing number of clinics, with 86 percent of the counties in the United States mercifully without a practicing abortionist.
Another factor: the effectiveness of crisis pregnancy centers. Groups like CareNet have launched high-profile marketing campaigns and a nationwide toll-free number to make it easier for abortion-minded women to get pro-life help.
A third factor in the decline was the increasing social isolation of abortionists: Hailed by many as heroes during the 1960s and 1970s, they are now returning to pre-1960 pariah status. Abortion businesses get sympathy only on days like Jan. 29, 1998, when an early-morning explosion killed an off-duty police officer and injured a nurse in Birmingham, Ala. The FBI quickly confirmed that the explosion at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic on the city's south side was caused by a bomb; some weeks later, investigators began to focus their suspicion for this and other bombings (including the 1996 Olympic Park bombing) on a young man named Eric Rudolph. He has not been captured, and is thought to be hiding out in North Carolina forests.
After a gunman on Oct. 23 put a bullet through the back of Dr. Slepian-right in front of his horrified wife and son-cultural opinion shapers immediately blamed pro-lifers and in particular pro-life rhetoric for creating a "climate of hate."
"They must stop referring to abortion as murder," NARAL's Ms. Michelman demanded, "and to doctors who perform them as murderers."
Killings by abortionists never became a national issue because few in the press picked it up. Images of Dr. Slepian being lauded as a hero were rarely countered by images of abortionists standing trial for botched procedures-but that was the reality in 1998.
In Arizona, a doctor delivered a full-term baby he was trying to abort, a baby he told police he thought was a 23-week-old fetus. On June 30, 1998, Dr. John Biskind delivered a 6 pound, 2 ounce baby girl, though he fractured her skull and inflicted deep lacerations during the attempted abortion. The baby girl's injuries were not life threatening, and a Texas couple has adopted her; Dr. Biskind's botching, however, may be career threatening. Two previous abortions he performed resulted in the deaths of women. The Arizona Board of Medical Examiners censured him for one of those deaths (in 1995), investigated the second, and is looking into this new case.
Some particular faces emerged from the great cloud of victims:
· Pro-lifers mourned the death of 5-year-old Sarah Brown of Wichita, Kan., in October. Sarah was born with severe disabilities after a failed attempt at a late-term abortion in 1993, but she was adopted by Bill and Marykay Brown, two pro-life activists. Her parents say she was a happy little girl, though her disabilities and respiratory problems forced her to be hospitalized more than a dozen times during her short life. She died at home.
· In Ohio, in what prosecutors described as an act of "road rage," Tracie Alfieri forced off an interstate and into a parked truck a car driven by a pregnant woman, Rene Andrews, who was severely injured in the crash. The unborn child died, and Mrs. Alfieri was charged and convicted of vehicular assault and homicide, under an untested Ohio law that makes it illegal to kill an unborn baby. Mrs. Alfieri appealed the conviction and cited all the usual pro-abortion arguments, but her appeal was denied last month.
· A pro-life judge in Cleveland, Patricia Cleary, came under harsh media attack in October after she refused to release a 21-year-old woman in jail on a forgery conviction to keep an abortion appointment. Judge Cleary was honest about her reason for denying the early release to the 20-weeks-pregnant woman: "I think it worked out swell if that was her desire to abort her child that late." The judge's decision was overturned by a higher court, but the woman chose not to kill her unborn child.
· As expected, pro-abortion activists successfully used anti-gangster racketeering laws against pro-life protesters. Operation Rescue and Pro-Life Action League leaders Joseph Scheidler, Timothy Murphy, and Andrew Scholberg were found liable in a federal court under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, which was written by a Notre Dame law professor in 1970 to use against the Mafia. The U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for the law's misuse, however, when it said in 1994 that NOW could sue pro-life groups under it and extract heavy money damages. But as Mr. Scheidler put it after the jury decision, "You can't get blood from turnips, and we're turnips."
But 1998's biggest political news on the abortion front was the ominous rumbling that came from the Colorado mountains in February. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told a gathering of top Republicans that the party must "stop the betrayal" of its conservative members.
"Republicans ran on pro-life and pro-moral platforms in recent elections," Mr. Dobson said. "But once they were in office, they grew strangely silent. Their record on the sanctity of life and other family-related legislation has been pathetic."
He cited the confirmation of David Satcher as surgeon general, the $900 million in tax money given to the Planned Parenthood Foundation, and GOP support for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, a partial-birth abortion supporter.
Others disagreed with general condemnations, citing the Republican push for a partial-birth abortion ban. But Mr. Dobson threatened to walk, and take as many social conservatives as possible with him, if the Republican Party did not toughen up.
Pro-life political activists inside the GOP created a stir when they almost succeeded in passing a resolution at the annual winter meeting to cut off financial support for Republican candidates who do not oppose partial-birth abortions. And the National Conference of Catholic Bishops stepped up the pressure on Catholic politicians who separate their faith and their politics by supporting abortion rights. In Pennsylvania, Republican pro-abortion Gov. Tom Ridge was barred by his local bishop from attending Catholic events. It's too early to tell whether the tactics worked; conservatives certainly weren't energized at the polls in November. Even in Colorado, a voter initiative to ban partial-birth abortions failed.
Now the battle for the year 2000 presidential nominations and party platforms begins. And as an odd end to this retrospective, it should be noted that in New Berlin, Wis., last year, the wife of an abortionist went outside her home to confront about 50 protesters early one Saturday morning last January. The pro-lifers were standing in the street outside the home of Neville Duncan when his wife, Brenda, emerged from the house and shouted to them. "You want to get shot, you [expletive]?" she called. Then she turned around, undid her pants, and mooned them. One protester, Bob Braun, responded, "Oh, my."