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Pro-life pivot

Abortion Past | The untold story of how movement shifted focus, changed its image, and saved lives

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

Twenty years ago the pro-life movement was in bad shape. Frustration had grown as eight years of the Reagan administration had not led to Roe v. Wade's reversal or reduced the annual toll in dead children. With legislative and judicial approaches bogged down, some pro-lifers blocked entrances to abortion businesses as part of Operation Rescue. Others thrust bloody photos of dead unborn babies in front of passersby.

Those efforts were earnest but, in the eyes of sympathetic observers like Tony Snow-he later served as Bush press secretary until cancer claimed him in 2008-they were also counterproductive. In 1989 Snow argued that pro-lifers were relying on "clichés that appeal to people who already agree with them. 'Abortion is murder,' they say. . . . Then they startle innocent shoppers or passers-by with graphic pictures of dead, red, dripping fetuses. This is no way to win political support."

Snow, arguing that pro-lifers were "getting smashed politically," said that they "must establish a service network that educates and cares for pregnant girls. . . . That kind of approach would persuade the public that anti-abortionists aren't just finger-wagging prudes, fanatics, and clinic bombers." Snow was right: Many Americans associated pro-lifers with shootings of abortionists and "blockades" of abortion businesses. A Gallup poll showed that Americans were 45 percent more likely to regard pro-lifers as violent than to see pro-abortion people in that way.

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Overall, the percentage of Americans saying that abortion should always be legal surged to over 30 percent two decades ago, with only 12 percent saying it should always be illegal. The rest were in the middle, and the middle was sagging. A Gallup poll showed some 61 percent opposing a reversal of Roe v. Wade. A Wirthlin poll showed that Operation Rescue was making Americans more likely to support abortion.

The pro-life movement was also internally divided, with an "all or nothing" component treating as a baby-killer accomplice anyone pushing for restrictions on late-term abortions without demanding a complete reversal of Roe. But from 1989 to 1992 the movement's emphases began to change, and the pro-life movement was on its way not to overthrowing the abortion regime but to reducing the number of U.S. abortions by more than 25 percent.

Critical in the change were a series of meetings that brought together leaders of pro-life groups, yet that story has not been told. Here goes.

Oddly, the conferences owed their origin to a desire to promote a book on abortion that was part of the Turning Point series I began editing in the late 1980s under the auspices of Fieldstead & Company, a California foundation. Assuming that the leaders of large pro-life groups regularly talked with each other, I thought we could have a reception and pass out copies, but my initial calls yielded what to me was a surprise: The leaders did not talk with their peers and generally mistrusted them.

From that point on the goal became clear: We needed a forum that could produce trust or at least understanding. To facilitate frank appraisal and open discussion participants would not be quoted. The invitation had to come from an individual perceived as neutral regarding the conflicts within the pro-life movement, so on March 31, 1989, Sen. Bill Armstrong, R-Colo., invited leaders of major pro-life groups to attend a "summit conference" he would host on April 20 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Armstrong, now the president of Colorado Christian College, had the right idea: He noted in his invitation that "decentralization has been one strength of our movement, but sometimes, when we do not fully understand the goals of some of our brothers and sisters, we may lose patience with each other or engage in criticism that could weaken the witness that all of us, through different means, are attempting to maintain."

No one knew what to expect on April 20 from leaders who had not hesitated to call each other-sometimes in public-cowards or fools, but they all showed up. Armstrong wisely opened the meeting with a request that those in attendance pray for each other. One participant referred to a cartoon of snowmen boasting to other snowmen, "I'm the biggest" or "I'm the oldest"-and then the sun comes out and melts them all.

Veteran pro-life advocates agreed to bury the hatchet, and not in each other. Two younger pro-lifers showed dueling agendas. Randall Terry of Operation Rescue wanted the group to support his attempts to block physically the entrances of abortion businesses, but he didn't get much traction. The previously little-known, 34-year-old president of Americans United for Life, Guy Condon, gained more support for his belief that pro-lifers needed to show love not only to unborn children but to their young moms who feel trapped.

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