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.
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.
By the end of 1989 the level of fratricide within the pro-life movement was declining. I began chairing the meetings and saw that a locker room with less towel-snapping was not necessarily a winning locker room, so we started concentrating on what the pro-life movement was doing right and doing wrong in communicating with a broad public. Among those who volunteered their counsel were Fred Barnes, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Hadley Arkes of Amherst College, and Bruce Edwards of Bowling Green State University.
Barnes emphasized the damage resulting from the portrayal of pro-lifers as mean, angry people who don't care about women. He suggested that the pro-life movement push to limit late abortions (which are horrific to the public) and the reasons for abortion: For example, most people do not want sex-selection abortions. He argued that since the battle is primarily cultural, changing moral convictions (not just laws) was crucial.
Weigel suggested challenging the liberal argument for Roe v. Wade on liberal grounds: The American tradition favors expanding the community of those protected under the Constitution, not restricting it, so Roe was a reactionary decision, not a liberal one. Weigel suggested an emphasis on community, hospitality, and the common good, with pro-life efforts tied to welcoming the tired and poor at Ellis Island, and to building schools for children with cerebral palsy.
Arkes spoke about inviting pro-abortionists to offer their view of when a fetus becomes a life to be protected: If they say birth, ask about the child who survives an abortion, and if they say such a born child should not be killed, point out that their claim to base protection on "wantedness" has just disintegrated. Over the next two years Arkes developed that idea and proposed a bill that would protect children born alive after a failed abortion. A decade later that idea became reality in the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002.
Edwards argued that some of the pro-life movement's standard rhetoric-equating abortion with slavery or the Holocaust-was ineffective, and that the movement should emphasize the innocence of babies as opposed to the depravity of villains. He cited a film like Look Who's Talking-with its depiction of an articulate unborn child who wants to make choices of his own-as an important step forward, and noted that positive statements about protecting the innocent work better than rants.
Later in 1990 frustration grew among "direct action" advocates, particularly when participants suggested that the face of the pro-life movement should be smiling women rather than raging white males. Others, though, thought the meetings useful for putting faces to names, hearing new ideas, and gaining inside information. For example, attendees at a Sept. 20, 1990, meeting heard assurances that Supreme Court nominee David Souter was pro-life, but talk of that might stop his nomination. As one participant summarized the discussion, "We all agreed to keep Souter a secret." (That approach, of course, backfired.)
Other meetings tried to broaden the pro-life coalition beyond its white Christian base: African-American leaders and others from Feminists for Life and Libertarians for Life began attending. Gradually, a critical mass of the pro-life movement moved from an "all or nothing" demand to an "all or something" approach that aimed eventually for complete protection of unborn children but in the short run wanted to keep alive as many as possible. Leaders spoke of transforming public perception by increasing awareness of third-trimester killings (such as through partial-birth abortion) and then helping people see the continuity of life from conception onward.
A consensus to "love them both"-troubled moms and at-risk unborns-also emerged. Condon of Americans United for Life played an important role in that movement, arguing in 1991 that "our sloganeering, demeanor and symbols make us appear to be against women, against individual freedom, against the democratic process if it leads to policies that defy traditional religious principles, and even against one another, if the other doesn't hold precisely the same view we do."
He proposed a pro-life pivot: Since much of the public perceived pro-life advocates as "violent, fighting for special interests, against something instead of for something," he wanted the pro-life movement to "personalize the unborn, personalize women as victims, present women as pro-women and pro-life advocates, present pro-lifers as compassionate and reasonable." By then the Operation Rescue movement was fading: Although network interview shows still liked to pair angry Randall Terry with a smiling pro-choice spokeswoman, more pro-life women who saw things Condon's way began coming to the fore.
The public has responded: 51 percent of Americans now tell pollsters that abortion is morally wrong, with 40 percent saying it's morally OK; that's an improvement from 20 years ago. The strategy of focusing attention not on abortion in general but on very late abortions, through legislation concerning infants born alive or partial-birth abortion, also seems to have been effective regarding public opinion: The Gallup 2007 Values and Beliefs survey noted a shift during the 1990s "in a significant and sustained way to the conservative side . . . it appears that the debate over partial-birth abortion is the cause for this adjustment in public attitudes."
The central issue, though, is not public perception of the pro-life movement or abortion in general: It's the life or death of unborn children. The number of abortions per year has declined from its 1.6 million peak two decades ago to 1.2 million or fewer now: still a horrendous number, less than predicted when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide.
On the other hand, the law hasn't changed-and the death toll still tops 1 million. Hopes were high in 1992 when the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey seemed poised to overturn Roe. The justices agreed to uphold parental-consent, informed--consent, and waiting-period laws, and four of them-William Rehnquist, Byron White, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas-opposed Roe. But Justices Souter and Anthony Kennedy delighted abortionists by siding with liberals to uphold Roe: They have lived ever after with the happiness brought by Washington Post acclaim.
Fieldstead Forums, renamed Life Forums, continued after Casey, but the Supreme Court decision ended the major push to remove from the Constitution the abortion liberty forced into it in 1973. The decision also propelled to greater importance the compassion wing of the pro-life movement. The largest umbrella group for pregnancy counseling centers, Care Net, had fewer than 300 centers 20 years ago and has more than 1,100 now. Even Time reported last year that the "quiet campaign for women's hearts and minds, conducted in thousands of crisis pregnancy centers around the country, on billboards, phone banks and websites, is having an effect."
Guy Condon typified the shift toward compassion when he moved from the presidency of Americans United for Life, which emphasizes legislation, to the presidency of Care Net. On Nov. 11, 2000, he gave a speech in Washington, D.C., to benefit the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center and was driving to his home in Virginia when a Dodge van broadsided his 1990 Honda. Condon died shortly thereafter in a Fairfax hospital. His wife Linnie and four daughters, ages 12 through 19, survived him.