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Pro-life pivot

"Pro-life pivot" Continued...

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

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.

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