During my recent swing through four Midwest states leading the charge on pro-life legislation, optimism was a familiar refrain among a new crop of pro-life lawmakers.
“You don’t want to mess with us on pro-life issues any more,” said Kelly Hancock, a first term Texas state senator who graduated from Baylor University and has spent the past 30 years teaching Sunday school at his Baptist church.
Hancock is not the only state legislator making that promise, and backing it up with bills: Legislators have passed more than 150 pro-life laws since 2010. Last year, 48 states examined roughly 360 abortion-related measures. That included 28 states considering abortion limitations, a 60 percent increase from 2012.
The results are a product of a maturing pro-life movement. More than 40 years of fights since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion have served as a real-world graduate class on public policy. Groups like National Right to Life and Americans United for Life have watched the sausage making of laws and slowly learned how to pull the right levers to effect legislative change.
“We’ve gone from mostly rallies to working within the political system,” said Matt Krause, a freshman state representative in Texas with a law degree from Liberty University who specializes in constitutional litigation protecting religious liberty. “We went from the heart to the head.”
Most of the pro-life leaders during the early years channeled their energies towards ending the practice in one fell swoop. But the movement did not have the votes to achieve that in 1973. Now pro-life groups are committed to limiting the scope of abortion while educating the public.
“Our job is to buck up against Roe and see how far we can go,” said Julie Schmit-Albin, the executive director of Nebraska Right to Life.
Simply put, pro-life activists learned that you can’t have pro-life laws without pro-life lawmakers. And you can’t have pro-life lawmakers without pro-life voters. No one knows that better than Tony Lauinger of Oklahoma. His journey traces how decades of pro-life persistence is paying off at the state level.
Forty-one years ago, Lauinger was preparing to become a father for the first time. He reveled in being able to feel his baby kicking inside his wife’s womb. But months after his child, a daughter, was born, the Supreme Court legalized abortion. As a new father, Lauinger had a visceral reaction to the ruling.
“It felt like I had been hit in the face by a four-by-four,” he said. “A black cloud descended on our nation that day.”
It didn’t take Lauinger long to get involved in the pro-life movement. Two months after the Roe v Wade decision, Lauinger spoke out against abortion at his church in Tulsa, Okla. He read books and pamphlets to help him defend his pro-life position.
Then he started a pro-life group that meet in his living room. It began with just a small group of friends. They’d sit and think up ways to make people aware of abortion’s dangers while Lauinger’s baby daughter crawled around the room. The group rented a booth at the state fair and printed brochures.
But a talk with a woman convinced Lauinger that he had to do more than hand out brochures at fairs. That woman admitted to Lauinger that she suffered from guilt and depression over an abortion. He asked her a simple question: “Would you have had the abortion if it had been illegal?”
“Of course not,” she said.
Realizing that many equate the law with what is right, Lauinger wondered how many other woman would have chosen differently if abortion had been illegal. Seeing the law as a teacher, Lauinger set his sights on the state capital. He began driving from his home in Tulsa to Oklahoma City each day the legislature was in session. At the end of the workday, he drove 90 minutes back to Tulsa.
But Lauinger found it hard going through the 1970s. He began attending GOP precinct meetings in an effort to get pro-life resolutions adopted. But Republicans wanted to talk about economic issues not moral issues. Despite hot abortion debates during the state’s Republican conventions in 1976 and 1978, Lauinger failed to secure a place for the pro-life movement. Finally in 1979, the GOP state convention adopted a pro-life plank.
Despite some successes, such as stopping the United Way from funding Planned Parenthood, Lauinger quickly learned that having an unequivocal pro-life plank in the Oklahoma GOP did not mean smooth sailing. Republican staffers would lobby against pro-life legislation and offer amendments to weaken the bills. Lauinger was screamed at, thrown out of offices, and warned to not talk to certain lawmakers ever again.
It frustrated Lauinger because he knew many of those lawmakers did not reflect the views of the voters he was meeting across the state. Oklahoma was becoming a socially conservative, pro-life state stuck with an entrenched pro-abortion state government. (Not a single Oklahoma county went for Barak Obama in 2008 or 2012.) Lauinger prayed about a day he could work alongside allies instead of fighting adversaries.
The answered prayer came in the 1990s in the form of term limits. With lawmakers now limited to 12 years in office, voters were able to ferret out entrenched politicians who no longer represented their districts. When Oklahoma voters decided that the views of national leaders in the Democratic Party did not line up with the positions of most state residents, Oklahoma Democrats suffered.
In 2004, the Oklahoma House went Republican. In 2006, there was a 24-24 tie in the Oklahoma Senate. Then in 2008, the Republicans took over the Senate. The state had a pro-life majority inside the capitol and pro-life bills began to make it to the governor’s desk.
Oklahoma City has had a pro-life majority for the last four years. With three-fourths of the Senate now pro-life, pro-lifers have enough votes to override a governor’s veto.
“We survived so many years in the wilderness,” Lauinger says.
Oklahoma passed bills protecting babies in the womb who are capable of feeling pain, prohibiting taxpayer funding of abortion, and restricting abortion at public facilities. Pro-life lawmakers in Oklahoma fought to protect pro-life physicians from legal action against them for refusing to abort babies with diseases and disabilities. Such “wrongful birth” lawsuits are becoming more common.
When the state’s highest court, where eight of the nine members were appointed by Democrats, stuck down the state’s 2008 ultrasound viewing bill, the legislature revised it in 2010 so it would pass the court’s requirements.
“What you’ve seen is a pent-up frustration by people in Oklahoma,” said Brian Crain, who calls himself a recent foot solider in Oklahoma’s pro-life movement. A state senator, Crain would not have been elected without term limits. “My predecessor had been there for 24 years and would have served until he passed away.”
Now Crain, who has two daughters, is the chairman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over bills dealing with abortion. After Crain helped pass the bill protecting pro-life doctors from wrongful birth lawsuits, he successfully helped override the governor’s veto.
Lauinger now chuckles at the thought of having a pro-life ally who oversees that key committee. Not too long ago, the committee was a graveyard for any pro-life bills. Its then pro-choice chairman exercised a one-man veto when it came to abortion regulations. Now Lauinger meets Crain at places like the Panera Bread in Tulsa to map out pro-life strategy.
Lauinger’s prayers for allies have brought more than just Crain. Pam Peterson’s route to lawmaking began when she was a stay-at-home mom in Madison, Wis. Politics in that left-leaning state got Peterson so angry she’d fire off letters to the local newspaper. But when Beverly LaHaye, the founder of Concerned Women for America, pleaded for local activism during an appearance at Peterson’s church, Peterson decided she could either remain upset or get involved.
“Christians have to stand up,” said Peterson, who graduated from Oral Roberts University and eventually moved back to Tulsa, Okla. She ran for office, pledging to bring pro-life bills to the floor and now manages the flow of legislation in the Oklahoma House. “We can’t sit behind the lines and complain.”
Lauinger, who has spent two decades making the trip back and forth from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, says it is wonderful to find himself among friends. He rarely gets kicked out of offices now.
Why did Lauinger continue to drive 90 minutes, four days a week to the legislature only to chase down lawmakers he knew would turn down his pro-life bills? Lauinger served on a Navy patrol gunboat in Vietnam where he learned the importance of “showing the flag” to keep the peace. By being at the state capitol whenever it was in session, Lauinger was waving the pro-life flag so lawmakers wouldn’t forget about the abortion issue.
Ultimately, the pro-life movement must look towards establishing federal laws. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced legislation last fall, called the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortions at 20 weeks into a pregnancy (with exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape and incest). The House passed similar legislation last year. But this is just the beginning of the pain-capable debate in Washington. Reacting to the Graham’s Senate bill, a pro-abortion group sent an email alert to its supporters saying the “anti-women GOP” was “gearing up” to stop abortions “after just 20 weeks.”
Lauinger hopes that some of the current crop of pro-life state lawmakers will one day lead the pro-life charge in Washington. Legislative victories in states like Oklahoma offer a hopeful sign that many pro-life state lawmakers are shrugging off last year’s report on the 2012 elections in which Republican Party establishment figures suggested the party scale back its social agenda. Crain says he “read about it once and never thought or spoke about it again.”
Crain and others are proof pro-lifers are wining the battle to get lawmakers who want to act on pro-life issues rather than just pay lip service to them during the campaign season. But those attitudes still exist. John Andrist, a North Dakota Republican who has served in the state legislature for more than two decades, described himself as “moderately pro-life” during an interview with the Associated Press last year.
“I’m from the group who hates voting on abortion issues and who don’t like to play God,” he added.
That’s why Lauinger knows that ending abortion altogether remains a tough road. Pro-life groups, he said, will always have to fight the culture of the sexual revolution, where the value of an unborn child bumps up against the modern notion of sex without consequences. Now 69, Lauinger said during his long fight he’s always tried to keep one focus: making sure the baby is not lost in the debate. This, he said, forces people to realize that abortion is not an abstract question. That’s what moved him as a new father 41 years ago.
“The killing of one human being to solve the problems of another human being should be unacceptable in a civil society,” he says.