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The Pro Life Movement at a Crossroads

Feb 06, 2013 | Updated Apr 08, 2013

In the winter of 2013, it is fair to say that the pro-life movement faces a crossroads the likes of which it has not seen since 1976. It will do well, therefore, to recall some of the events of that earlier political season.

The 1976 election was the first presidential campaign in which abortion became a hot-button issue, made that way by the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, three years before. Catholics and evangelicals joined hands to push for its reversal.

In December 1975, on the eve of hotly-contested nomination processes in both parties, it was still unclear where the pro-life vote would go. Two Democratic contestants brought genuine pro-life credentials to the race. There was Sargent Shriver, the most progressive candidate in the race and George McGovern's running mate in 1972. A Catholic, married to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, herself active in pro-life causes, Sargent Shriver did not favor reversal of Roe v. Wade but believed that government might take an active role in reducing abortion rates. (See Lucinda Franks, "Shriver Stressing Kennedy Connection," New York Times, December 31, 1975; and Christopher Lydon, "Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Campaigner," New York Times, January 31, 1976).

The Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, like Shriver, described himself as pro-life. Like Shriver, he did not support reversal of Roe, but did propose the enactment of a national "statute" limiting Roe's reach. (See Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, "Carter 'Whispers' on Abortion," Washington Post, January 17, 1976).

On the Republican side, Gerald Ford tried to split the difference, informing voters that he thought the Supreme Court in Roe "went too far," but simultaneously expressing misgivings about those who would ban abortion by constitutional amendment as similarly extreme. (See Public Papers of Gerald Ford, April 2, 1976).

The pro-life absolutists, however, those who favored an absolute constitutional ban on abortion, found some aid and comfort on the American right wing. George Wallace, the disreputable old Alabama segregationist, making his last-gasp final run at the White House, supported a constitutional amendment overturning Roe, while Ronald Reagan, mounting an insurgent's campaign against President Ford, repudiated the liberal abortion bill he had signed as Governor of California in favor of a near total prohibition. (See Roy Reed, "Wallace Pressing the Abortion Issue," New York Times, March 3, 1976; and "Reagan Affirms Anti-Abortion Stand," New York Times, February 8, 1976).

By 1980, the political alignment of the pro-life movement had shifted decisively rightward. The thoughtful centrism of Sargent Shriver and Joseph Califano, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of HHS, were rejected by doctrinal purists who insisted on a constitutional amendment banning all abortions. And the purists had their way at the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1980, where they gained approval of a pro-life plank in the Party's platform that promised "a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children."

The pro-life movement was swept to victory in that fall's election, as part of the "Reagan Revolution." Looking back, it seems that it also reached the apex of its influence in that decade. Ronald Reagan promoted leading opponents of abortion to the judiciary, such as John T. Noonan, easily the greatest Catholic legal scholar of the last half-century. An author of sophisticated histories of contraception and marriage, Noonan possessed a nearly singular depth of cultural engagement that served him well in his new role. And then there was James L. Buckley, the former New York Senator and author of the first human-life amendment, presented to the Senate in 1974. A more conservative jurist than Noonan, Buckley nonetheless brought to the bench a self-awareness and knowledge of historical processes and political limitations of benefit to every public official.

By the 1990s, however, the mood and temper of the pro-life movement had begun to curdle and warp in unpleasant ways. It is impossible not to see Pat Buchanan's address to the 1992 Republican National Convention as a turning point. In that speech, he declared a culture war on the forces of secularism. America confronted, he warned, a holy struggle on a broad front -- abortion, gay rights, exclusion of religion from the public square, women in the military. Even though his speech alienated moderate voters in 1992, it became Republican orthodoxy by 2012. (See Adam Nagourney, "'Culture War' of 1992 Moves in From the Fringe," New York Times, August 29, 2012).

It is that orthodoxy that the GOP leadership no doubt feels compelled to soften. For surely the 2012 political campaign season demonstrated that social conservatives had gone badly off the rails and brought the Republican Party down with it. The doctrinal purity of pro-life absolutists has always been self-limiting. If you are not with us, you are against us, has been their insistent refrain.

But never before did they sing such a self-destructive song. Would you ban abortion in cases of rape and incest? This has always been the litmus test by which to prove one's pro-life bona fides. But for the first time a candidate swore fealty to this absolutist stance by denying the reality of rape. For surely that is what Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin did in August, 2012, when he assured voters that the female body had ways of "shutting down" and preventing pregnancy when "legitimate" rape occurs.

Such errant nonsense might have passed unnoticed in prior election seasons. But not in 2012. That was because the spring's primary contests had already witnessed a fight not over abortion, but over an issue that had seemingly been settled for 50 years -- contraception. When Sandra Fluke deferentially raised questions about medical access to birth-control pills before a congressional hearing, she found herself relentlessly attacked by that blowhard of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh. For a week, Limbaugh tried his level best to assassinate her character, all the while the Republican candidates stood mute on the sidelines, no one daring to confront the bully.

The Republican establishment must surely view these developments with horror. The Party elders were willing to put up with the pro-lifers when it seemed they could deliver elections by persuading large segments of the white working class to vote against their economic interests in the name of social values. But a leadership obsessed with Randian economics will not long tolerate a movement that brings discredit and defeat to its side.

The pro-life movement must now choose between two paths. The first, which might be called the "wilderness road," is a steady descent to irrelevance and isolation. A social conservative movement that preaches hostility to culture, that denies basic truths of science (evolution, global warming, the big-bang theory), that opens the door to issues long thought to be closed (contraception), is clearly marching off a cliff. No political party can long withstand such delusional irresponsibility in its ranks. (Social conservatives might do well to read David Brooks' subtle hint in "A Second G.O.P.," New York Times, January 29, 2013).

Thoughtful pro-lifers must ask themselves if this is the path they wish to trod. For another way remains open to them, although it requires much soul-searching and scrutiny. And that is to reflect on history, to ask whether allegiance to an absolutist agenda has not led to the self-destruction of a noble cause, and to start over, using the debates of 1976 as guideposts.