What’s Next for the Pro-Life Movement?

Pro-life folks are celebrating the strong probability that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, which as even the late Justice Ginsburg acknowledged was too far-reaching and too sweeping. While she and I disagree on the outcome we desire, I affirm with her that any reforms to abortion regulations (and they were needed in 1973) should have involved legislative processes along with judicial ones (I would say legislative instead of judicial decrees).

But before we party too heartily, this is far from the end of debates over issues of abortion (or other matters regarding the sanctity of life). As Churchill said after the Battle of El Alamein, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will not end abortions in this country, but it will create hundreds of new challenges as the debates move where I believe they should always have been, to the Congress and the legislatures of the various states. And my sense is that most of us are not equipped to accomplish what is needed — to change hearts and minds of those who genuinely believe the debate is about “women’s rights” or “women’s health care.”

The reality is that over the past 50 years, the same arguments have been repeated (ad nauseam, I might add), by those on both sides. Some folks are persuaded by one set of arguments and some by the other. But there is no attempt to find a reasonable place most of us can move beyond our slogans to look for common ground.

As I see the various memes on my Facebook feed, folks are lobbing slogans and in some cases hysterical screeds that have no chance of persuading anybody to look at the matter differently. No, the next step is not to ban interracial marriages (I have actually seen posts to that effect), and no, it is not the end of abortions in America. [As an aside, those who laugh at believers in some massive Q conspiracy seem to be susceptible to their own conspiracy theories.]

A story: Way back in 1984, I was a delegate to the convention of the Lutheran Church in America in Toronto. My bishop assigned us to attend various workshops, and perhaps mischievously and perhaps wisely he sent me to one on the topic of abortion. The room was filled with pro-choice folks. My friends will be amazed that I kept a low profile, and once those gathered realized that the place was “safe,” they started sharing their dismay at the huge number of abortions being performed. Finally I went to a microphone, identified my position, and suggested that we had more in common than it appeared. A reporter for UPI even interviewed me afterwards, and the conversation became much more constructive.

We who are pro-life need to take seriously that many of those holding a pro-choice position are uncomfortable with the death of babies. And we should be uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric on our side which leads people to believe that we have no concern for very difficult decisions women and doctors sometimes need to make on terminating a pregnancy. Burn me at the stake if you wish, but there are times when an abortion may be a responsible decision. I believe this should be rare, but even the Roman Catholic Church permits abortion of an ectopic pregnancy.

Another story: When my mother learned of my pro-life views, she said, “There is something you need to know.” In 1948 she was in renal failure at Geisinger Hospital as she was carrying me, and the doctors told my father they couldn’t save both of us. He told them to “save the baby,” and in his best military veteran’s style would add later, “I don’t know what I would have done with a [bleep] baby.” Now as it turned out, my mother outlived my father by a quarter of a century, and I am still journeying around the sun 74 years later. My mother never had any doubts or reservations about the decision my father made; had she been able, she would have made the same one. But looking back (I hope with gratitude and humility) I do not believe my father could have been condemned had he chosen the opposite. Oh, and this was 25 years before Roe v. Wade but abortion would have been an option.

I have been told that after Roe v. Wade, Senator (and Lutheran) Mark Hatfield was prepared to introduce a human life amendment which probably could have passed. The problem was that some pro-life advocates wanted an absolute prohibition, and others wanted to include exceptions (rape, incest, preserving the life of the mother). Sen. Hatfield knew that he would not have enough votes if either group voted against it, so he told the groups to work out their differences and give him a bill they could all support. Sadly, that never happened, and millions of lives have been sacrificed. As is so often true, the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

We who are pro-life will never win the victories that matter in congress and state legislatures unless we are prepared to address the legitimate concerns of the large number of people who really are “pro-choice” and not simply “pro-abortion.” There are absolutists on both sides, and all they do in either case is radicalize the other side. Again, Justice Ginsburg recognized that Roe v. Wade empowered the pro-life movement (and I suspect, bears much of the responsibility for the ugliness of the political wars wracking our nation right now).

So I would challenge my pro-life friends — Tone down the rhetoric! Listen to the legitimate concerns of those persuaded by the pro-choice arguments. Take seriously the genuine compassion they feel toward women in crisis pregnancies. Be prepared gently to respond to the lies which are widely believed, such as that pro-life people don’t care about the child after it is born. And show by your actions that you do care! The narrative spread by the media and the abortion advocates is that we are a bunch of hateful fanatics (mostly males) who want to oppress women by forcing our narrow religious doctrines on them. You and I know that isn’t true, but sometimes we let ourselves get carried away in the heat of argument.

If in fact the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, our work will just begin. Are we prepared to engage in the hard work of speaking and acting in ways that might change the hearts and minds of those who disagree with us? Are we prepared to listen more than to argue? The lives of thousands, maybe millions of human beings will depend on our answer.