Has the Prolife Movement Been Doing It Wrong?

Those who have been in the trenches during 14 years of the war against legal abortion tend to get irritable when newcomers want to instruct them in rhetoric and tactics. In the year or so preceding the American Bishops’ pastoral on War and Peace, for example, a fair number of previously silent liberals joined the anti-abortion battle, and began to advise that prolifers must assume positions favoring pacifism and opposing capital punishment, or be accused of moral inconsistency. Some veteran prolifers had to struggle against an inhospitable impulse to snarl back that the worst inconsistency in sight has been the refusal of most pacifists to include abortion in their list of prohibited acts of violence. Yet, on the whole, they managed to control themselves. New troops, God knows, are needed and welcome, even if they have something to learn.

Hence, I do not wish to seem unwelcoming to writer Quentin Quade, who, in his essay, “Simply Against Abortion,” (Sept. 1983) seems to show a similar zeal to reform as he outlines the tactical errors made by prolifers. But his observations and recommendations are mostly wrong — I don’t know how to put this more tactfully — and his arguments refuted by experience. If he had been around the movement for any length of time, he would not have supposed them to be new ideas.

Quade points first to a failure “to keep separate issues separate.” The anti-abortion movement, he says, has mistakenly tied itself to the “surely losing cause” of anti-contraception, and thus alienated that majority of the public which, having adopted a contraceptive way of life, must inevitably defend that choice by rejecting those who call it wrong — even if they, like the author, insist that contraception is an entirely different issue from abortion.

This first example of error is simply incorrect. As a matter of fact, until recently, the subject of contraception was scrupulously avoided in anti-abortion rhetoric by all the groups with which I am familiar — and my mailbox groans under the burden of their newsletters. The reasons for avoiding the subject were precisely those Quade mentions: to keep the abortion issue separate from the issue of contraception, and to emphasize that abortion is not a matter of sexual ethics but of killing. Another reason was the effort to find a middle ground between those who saw contraception as a contributing cause, and those who saw it as a solution.

As evidence for his claim that prolifers have failed to keep those issues separate, Quade cites two passages, Number 14 from Humanae Vitae, and Number 25 from the Synod of Bishops 1971 document, Justice in the World, which mention abortion, contraception sterilization and war as intertwined evils. Aside from the question of war, which recently seems, like a clerical Pac Man, to have gobbled up all other concerns, the passages cited are quite untypical of Catholic sermonizing as a whole. Catholics in the pews have heard far less preaching against abortion than the folks at NARAL imagine, but they have nevertheless heard much more about the evils of abortion than about the evils of contraception. Indeed, if all the American Catholics who have heard a sermon against contraception in the past ten years came and stood in my flowerbed, they would pose little danger to the geraniums.

Exceptions to the rule include a few prolife educators like Father Paul Marx, and the Holy Father. Father Marx, however, is not a movement organizer, but an educator; even so, his outspoken opposition to the contraceptive mentality was long a source of discomfort to the political arm of the movement. Popes who express disapproval of contraception along with abortion ought to be criticized for tactical error by Quade, who wants the hierarchy to stay out of politics. Popes, he should surely concede, are properly concerned not with political tactics, but with truth.

It is only recently that a significant part of the organized prolife movement has begun to talk about contraception. They have done so, at last, for several reasons. First, while it is true, as Quade notes and as prolifers noted long ago, that abortion is not a sexual sin but a sin of killing, it is also true that the “hard cases” of pro-abortion propaganda — poverty, life threatening illness, rape and incest — make up only a miniscule proportion of the abortion market, quite incapable of sustaining the profitable abortion industry. The mass demand for abortion, the repeat customers, the profits, are produced by an ethic that views sexual intercourse as unrelated to procreation. There really is an anti-life sexual mentality, enormously increased by the attitudes of the sexual revolutionists, that divorces sexual intercourse from even the possibility of pregnancy. Contraception makes that divorce possible. If pregnancy unexpectedly ensues, abortion is the logical backup: messy and even, perhaps, regrettable, but necessary, since a baby is not to be considered. So abortion is, after all, intertwined with sexual ethics. In their growing awareness that it is, prolifers have come to see that the contemporary ethic must be exposed and eventually transformed, if respect for the child’s life is to be given precedence over convenience by those whose attitudes were formed during the era of legal abortion.

As a tactic, the attempt to keep the abortion and contraception issues separate has proved to be an advantage to the pro-abortion forces. Under the label of “reproductive freedom,” the promoters of abortion are united with the advocates of contraception in a financial, commercial, ideological, and political network of great power. Immobilized by the tactical determination to avoid even an appearance of opposition to contraception, the prolife movement tried for years (and in some places, still tries) to oppose the abortion movement while ignoring the contraceptive professionals who share the same power structure: lobbying groups, congressional champions, and donors. Since the leaders in the “reproductive freedom” forces are not stupid, they have exploited that advantage by using such organizations as Planned Parenthood as an institutional avant garde, propaganda arm, legal defense association, and tax- funding funnel — a position very much like that of the Staging Area State described in Richard Dyson’s article on the guerrilla game, also in the September issue.

If the issues of abortion and contraception are to be separated, that distinction will have to be made in the consciousness of the contraceptive users Quade describes, who have mistakenly assumed that having accepted contraception, they must also accept abortion. The error is theirs.

The use of the label “prolife” is Quade’s second example of anti-abortion misjudgment. I agree that the movement has worried more than it should about being perceived as positive. About the killing of helpless innocents it is appropriate that decent people be adamantly negative. I agree, too, that the movement should avoid diversionary arguments about pacifism and capital punishment.

However, it was clear from the first that the battle over abortion is only the first in a war between the defenders of life and the (quite literally) merchants of death. As soon as the case was made that some lives ought to be ended, and that the decision to do so could legally be made by an interested party other than the victim, it was evident that the logic would, in time — the time needed for conditioning public acceptance — be extended to include victims already born.

It has happened, of course, to handicapped babies sedated and starved in sterile nurseries, to abortion survivors strangled at birth or set aside in buckets to die of neglect, to comatose patients detached from feeding tubes. Its growing outline can be detected in the recent recommendations of a Minnesota committee that some aged residents in nursing homes be denied treatment, as well as in the increasing number of reported cases of amateur infanticide; six in Minnesota within recent months, including baby Rachel Marie Doe; who was tossed to her death on a public highway last January 22. The bloody evil of abortion is not the whole of the campaign to solve life’s problems by killing the innocent. It was the spearhead of the pro-death movement, but the rest of the spear is in motion too.

Quade’s third objection to the campaign tactics of abortion opponents concerns what he calls “the continued direct intrusion of the Catholic hierarchy as hierarchy in the political process.” I am inclined to agree with him that those who represent the U.S.C.C. have not showed much political shrewdness. The prolife movement is, however, an organization of laymen, operating in precisely the way Quade recommends, as citizens informed by religious and moral principle. The hierarchy is much less involved, and very much less effective in the prolife movement than its critics claim. Catholic citizens today cannot be ordered to obey, as a little more reflection on the contraception statistics might remind him. They can only be persuaded. I doubt that the pro-abortion propagandists believe their own claim that Catholic citizens are, as Quade puts it, “conscripts to the Church.” If Quade himself believes that, I’d be interested to discover what corner of the world he has been watching. I have not seen any such evidence, but I’d like to.

If Quade is wrong on all counts, how can we explain the failure of the anti-abortion movement to end the killing? More and more, abortion seems to me to be an ugly outgrowth of a civilization without a culture, rootless and aimless, worshipping transient pleasure because it has no other God. That dismal analysis does an injustice, I know, to the good and ordinary citizens who still cherish in their own lives a core of Christian principle, and they may well be the majority of Americans. Too many of them, however, are either oblivious to the ongoing horror, or perceiving it, feel powerless to do anything about it, largely because the means of public attitude formation (television, movies, magazines, records, newspapers) are in the hands of the decadent. If for just six months the prolife movement had the benefit of a full-scale media campaign by the Advertising Council, I am confident we would have an uncompromising Human Life Amendment. The prospects for that, however, are not bright.

Nevertheless, the war is not over. Far from admit-ting defeat in the face of setbacks, the prolife movement continues to grow. Its educational work seems to be showing effect in declining support for abortion among students today, documented by recent polls but reported even earlier by prolife speakers in the field. The dramatic awakening to the abortion issue among evangelical Christians has stirred springs of hope among the most battle-weary in the movement. And everywhere in the movement today, one encounters a new sense of dependence on God, of a need for prayer, of a refusal to pretend that the destruction of innocent life is a purely secular matter. Prolifers are asking for God’s help, which is even more powerful than that of the Advertising Council, and far more important than tactical judgment.


  • Donna Steichen

    Donna Steichen’s first book, "Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism,"(Ignatius Press), stirred up a storm among feminists when it was published in 1991. Her most recent book is "Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-Three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard" (Ignatius Press, 2009).

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...