Lifewatch: Regaining Pro-Life Momentum

I retired from the presidency of the National Right to Life organization in 1991 after serving in that capacity for ten years. In my final year I became increasingly distressed by a shift in national politics as many political candidates began to collapse into the pro-abortion camp. The pro-abortion gubernatorial victories in the fall of 1990 in both Virginia and New Jersey were held up as harbingers of a tidal change in our country. With significant help from the press, many candidates came to believe in the political advantage of pro-abortion politics. Candidates, who claimed to be pro-life only two or three years earlier, now began to campaign openly on “pro-choice” platforms. Even if a high percentage of those who so vacillated on this matter of abortion were later defeated, they nonetheless paved the way for others to change their public stance.

As I write this, in the second year of Clinton’s term, it would seem that the full fury of the pro-abortion movement is upon us. And yet it is equally clear that we have not been defeated and that the battle is not over. It does, however, behoove us to consider how it is that in so many ways they have turned the tide and put the pro-life movement on the defensive. Less than half a dozen years ago the opposite obtained.

If, by market research, the pro-abortion industry turned the tide on us, I was convinced that, by market research, the pro-life movement could learn to turn it back. That is exactly what Life Issues Institute has set out to do.

Taking a nationwide poll that could serve as a national focus group, we questioned people in depth, excluding those who stated either that they were pro-life or pro-choice. This left 1,500 people, or 50 percent of those we originally approached. The survey was limited to this middle fifty percent because it seemed obvious that whatever this middle group finally decides will almost certainly decide the fate of the abortion issue for decades to come.

The survey results were extremely clear. Just a few questions bring us to its core findings:

Question: “No matter how you look at it, the fetus is a human baby. Killing is wrong no matter what the month or stage of development.”

Yes, 73 percent; No, 12 percent.

Question: “Do you believe that abortion is against God’s will?”

Yes, 60 percent.

Had we stopped there, we would have had great cause for rejoicing. After more than twenty long years of educating a nation to the facts of fetal development, our message had clearly gotten through. Overwhelmingly the group in the middle saw the human fetus as a baby. No confused wording here. The very next question, however, revealed the achievement of the opposition:

Question: “Even though you believe this is a human life, do you think she [the mother] ought to have a right to get an abortion?”

Yes, 60 percent.

The dramatic result of this testing showed that, in a few short years, our nation has largely changed its mind. Previously, abortion had been tolerated because people did not understand that abortion involved the death of a baby. Now abortion is openly allowed even though they know it is a human life. The results of our testing confirm that this “conflicted middle” is very uncomfortable with their position, but, nevertheless, the belief in a woman’s right to choose an abortion carries so much weight that it overrides their other concerns. Clearly, the abortion industry has changed the question at hand, and, as a result, changed the course of a nation’s thinking.

At this stage in the controversy, it is not enough just to prove that the fetus is a human life.

Another fact brought out by our testing was that a significant percentage of this conflicted middle was no longer listening to us. Yet how can we teach those who refuse to listen? It seemed that our movement was at an impasse.

The key to it all is in compassion to women. The pro-life movement is in large measure a work motivated by compassion but, sadly, this aspect of our work is a well kept secret.

There are two broad avenues of action in the pro-life movement today. The first is the right to life segment involving 2,900 identified Right to Life chapters in the United States which together act as the educational and political lobby of the pro-life movement. The second avenue assumes the pastoral obligations of our work. Centers to help Women, Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Birthright, Lifeline, Heartbeat, etc., altogether number almost 3,500 institutions. There are, therefore, more centers, staffed by volunteer pro-life women, to serve the specific needs of women who carry their children to term than there are centers dedicated to ending the killing. Few know this. This is the unheralded work of thousands and thousands of community volunteers who care for women with untimely pregnancies.

The pro-life movement is overwhelmingly made up of women. Take the typical pregnancy help center. These, on an average, have 25 to as many as 100 volunteers. Out of 100 you will only find a few men. Go to a typical Right to Life office — their chapter meetings, on an average, are three-fourths female. Look at the board of National Right to Life or your state Right to Life group. Again you will find a strong majority of women. The pro-life movement is essentially a female movement. The “conflicted middle” does not know this. Herein lies one of our most pressing needs.

We must emphasize that the pro-life movement is a women’s movement deeply concerned about women. This renewed description of pro-lifers, we believe, is the key to our re-acceptance among those who recently have excluded us from the conversation.

Let me, as an example, cite a prototypical mixed college audience. Mrs. Willke and I continue to speak to such audiences quite frequently; some we have visited now for as many as ten consecutive years. Recently we used these classes as testing grounds for our new teaching method.

Up until two years ago we would typically give a lengthy audio/visual presentation on fetal development, and thereby prove beyond any doubt that a baby is a human person from conception. We would speak of discrimination on the basis of slavery, the Nazi holocaust, and of fetal handicap. We would speak briefly about a woman’s right to choose, of unwanted pregnancies, of back alley abortion, of rape, perhaps of population, and then, at the end, we would briefly show pictures of aborted babies. Sometimes, in the question period that followed, we would get into a discussion on post-abortion syndrome.

Increasingly, in the last few years, many students in our audiences have become more brittle, hostile and angry. Most of the questions would come from young women. It was clear that we weren’t getting through to a lot of them. This was a change from five years earlier.

But now we’ve adopted a new technique. My wife, Barbara, starts with a discussion about our deep concern and compassion for women. How it is that we understand the agony of her decision, and how it is that “We stand with her, not against her.” Then she discusses compassionate alternatives like adoption. Only then do we go into the detail about fetal development and the other subjects listed above, very briefly concluding with slides of actual abortions. Our discussion about choice has been substantially lengthened and at the end we describe post-abortion syndrome and discuss how to treat it. Our final flourish is to repeat our concern for both mother and child and we end with our new one-liner: “Why can’t we love them both?”

The results of these changes have been dramatic. The anger is gone. The combativeness is gone. The questions are civil and we are listened to once again. Informal comments made to us after our presentation betray that our audiences had no idea of the pro-life movement’s compassion for women. Given our new presentation, our audiences take a new and serious look at our position.

And so we come to what we believe is a badly needed change in the teaching dynamics of the pro-life movement, both here and abroad. The old way was amazingly successful in its time, but times have changed. What will be needed in another five years remains to be seen, but we strongly believe that today our pro-life message must be taught in a way that is acceptable to those who hold the key to saving these babies lives — the “conflicted middle.”

At the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the presentation we must tell them how much we love both mother and child. We must emphasize that we are compassionate to women, as our amazing network of women help centers all across our country attests. Finally, we must continue our further investigations. We need to know what goes on inside anyone who recognizes the unborn child as a “baby” but who will still permits its killing. Join us in turning the question “Who decides?” into “Why can’t we love them both?”


  • Dr. John C. Willke

    John C. Willke is an American medical doctor, author, and pro-life activist. Along with his wife Barbara, he is the author of a number of books on abortion and human sexuality. He is the founder and president of the International Right to Life Federation and president of the Life Issues Institute. He is a former president of National Right to Life.

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