What Now? Pro-life Strategy for the Clinton Era

With the election of Clinton, pundits everywhere are predicting the imminent demise of the pro-life movement and the settlement of the abortion issue. Some pro-life organizations are likely despondent and looking for direction. Anti-slavery leaders must have shared a similar anxiety in March 1857. After more than 25 years of unremitting toil, they saw—within the space of a week—President James Buchanan sworn into office as a pro-slavery Democrat and the Supreme Court issue its decision in Dred Scott, declaring a constitutional right to own slaves and stripping Congress of any power to limit the spread of slavery. The triumph of slavery seemed complete. But, of course, just three-and-a-half years later, Lincoln was elected president and, even without the Civil War, change would have come.

Slavery and abortion have at least this much in common: their essential nature is hideous to those who won’t avert their eyes, they offend fundamental notions of human dignity and justice, and they are opposed by millions of Americans. Slavery did not and abortion will not go away with one election.

The Clinton election was a referendum on George Bush, not an ideological revolution in America. Of course, Clinton will bring with him a radical cultural policy that was intentionally submerged in the campaign, and Clinton will do damage to pro-life public policies in the next four years, but there is no evidence that the Clinton election signifies a seismic shift in American attitudes toward abortion. Indeed, an ABC exit poll found that one in eight voters believed abortion was the defining issue for the Presidential election, and of those citizens, 65 percent voted pro-life.

The election requires, instead, a renewed vision newly articulated, a recommitment of will and energy, and bold action on new opportunities that can capture public imagination and change public policy. As Clinton takes office, pro-lifers must also re-examine some political fundamentals. Lincoln’s approach to slavery is an excellent model. After serving in Congress in the 1840s, Lincoln retired from politics until 1854, when the passage of the federal Kansas-Nebraska Act (which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowed the expansion of the slavery into the territories) revived the slavery controversy and provoked Lincoln to re-enter the public arena.

Although he was not an abolitionist, Lincoln believed that slavery was inherently evil—there could be no moral “choice” for slavery. Lincoln sought to restore the 1820 Missouri Compromise—which had “forever” prohibited slavery in a large portion of the Louisiana Purchase—because he believed that it had put slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Naturally, Lincoln opposed the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision and wished to see it overturned, because it threatened to extend slavery into every territory and state on the basis of an unconstitutional arrogation of authority by the Court in striking down the Missouri Compromise.

Yet Lincoln understood the nature of statesmanship, the relationship between principle and policy, the importance of public opinion in a democracy, and the ebb and flow of political seasons. Harry Jaffa identified these ingredients of statesmanship in Lincoln’s approach to slavery:

First, is the goal a worthy one; second, does the statesman judge wisely as to what is and what is not within his power; third, are the means selected apt to produce the intended result; and fourth, in denying any intention to do those things which he could not in any case do, does he say or do anything to hinder future statesmen from more perfectly attaining his goal when altered conditions bring more of that goal within the range of possibility.

These considerations of principle, political ingenuity, and practical wisdom should guide all efforts to overcome the political and constitutional obstacles to restoring the sanctity of human life in American law and culture.

We can observe these ingredients of statesmanship at work by comparing Lincoln’s response to the Crittenden Compromise, proposed after his election during the secession winter of 1860-1861, with his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. The Crittenden Compromise, supported by Stephen Douglas and thousands of Americans, would have extended the territory open to slavery beyond the boundaries set by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Lincoln repudiated it in December 1860, as a surrender of principle that he could not accept. By contrast, Lincoln resisted his more zealous anti-slavery allies for years until, after sufficient battlefield victories in 1862, he proposed an Emancipation Proclamation as a gradualist step required because of “military necessity.” Though some of his allies hankered after a complete abolition of slavery, for strategic reasons he framed the Proclamation so that it freed slaves in those parts of the country still in rebellion but did not free the slaves in that part of the Union which fought with him. In other words, while Lincoln opposed the Crittenden Compromise because it compromised principle, he designed the Emancipation Proclamation to declare his principle, even if the full enactment of that principle could not yet be politically achieved. As Jaffa puts it, “the wise statesman will act to achieve the greatest measure of justice that the world in which he is acting admits.”

Re-establishing legal protection for unborn children must be reaffirmed as a worthy goal. The election does not require the pro-life movement to trim its sails or to retreat from that principle. Historian Marvin Olasky, in his recent book Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, suggests that the pursuit of legal protection, including legal prohibitions of some kind, is insufficient to eliminate abortion. It may be conceded that social inhibitions are also needed to complement the law and to establish in fact a fundamental right to life for children. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment established the legal equality of all citizens, and this was no slight accomplishment, even though it did not always prevent freed slaves from being lynched.

Legal protection for unborn children is based on principle: the unborn are human beings and killing them is homicide. That’s clear in other areas of the law. For example, Illinois’ fetal homicide law penalizes as homicide the killing of unborn children, at any stage of gestation— again, outside the context of abortion—and there have been several convictions in the past decade. Minnesota recently enforced a similar law to punish the killing of a 28-day-old unborn child who died when an estranged boyfriend shot and killed his pregnant girlfriend.

The goal is also based on history: until 1966, virtually no state allowed the abortion of unborn children except to save the life of the mother. From the early 1800s, American state laws evolved to provide greater and greater protection for the unborn child, in response to greater medical understanding of developing human life and the increased ability of law enforcement to detect the crime. Abortionists, not mothers, were always the target of the law; women were treated as victims of the profiteering abortionist. The current law permitting abortion on demand is a relatively brief aberration of 20 years.

The goal of legal protection for children is also based on culture: Roe v. Wade has introduced a schizophrenic treatment of unborn children into contemporary American culture. On one hand, abortion on demand is allowed by law, at any time of pregnancy, for any reason. Yet, when the child is “wanted,” modern medical science administers care and treatment for the unborn child in utero nearly from conception.

Finally, the goal is based on experience: Legalizing abortion clearly opened the floodgates, with abortion rates doubling and the rate of repeat abortions nearly tripling since 1973. There are two alternatives to abortion: pregnancy prevention or childbirth. Twenty years of abortion on demand have demonstrated that no amount of education or money alone can create sufficient disincentives for abortion and sufficient incentives for prevention or childbirth. Teen pregnancy rates will never drop as long as we have abortion on demand. Care services for women and children can soften the effects of abortion prohibitions, but only legal prohibitions of some kind can create sufficient incentives for pregnancy prevention or childbirth. Similarly, reformers in England knew that the slave trade was so profitable that it could only be suppressed by Parliamentary action.

Yet neither principle nor good intentions were good enough to end the British slave trade, and they are not enough today. The Clinton election introduces some extra, short-term political constraints, and the pro-life movement must now judge wisely as to what is within its power to achieve in the next four years and what means are appropriate to produce those ends. Successful cultural and legal strategies must wisely adapt to political changes in the landscape. While the federal level will be particularly hostile to pro-life interests in the next four years, the state level can provide broad new opportunities. Without forsaking the end goal, it would be wise, at least in the short term, to focus on limiting abortion, while still holding the banner high.

The Clinton election compels the movement to re-examine its vision, strategies, and tactics. The pro-life movement must tell the nation what it is for, first and foremost, rather than what it is against. That’s what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., did in his “I Have a Dream” speech. King could have condemned segregation and the state of life for blacks in America in 1963. Instead, he proclaimed a vision of America that was broad enough and bold enough to inspire millions of Americans. The recent DeMoss ads (“Life—What a beautiful choice”) have exhibited that kind of vision. With all too few statesmen like Lincoln on the scene to articulate a pro-life vision, mass public education will be critical during the next four years.

Pro-life Vision

Education. Despite 20 years of abortion on demand, too few Americans understand the nature of American abortion policy. As a 1990 Gallup poll revealed, only one in ten Americans know that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, in every state, at any time of pregnancy, for any reason. Yet, the majority oppose abortion except in limited circumstances early in pregnancy. Most Americans oppose most abortions, but most Americans think that Roe protects only a right to abortion in grave circumstances early in pregnancy. The enduring educational task is to inform the public that American abortion policy, even after the Casey decision, is the most permissive in the Western world.

New initiatives. New ideas and public and private initiatives can flourish from “the government in exile.” The economic ideas that produced the longest peacetime expansion in American history during the Reagan-Bush years, for example, were formulated and publicized during the Carter years. We now have the opportunity—and the serious challenge—to formulate and implement new pro-life public policy initiatives, informed by a broad vision, that can capture the imagination of the American people.

Building local pro-life organizations. Ideas alone are not enough; troops are needed to carry the message. This election resulted in greater awareness of abortion among some people, brought more people to a greater commitment to pro-life political change, and permitted new pro- life networks to be established at the local level. These gains were not enough, but they can establish a beach-head for further progress. The need to identify and integrate pro-life citizens into the grassroots movement always exists. People die, move away, retire, or get burned out. Vigorous leaders of state and local organizations are also needed.

Fighting Clinton abortion initiatives. The immediate policy challenge in 1993 is to defeat the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) in Congress. The FOCA introduced in the last Congress would impose on all states, as a matter of federal law, an abortion policy even more radical than Roe v. Wade. Roe prevents the states from prohibiting any abortion, for any reason, at any time of pregnancy, but even Roe and subsequent court decisions allow the states to enact parental notice or consent for abortion laws. The most recent Casey decision allowed the states, for the first time in 20 years, to enact detailed informed consent laws requiring that abortionists provide women with essential information 24 hours before an abortion.

But FOCA would invalidate, in every state, any abortion regulations that Roe or Casey allowed. While President-elect Clinton issued contradictory statements throughout the campaign about his position on parental notice and 24-hour waiting periods, he has promised to support FOCA. On the other hand, since Clinton has promised to focus on the economy in his first hundred days, it would be reckless for him to try to push such a controversial bill through Congress. And even if FOCA is passed, it will be challenged in court because it exceeds Congress’s constitutional authority to limit the states.

Of course, Clinton’s pro-abortion allies will push abortion on many other fronts—at military bases, with RU-486, on fetal tissue transplantation, with federal judicial nominations, through national health insurance. They were successful during the Reagan-Bush years in opposing or delaying pro-life initiatives or in giving black eyes to Reagan and Bush along the way. Pro-lifers must be prepared to launch similar strategies through offensive litigation, legislative battles, and media campaigns.

Informed consent/parental notice. It is at the state level that real progress can be made in the next four years. A broader pro-life vision that addresses comprehensive care for mother and child must be articulated and new policy initiatives must be formulated. Two critical elements for pro-life public policy are informed consent— requiring the abortionist to provide full information on the nature and risks of abortion, fetal development, and alternatives—and parental notice laws. These policies cut across traditional pro-life boundaries to find the support of most Americans. After the Casey decision, a USA Today/CNN poll showed that overwhelming majorities support parental consent, mandated physician counseling, and a 24-hour waiting period for abortion. These policies do save lives and encourage alternatives. While the Minnesota parental notice law was in effect between 1981–6, the teen pregnancy rate dropped by 21 percent, and the teen abortion rate fell 27 percent. In the two months after the Mississippi informed consent law went into effect this August, preliminary data indicate that abortion at three clinics in the state dropped 50 percent.

Stigmatizing abortionists. One clear achievement in the past 20 years has been maintaining the traditional social stigma against abortionists, and pro-abortion medical organizations constantly evince their dismay at this. Pro-life protest and rescue have clearly contributed to this, if not single-handedly achieved it. Yet public opinion polls also show that the pro-life movement has a bad public image and is believed to be less caring for women and more violent than pro-abortion organizations. The protest and rescue organizations, like all of us, must question the strategic impact of their work. How can they most effectively work to turn around public opinion and public policy on abortion?

Overturning Roe v. Wade and Casey. For the past 20 years, we have fought to overturn Roe v. Wade through the courts or through a constitutional amendment. Progress has been made. The high tide for Roe ended with the Thornburgh decision in 1986, the last Supreme Court decision which harshly invalidated an abortion regulation. Then the Casey decision allowed detailed informed consent laws for the first time in 20 years. That overruling strategy needs to go forward, albeit with revisions that take account of current political and legal constraints. But it is also necessary to overturn these decisions in the public mind. And the Court in Casey altered the foundation for Roe by creating the new canard that abortion on demand is essential for women to achieve equal status in American society. The assault against Roe and Casey must and will continue.

Political seasons. Certainly we must have a long-term view of the struggle. It is a marathon, as many have said, not a sprint, because it is a deeply ingrained cultural problem, not a passing technological fad. Wilberforce’s battle against the British slave trade took 20 years and the battle against slavery another 25. The fight against American slavery took 35 years. After the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the fight against racial segregation took another 100 years (and counting).

Political success has its seasons when it can take advantage of unique issues, personalities, and opportunities that arise. For example, in the revolutionary era in Massachusetts, the Boston Massacre of 1770 temporarily galvanized a popular movement, led in part by Samuel Adams, which went into the streets. But for the next three years he despaired for the movement and worked feverishly, as John Ferling has written, to “keep alive . . . both the flickering radical sentiment and the cohesiveness of the popular movement.” Only in 1773 was Adams again able to capitalize on various political mistakes by Governor Hutchinson and once again galvanize the drive to independence.

Likewise, the groundwork must be laid in the next four years: grass roots organizations must be reinvigorated, more Americans educated, and new public policy initiatives formulated. If this is done, we will be able to take advantage of future political opportunities when they arise, as they surely will.

A new entrepreneurial spirit. If the pro-life movement does not move ahead with a renewed vision, a recommitment to principle, and renewed energy, it will be capitulating not just to the people that elected Clinton but to the popular mindset that elected him as well: a loss of faith, a fear for the future, and an irrational desire for change for the sake of change. We need, rather, a new entrepreneurial spirit in the pro-life movement. Innovations cannot be planned; they must be created by human will and ingenuity. Patience, perseverance, and an indomitable spirit are ever needed. We should heed Churchill’s call to the House of Commons three days after becoming Prime Minister in May 1940: “I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail. . . . Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”


  • Clarke Forsythe

    Clarke Forsythe is currently Senior Counsel for Americans United for Life and author of Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade, forthcoming from Encounter Books in September 2013.

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