When is it time to question the power of the pro-life movement? This week the state of New York passed a law that will mean babies can be killed up to the moment of birth. Babies that feel pain, cry, and could easily survive outside the womb will be brutally killed, chopped up, and sucked out like pieces of meat. Vermont is considering a similar bill. So is Virginia.
Meanwhile, the annual March for Life had a huge turnout this year, estimated to be as high as 300,000 people. How do these two things go together? Perhaps big marches are not a sign of success.
A New York book store owner, who became somewhat famous after he shut down his store in protest of the new abortion law, put it this way: “When intense pro-life involvement is defined by going to an annual pep rally or giving five bucks to a pro-life lobbyist at a Sanctity of Life Sunday, it’s not surprising that someone hanging a sign in his window, turning off the lights and going home is viewed as heroic.”
The pro-life movement has too much bark and no bite, too much signal and too little virtue. It takes participation in a march as more significant than legal victories ending abortion. The simple truth is that the pro-life movement is stagnant, dominated by an uncritical and defeatist attitude. It needs some new life.
A friend who worked for a pro-life organization very much in the “the movement” confirms this. He became frustrated that people there ignore the evidence in front of them, and instead show excitement about the size of the marches, acting “as if our country is turning a corner and is getting closer and closer to life.” Meanwhile, they react more strongly to those who challenge their approved legal tactics or rhetoric than they do actual political defeats, as if questioning the success of the movement is some sort of heresy.
Attitudes like this indicate that people in a group aren’t reflecting on their strategy honestly or taking a critical eye of what they have actually achieved. Successful organizations have ways to examine closely and honestly if they are achieving their goals. As Winston Churchill once said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” But how is the pro-life movement doing?
What Even Are Pro-Lifers’ Goals?
To evaluate success, we would first have to agree on the aim. But what is the pro-life movement trying to achieve? Are we trying to end legal abortion any time soon? If so, abortion is still legal everywhere before 20 weeks. Many states allow it after that. New York and soon Vermont allow it until birth. Some success.
Believing we will never end abortion in our time, are we simply trying to restrict it more? I could list all of the supposed successes in places like Alabama, West Virginia, or Texas, but it would be misleading. Every law meant to restrict it in any way, big or small, is failing in the courts, even in Texas, if it even gets that far. People in the pro-life movement seem to have few practical answers for what to do about activist judges.
Meanwhile, supposedly pro-life Gov. John Kasich wouldn’t even sign a heartbeat bill in Ohio because he was confident it would fail and defending it will cost too much money. Too much money—let that sink in. Kasich is right, however: the bill will be challenged in the courts and there pro-lifers will let it die.
Many people in the pro-life movement have stopped trying even to eliminate abortion, instead settling for mere restrictions. As a result, blue states are expanding access to abortion and red states, where pro-lifers supposedly dominate, can’t even restrict it if the baby has a detectable heartbeat.
Are we trying to maneuver toward some viable legal challenge to Roe v. Wade? If so, that isn’t working either. Every half measure is passed under the pretense that babies are not individuals with a right to life at conception. Each law that merely restricts abortion grants that women do have some right to choose death.
And each law that is successfully challenged adds to the body of legal precedence that must be overcome. Each year that goes by establishes Roe v. Wade more. Each pro-choice law that passes in blue states makes undoing their legal work harder.
No, This Isn’t the Most Pro-Life Generation Ever
Are we trying to change public opinion to be against abortion? The tide isn’t turning in public opinion. No matter how successful the pro-life movement is in inspiring people to attend the March for Life, no matter how much we declare that this, this is the pro-life generation, nearly 60 percent of people nationwide support keeping abortion legal. This is no change from 1995—after 20 years of marches and movement.
Are we trying to make pro-choice advocates less radical? That isn’t working either. Having dropped any pretense about being hospitable to pro-life people, Democrats are now unfettered to pursue their pro-abortion agenda with impunity. In the face of more and more science making the humanity of unborn children undeniable, the pro-abortion crowd has taken a hard left turn and shed any pretense that this is about anything but women’s liberation from nature. They openly celebrate killing babies for convenience.
Are we trying to reduce abortions generally? There is some success there: “approximately 882,000 abortions took place in the United States in 2017—down from approximately 885,000 abortions in 2016 and 913,000 abortions in 2015.” Except it isn’t clear that this shift by 30,000 babies is a result of the pro-life movement or if it is just because people are no longer bothering to get pregnant. Thirty thousand babies saved is something in which to rejoice, but it pales in comparison to 882,000 killed.
So in all only 50 or 60 million babies have been killed in the womb since Roe v. Wade, and each year close to a million more are added to the body count. There is no end to the slaughter anywhere in sight. Is that success?
Don’t Believe Your Bleeding Eyes
Despite all of this lack of tangible success, many in the pro-life movement insist it is succeeding. It is as if they no longer believe they can win the argument that abortion should be illegal, and so they shift the goal posts to merely “limiting abortion.” In this way, pro-life leaders seem to think they can show that they are winning the argument.
People who argue we ought to stand firm on our convictions and not settle are deemed idealistic, as if ending abortion any time soon is unrealistic. If I were cynical, I might say pro-life organizations have a good business model. Are they interested in winning the argument and rendering themselves unnecessary? Are they trying to win the argument for life? How could we tell, given their track record?
It is as if the pro-life movement lacks, well, life. It is as if many pro-lifers have accepted defeat and no longer believe in even the justice of their cause. They say they do, to be sure. The individual right to life is the cornerstone of the movement, they say. But like movement conservatism, the people in the pro-life movement appear to have become too comfortable in their role as beautiful losers, happy to pat themselves on the back for their moral purity while failing to question methods that have so far been shown rather ineffective.
A Culture of Life Is Still Distant
It is as if the pro-life movement has joined the rest of the let’s pretend world, meant in the way of the old Russian political joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” People in the pro-life movement pretend to move, and abortion activists pretend to be concerned about it.
Perhaps this is too uncharitable, and I am sure many pro-life people in pro-life organizations mean well. I know some of them and they do. But I am also frustrated, and I wonder if others are too. We are not moving toward a culture of life without abortion for convenience.
In a time when slavery, something very similar to abortion, was the question of the day, President Lincoln told Congress, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
It’s time for people to examine the pro-life movement closely and honestly. We need a change, and we need to be more than pro-life in name only. It’s time to actually fight for the unborn, instead of just saying we’re fighting.