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BY Barb Ernster
If Michigan Right to Life were a basketball player, it would be Michael Jordan.
Michigan Right to Life has mounted successful campaigns to pass a state Parental Notification Law, an Informed Consent law, a clinic regulation law, an abortion reporting law and a Fetal Homicide Act. They were on the winning side of a referendum banning the use of Medicaid funds for abortions. They worked with others to stop the legalization of assisted suicide in Michigan. They lobbied successfully to make Michigan the first state to ban cloning and they helped pass restrictions on fetal tissue and embryo research.
Three times the organization was victorious in advancing a ban on partial-birth abortion, only to have federal courts strike it down. They did win a ban, however, on the use of Medicaid funds for abortions — leading to a 48% decrease in the annual rate of abortion in the state. They prevailed in supporting a series of adoption enhancement laws and they are current-l y working on legislation to separate Planned Parenthood funding from family planning funding.
The person most responsible for these legislative and political successes is Barbara Listing, president of Michigan Right to Life since 1981.
Those who know her describe Listing as quiet, patient and organized — a leader to emulate.
“She has a style that almost assures victory. She's well respected by everyone who knows her, including many politicians,” noted Sister Monica Kostielney, the president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, who has worked with Listing on life legislation and various statewide referendums since 1972. “She has a keen mind, a strong will and a zealous spirit. I am always grateful for the times when we worked together.”
Listing herself attributes the Michigan Right to Life successes to the strength of the entire organization, which formed from a coalition of groups that organized to defeat a statewide effort to legalize abortion in 1972. After the Roe v. Wade decision, however, Michigan Right to Life became a more cohesive group, and has been very successful in the state legislature ever since.
Compared to other states Michigan has had one of the nation's largest decreases in abortions — from about 50,000 a year at its peak in 1987, to about 26,000 a year today, including a 56% drop in teen abortions after the Parental Notification law was passed.
“The law is a great teacher,” said Listing. “Many people would say if abortion isn't legal and wasn't so accessible, we wouldn't have the numbers we have now. You can't pass laws unless you elect those people and get involved in the political process.”
Michigan Right to Life was recently ranked the second most effective single-issue lobbying organization in the state, beating such strongholds as the Michigan Education Association and labor groups, according to a survey of legislators, lobbyists and administrative heads conducted by Inside Michigan Politics. Listing attributes that to the strong grassroots organization throughout the state, which the legislators respond to.
“Sometimes people get discouraged when politicians do not fulfill the obligations and promises once they're elected.” It is equally discouraging that Catholic elected officials so often set their faith aside when it comes to abortion, she said. But if people give up, it opens the door for pro-abortion candidates and laws.
“Because we've been very consistent on the path in what we do in Michigan, the pro-abortion numbers in the legislature are very small and basically can't pass a piece of legislation. I think that shows why you have to become involved,” she said.
Listing said she wasn't always so passionate about working on the abortion issue. It was the Roe v. Wade ruling that prompted her to action.
“I never expected the [Supreme] Court to do what they did,” she said. “I knew that this was a terrible decision for the unborn child, but there was a part of me that felt this would really hurt women and was not going to be the advance for women that the court said.”
She always supported the positions on equal pay and equal access in professions that the National Organization for Women strived for in the earlier years, but said they went wrong when they included abortion in women's rights.
“Perhaps that was what drove me and continues to drive me. When you work with women who have had abortions, it's just reaf-firmed all the time. It certainly was not the gift they thought they were getting.”
Dorothy Hopper was one of the first women to affirm Listing's feelings when she met her in 1985. Hopper and other post-abortive women had formed a group called Women Exploited by Abortion and rented office space from Michigan Right to Life. Listing encouraged them to tell their stories.
“No one talked about having had an abortion. Even now people don't talk about it,” said Hopper. “I think for some time people had the attitude toward the women that they were scum. We were women in difficult situations and were often talked into having abortions. Barb with her faith, being able to forgive and work with us, was vital to my healing. She's a dynamic woman. Without her support, I may not be here.”
Hopper's abortion was funded by Medicaid. She said it was approved in three days, yet when her mother needed Medicaid funding for back surgery, it took over two months for approval. That's not uncommon, she said, and it prompted her to get involved in Michigan Right to Life's legislative effort to ban Medicaid funded abortions.
Listing's”spiritual leadership and encouragement to tell our stories were very important. We pioneered the way for others to go public, and get involved in the Informed Consent bill. God has used the women who have had abortions in some powerful ways,” she said.
Listing said the women who came forward to testify were the best lobbyists they had on the issue, but added, “We have to be careful that we don't simply use them without understanding how they need to be involved or not be involved in the movement.”
As the number of abortions decline and the number of pro-life people increases, she is optimistic about the future, especially in seeing the young people who are willing to sacrifice higher salaries to work for her organization or other pro-life groups. She's also encouraged by President Bush's pro-life positions and the fact that he speaks so strongly about the value of life. “That's a great opportunity for the pro-life movement to move forward in public opinion.”
While Michigan Right to Life is up against two pro-abortion U.S. Senators and a large population of people who vote pro-labor more than pro-life, Listing believes the group can change minds by working with the local communities, educating them on abortion and where candidates stand.
“It's always a constant, people-to-people and one-to-one education — we just can't get away from that. It's still winning people over.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.