The politics of partial-birth abortion. Sigh.

What are we to make of the Senate's latest failure to override President Clinton's veto? What possible explanation could there be for a vote hopelessly contradicting all that is known to be true and humane? When you consider that all the medical evidence about partial-birth abortion goes one way (in the words of the American Medical Association, it is “basically repulsive,” “not a recognized medical procedure,” and “never medically indicated”). When you consider that the only “new information” that emerged since Congress last voted was the birth of a nearly full-term infant girl who survived an attempted partial-birth abortion. Her survival — albeit with broken bones and lacerations — being the most eloquent evidence possible of the fact that partial-birth abortion is really infanticide. When you consider that, during final debate on the override vote, pro-abortion senators barely took to the floor of the Senate in support of this horrible thing. What could they say? The same tired old misrepresentations and anec-dotes trotted out since the beginning of the debate? Misrepresentations and anecdotes soundly disproved at every turn?

Clues to the politics of this can be drawn from some of the comments made by senators as they were lobbied by various pro-lifers. And some educated guesses can be made based on the overall political environment in Washington at the moment. It could be that pro-abortion Democrats made a decision not to appear weak in the onslaught of recent charges made against President Clinton, and by extension, against Democrats. It could also be that pro-abortion Democrats decided that, in an electoral season wherein campaign donations might be harder to come by (again, thanks to Clinton), one better move in lock-step with a lobby — pro-abortion political action committees — which opens its huge coffers only to hard-core abortion loyalists. For some years now, the single richest political action committee in the United States is Emily's List, which gives only to pro-abortion Democratic women candidates. Planned Parenthood's political action committee and that of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights' Action League are wealthy and influential, both among pro-abortion Democrats and pro-abortion Republicans.

While the legal victory is not yet accomplished, many significant goods are being achieved in the course of pursuing it.

These are not pretty political realities to contemplate. They could lead to despair. Despair that truth, even combined with majority will and good grass-roots action, could ever change anything.

But we're a long way from having to despair. This recent vote is only the latest round in the debate. As soon as a new Congress, including a new Senate, is elected, we will have another chance. And the omens look good for pro-life gains in the Senate. We will take this matter up again and again until it is done, because we must. What else would we do while infanticide is proceeding in our country under the mantle of the law?

Furthermore, while the legal victory is not yet accomplished, many significant goods are being achieved in the course of pursuing it. As the partial-birth debate rages, America is receiving the most important pro-life education it's had in a very, very long time. It's conceptualizing the child at the other end of the abortion instruments. It's learning about why it is never necessary to directly kill an unborn child—not this way, not any way — in order to preserve a mother's life or health. It's learning that the abortion lobby in the United States could be described with the phrases “Say Anything” and “By Any Means Necessary.”

The partial-birth debate has proven again to the pro-life community that massive grass-roots action is possible, and can have good results. House Minority Leader Gephardt, Senators Landrieu, Specter, Daschle, Hollings —just to name a few — would not likely have voted our way but for mass outpourings of public opinion in the form of letters and calls. Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska felt the need to apologize for his pro-abortion vote in the form of a public letter to the pro-life majority in Nebraska.

Pro-lifers remembered that prayer must always be included in a pro-life campaign. When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a “Novena for Life” the response overwhelmed us. (What do you know, we said to ourselves, we produce 20 different kinds of tools for people to use in the campaign to ban partial-birth abortion, and what people really want is a good old-fashioned novena!) I knew the success of this prayer was indeed of epic proportions when I got a call from a wonderful Jewish woman in New York working to organize members of the Jewish community against partial-birth abortion. She wanted a copy of the novena, to adapt it for use at her synagogue.

Pure “politics” may sometimes seem to prevail in the short run. But it will only prevail in the long run if pro-life people throw up their hands and let it.

Helen Alvarè is director of planning and information at the Secrtariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.