WASHINGTON — The first federal law banning an abortion procedure since abortion was legalized nationwide in 1973 is about to become law.
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are preparing to iron out differences in bills both houses passed this year banning partial-birth abortions. Republican leadership was trying to appoint representatives to a conference committee over Democratic objections the week of July 7, but many expect that President Bush could sign a bill into lawby summer's end.
That would be a sweet victory for pro-life activists after an eightyear struggle over banning such abortions — years that saw vetoes by former President Clinton and failures in Congress to override those vetoes.
But activists credit the debate — which engendered vivid descriptions of a fully formed baby being stabbed in the neck while in the process of being born — with educating the American public about the horrors of abortion.
Surveys seem to indicate that the ongoing effort has had an effect.
A Gallup poll indicated in May that almost as many Americans identify themselves as “pro-life” as they do “pro-choice,” with “prochoice” edging out “pro-life” 48% to 45%. As recently as 1995, Americans favored the “prochoice” label by a 56% to 33% margin.
“Soon we will have over 50% of Americans who call themselves ‘pro-life,‘” said Cathleen Cleaver, director of planning and information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “[Abortion activists] are going to have a problem painting half of America as the fringe.”
They might also have a problem convincing people that women want abortion.
A recent poll conducted by the pro-abortion Center for the Advancement of Women found that 51% of women said the government should prohibit abortion or limit it to extreme cases, such as rape, incest or life-threatening situations.
In addition to federal measures, there are many states working on — or that have already passed — incremental legislation for parental consent or notification, a 24-hour waiting period, unborn victims of violence and the end of state funding of abortions.
But legislative efforts to end or curtail abortion are not the only avenue to bring about a culture of life. Some pro-life activists are devoting more energy to educational and cultural activities.
In March the Society of Jesus issued a major statement against abortion. It read, in part: “The close linking of service of faith and the promotion of justice has been a hallmark of Jesuit ministries from the very beginning. There can be no service of faith without the promotion of justice. Jesuits, therefore, must seek an end to the injustice of abortion.”
Jesuit Father Richard Ryscavage serves as head of social and international ministries for the Society of Jesus in the United States. He said the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision provided “a good time to weigh in on the debate.”
“Congress is so fickle. If they had their choice, they wouldn't deal with abortion,” Father Ryscavage said. In the absence of political courage, he suggested local activism.
“I think the Church needs to get more involved in providing alternatives at the local level,” he said. “In a way, Jesuits haven't been known for talking about this collectively. Now is the time to talk about it in the parishes and in the schools.”
Judie Brown, president of American Life League, noted that her organization has abandoned the legislative arena for now. This is partly due to her opposition to the partial-birth abortion ban bill. She opposed the bill because it featured an exemption for the life of the mother and because the two-year penalty for committing a partialbirth abortion ranked considerably lower than regular sentences for homicide.
“What we are saying is that the child that is nearly born doesn't carry the same sentence as any other murder,” Brown said. “The partial-birth abortion ban is a scam.It doesn't ban anything.”
So Brown said her group would focus on four major educational outreaches.
“We've decided — and I think we should have done this years ago — that we'll win the battle politically when we win the hearts and minds of the people,” she said.
The first is the organization's construction of a $50 million Campus for Life center on 135 acres in Stafford, Va., that would educate Americans on the early stages of human development and provide online courses for credit.
She also has a goal of peacefully closing every Planned Parenthood clinic in the country within six years through the grassroots activism of two American Life League affiliates, Rock for Life and Stop Planned Parenthood.
Another initiative of American Life League caught significant media attention when the organization took out newspaper ads in the Washington Times, which labeled 12 senators who were abortion supporters and Catholic as the “Dirty Dozen.”
The ad campaign inaugurated the organization's new affiliate, the Crusade for the Defense of the Catholic Church. The newspaper spots drew immediate fire from the senators, but individual bishops have not expressed anything negative about the campaign.
“We've said we can take the arrows. In that case, the bishops don't get the arrows,” Brown said. “It's a no-lose situation for souls.”
Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life is very focused on educational matters as well. His group has asked a medical company to provide the most accurate pictures that depict an actual dilation and extraction abortion, which is the most common abortion procedure in the United States. He also intends to order a similar picture series for a vacuum abortion, which is used in the first four months.
“When we look at how we won the debate on partial-birth abortion, we realize that for the first time, people saw what abortion was about,” he said. “The pictures showing the procedure have been on C-SPAN, in newspaper advertisements and at rallies.”
Father Pavone wants to make the general public just as aware of the other two abortion procedures through these medical diagrams.
“The anti-smoking movement, the anti-fur movement, the cause against drunk-driving have all used visual images,” he said.
While pictures can be worth a thousand words, sometimes the best arguments in American society are personal stories. For many years, this worked against the prolife cause because the unborn child was unable to speak in his own defense, except in the case where he survives an abortion.
In the public debate during the last several decades, the only stories Americans often heard were of women asserting a need for an abortion because of some personal tragedy.
But the bishops’ conference's Cleaver said that's all changing with an organization called the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. It is made up of women who have had abortions but later began to regret their decisions.
“The most credible voice on abortion is not doctors or feminists but women who've had an abortion,” Cleaver said. “Finally, after 30 years, we have this voice that is being heard.”
She said even the media, often seen as biased in favor of abortion, is receptive to retelling the stories of these women.
“The mainstream can't help but report on this,” Cleaver said. “They're showing the pictures of the women holding the signs saying,‘I regret my abortion.‘”
She said support for abortion in America rests on two things: denial of the personhood of the unborn child and the belief that abortion is a problem-solver for women.
“We've all but won the argument on the humanity of the child. Every time they see a photo, like the GE commercial [for ultrasound technology] or the Newsweek cover [showing babies in the womb], it reinforces what they already know,” Cleaver said.
But abortion will remain legal,she said, until Americans reject the notion that abortion is good for women.
“In 1992, the Supreme Court said that abortion could not be made illegal because women have come to rely on abortion,” Cleaver said. “That is all that abortion is standing on now.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.