National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Pro-Life Pioneers, 40 Years After 'Roe'

BY Jim Graves

January 13-26, 2013 Issue | Posted 1/22/13 at 1:59 AM


Forty years ago, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many Americans when it announced its 7-2 decision striking down the nation’s anti-abortion laws in its Roe v. Wade decision.

The American bishops have since individually and collectively condemned the decision. In 2002, for example, on the 30th anniversary of Roe, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called abortion "a violation of human rights incomparable in magnitude and an atrocity for the whole human family." On the international level, the Second Vatican Council referred to abortion as an "unspeakable crime."

For the 40th anniversary, four Catholic pro-life advocates — one whose activism pre-dates Roe, one who got involved a few years after the court ruling, a third who became active 20 years ago and a professor at an Ivy League university — offer their reflections on the decision and share about the valuable work they are doing on behalf of life.

Judie Brown of the American Life League (ALL) was living in Washington state in the late 1960s when she and her husband, Paul, heard a priest urge the congregation to fight Referendum 28, which would ease the state’s anti-abortion laws. With "primitive" pro-life brochures in hand, the couple went door-to-door in their community asking people to vote "No" on 28. They lost the vote by a single percentage point, but it began a long and distinguished pro-life advocacy career for Brown.

The cause could be going better, said Brown. "Many of us on the pro-life side have done a lousy job educating the public about what happens when an abortion occurs. Abortion is not merely a political issue. It is the act of killing an unborn child."

Brown said she was stunned when Roe was announced. The thought of the Supreme Court striking down the nation’s anti-abortion laws "never entered our consciousness," she said. "We were horrified. Nobody believed it. It boggled the mind."

Brown went on to work for the National Right to Life Committee, but she opted to found ALL in 1979 because she believed it was important to publicly stress the evil of contraception. Contraception leads to abortion, she said, noting that Roe was preceded by the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision by the court, which overturned a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of contraceptives. (Estelle Griswold was executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. She opened a birth-control clinic in the state in an effort to challenge the generally unenforced law, which dated back to 1879.)

ALL is based in Virginia and is a public-education organization that employs 35 and produces a quarterly magazine. Brown said ALL has done "stellar" work; its mission is "to protect every human being from creation to death."

Brown said her Catholic faith is the key to motivating her commitment to the pro-life cause. She is a daily communicant and remarked, "I couldn’t do it if I weren’t close to Christ and the Blessed Sacrament."

Brown believes that there isn’t a political solution to abortion, but that progress will come when the public demands a change to the law. Regarding the Health and Human Services’ mandate, which includes co-pay-free access to contraceptives and early abortion drugs, she said: "Our bishops have got to flagrantly defy the Obama administration."

Chris Slattery is founder and director of EMC (Expectant Mother Care) Frontline Pregnancy Centers in New York City ( The organization operates a dozen centers, has served 125,000 and persuaded an estimated 40,000 women not to have abortions.

Slattery first became involved in the pro-life movement in the late 1970s, after a "reversion" to Catholicism. He was working in the advertising industry at the time, but, by 1990, he became a full-time pro-life activist. As he said, "Doing our type of pro-life work will bring you opposition. The abortion industry is fighting us all the time. They know we’re stealing away their clients."

Slattery calls New York City the "Abortion Capital of the Western World," having more abortions performed there than in any other Western city (83,000 per year, according to the latest statistics available): "New York City is a hard place in which to do pro-life work. Hearts are hardened, and the political environment is extremely left-wing. … They’ve done everything they can to crush our movement. It’s a hellishly anti-life environment."

Yet, despite the harsh political and religious climate, Slattery’s clinics save one baby every 75 minutes. EMC Frontline advertises using "neutral image advertising," not disclosing that they’re pro-life. Women seeking abortions come to the clinic and then have the opportunity to see an ultrasound image of their babies and receive counseling on alternatives to abortion. The staff is able to dissuade about 50% of the women they see from having abortions.

As Slattery put it, "Our movement is at a stage where local action is the name of the game. On the federal or state level, we’ve accomplished little; this is a city-by-city fight."

The most powerful initiative in the pro-life movement in recent years, he said, is 40 Days for Life (, in which demonstrators pray and fast to close abortion businesses.

His centers are in constant need of financing as well as young people willing to devote their time to the pro-life cause (

"On this anniversary of Roe, each of us must reflect on whether we’re doing enough for this critically important cause," he said. "Are we doing enough to reach out to young mothers in our communities?"

Bryan Kemper got involved in the pro-life movement 20 years ago and is currently youth outreach director for Priests for Life. He grew up in Southern California in a non-Christian home and nearly died of a drug overdose in 1987. While recovering in the hospital, a doctor "shared the hope of Christ" with him, and Kemper became a Christian. Two years ago, he became Catholic. "I came to see that there were not 40,000 truths or Christian denominations, but one truth," he explained. "I needed the fullness of the truth, and it was a no-brainer for me to become Catholic."

Kemper believes that the 40th anniversary of Roe is especially significant: "In the Bible, 40 years is a full generation. Now, one generation of Americans has lived under the shadow of Roe v. Wade, and now we’re entering the second generation."

The biggest change in the pro-life movement, Kemper believes, is that it is being increasingly embraced by younger people. When he went to his first March for Life rally in Washington in 1994, 70% of participants were older people. Today, 70% are youth. His website,, proudly proclaims, "This is the generation that will abolish abortion."

As Kemper explained, "As one of the t-shirts we sell proclaims, ‘I survived Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade will not survive me.’"

The Priests for Life youth outreach will be active at the 2013 March for Life events in Washington on Jan. 24 and 25. Youth will pray at an abortion business and join a rally on Jan. 24; there will be a prayer service on Jan. 25 (

Kemper said he has had much success in persuading youth about the pro-life position because "science, including 3-D and 4-D technology, is on our side." He continued, "The other side is admitting that the unborn child is a human being; they just say abortion is a ‘woman’s right’ or that it’s about a ‘war on women.’"

Also weaved into his talks to teens is the importance of the virtue of chastity as well as the harm of contraception (particularly contraceptives that cause abortions).

Kemper is disappointed but not distressed about the re-election of a president committed to legal abortion: "Barack Obama may be sitting in the White House, but our heavenly Father is on the throne in heaven and Jesus Christ at his right-hand side. We have to have confidence in the One who is sitting on the throne."

Robert George, a constitutional scholar from Princeton University who has championed the pro-life cause, believes that Roe v. Wade can be overturned, but "it will entirely depend on the election of a Republican president in 2016. President Obama’s appointees, present and future, will vote to uphold Roe."

George, who is Catholic, added, "[Roe] is widely regarded, even among liberal academics, as poorly reasoned — at best."

He believes that the pro-life position has been gaining ground among all age groups, particularly the young, and that it should be presented as "a matter of justice and fundamental human rights." 

As he explained, "Like slavery, it is a matter of natural justice. To uphold that principle and insist on it in our political practice is not to ‘impose religious dogma.’ It is to fulfill our basic moral obligations as a society dedicated to ‘liberty and justice for all.’"

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California.