National Catholic Register


Pro-life ‘Gains’: Much Ado About Little

BY Matt McDonald

February 28-March 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/28/99 at 2:00 PM


Political Orphan? The Pro-Life Cause after 25 Years of Roe v. Wade by Kenneth Whitehead (New Hope Publications/CUL, 1998, 352 pages, $14.95)

Is he pro-life?” a friend of mine often says. “I'd vote for Attila the Hun if he was pro-life.” The problem with that line of thinking these days is you have to ask “how much?” and “for how long?” Attila, whatever his faults, had a reputation for candor, and for backing up his words with deeds. Yet today, everybody has his favorite turn-coat story of the rock-solid religious family man who “converts” to safe-legal-funded-ism to run for higher office.

More recently, though, it has become apparent that even relatively committed anti-abortion politicians tend to prefer policy positions over policies. When it comes to pro-abortion federal nominees, abortion funding in population control programs, and political funding for pro-abortion candidates, many recipients of anti-abortion support are either missing in action or enablers of evil.

Kenneth D. Whitehead explains why in Political Orphan? The Pro-Life Cause after 25 Years of Roe v. Wade. Technically, Political Orphan? is not a book, in the sense that it was not written as one. The chapters comprise the unabridged versions of 16 articles that were published in six magazines between December 1993 and April 1998. (Most come from Fidelity and Culture Wars.) But they hang together well, because the author is so focused he never wanders far from his message.

The title reflects political reality today in the United States: The Democratic Party has embraced the culture of death, while the Republican Party is not very comfortable with the culture of life.

Whitehead takes the right tone when addressing the relationship of abortion opponents and their alleged political allies: Ask not what we can do for Republicans, ask what Republicans can do for us. The writer Joseph Sobran once claimed the first rule of politics is to punish those who betray you.

Similarly, Whitehead argues that pro-lifers must learn to reward and punish politicians the way other political interest groups do: “[P]ro-lifers as a class tend not to sell their allegiance dearly enough; pro-lifers seem to be so happy to find a politician willing to be ‘pro-life’ that they tend to demand very little beyond that.” But as must be clear to everyone by now, such an attitude spoils office seekers, who tend to think about how much they can squeeze one group of voters to pick up another.

Anti-abortion leaders also tend to congratulate themselves too much over too little: as Whitehead argues, piecemeal steps like parental consent, spousal notification, and waiting periods are hardly huge victories for a movement whose members believe that destroying a fetus without just cause is murder.

He endorses these measures, but only as a means to the ultimate prize of restoring protection for unborn babies through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Forget about middle ground, “the goal of the pro-life movement must be to stop the killing.”

As these comments suggest, those looking for anti-abortion cheerleading will be disappointed. Whitehead goes after William Bennett, Jack Kemp, William Kristol, William Frist, Trent Lott, and Orrin Hatch, demonstrating that each has proven willing to ditch the anti-abortion cause for the greater principle of getting-it-behind-us.

But even true friends come up for gentle upbraiding. One of the book's lessons is that some compromises abortion opponents are willing to make are immoral, and have the added drawback of not working anyway. Whitehead notes that such anti-abortion stalwarts as U.S. Representatives Henry Hyde (R Ill.) and Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) in February 1997 sponsored an amendment allocating more money for worldwide “family planning” than the Clinton administration had asked for, in a failed attempt to prevent the money from going to abortion.

Just so, the vast majority of “pro-life” politicians have no problem with paying for “family planning” in this country and promoting it massively abroad.

But as Whitehead notes, contraception and the sexual revolution it made possible are at the heart of the abortion conflict: “Once the really fundamental decision has been made that it is the unwanted pregnancies that have to be eliminated, rather than the sexual promiscuity, then nobody any longer distinguishes very carefully between the various ‘methods’ to accomplish this, whether they come before or after … the conception of the child.”

America, as Whitehead says, has a “bad conscience” about abortion — polls show that most Americans don't like it and are willing to ban it under certain circumstances. But the polls also suggest that the siren song of sexual freedom pulls most Americans away from concluding that abortion is an abomination that must be stopped.

While the history of abortion in the last 30 years is mostly sad, Whitehead is not gloomy. In the epilogue, he notes that the recent campaign against partial-birth abortions has given anti-abortion forces perhaps their greatest rhetorical weapon ever. He contends that the issue has isolated abortion enthusiasts and put them on the defensive. If the partial-birth abortion ban is ever enacted, Whitehead argues, it will be the first major “breach” in the “wall” of the right-to-abortion. With better decisions and more boldness, anti-abortion leaders may be able to keep the offensive going until the vast majority of Americans finally make the connection between abortion and other types of murder.

One of the most useful things about Political Orphan? is that it amounts to a good political history of the anti-abortion movement, especially since 1993. Whitehead comes across as a wise insider with an inexhaustible attention span for tiny details. He explains labyrinthine legislative maneuvers over arcane appropriations bills in clear language that makes pro-life principles clear.

The book suffers from repetition and occasional wordiness — readers will eventually tire of terms like “prescinded,” “medically indicated,” and “equal protection under the law.” Yet Political Orphan? more than makes up for these problems with its eloquence.

Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.