Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Pro-lifers should borrow a page from the civil-rights movement: Mobilizing grass-roots supporters and using technology.

This has been a frustrating year in Washington for pro-lifers. Thirty-one years after the Supreme Court's infamous decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, their legislation still can't see the light of day. No unborn victims of violence act (the so-called Laci and Conner law). No child custody protection act. Few pro-life judges.

Thank heaven for progress on partial-birth abortion.

This sad fate can be blamed partly on the nation's Founding Fathers, who designed the U.S. Senate to be a brake on simple majority rule. Its rules and procedures, especially the filibuster, give enormous leverage to a determined minority.

“It's still like hacking your way through the jungle with a dull machete,” Doug Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life, said of legislation buried in the upper chamber. “When a minority really wants to tie things up (in the Senate), they can.”

But those legislative woes can also be blamed on something else: a strategic flaw in the pro-life movement. Ever since the emergence of the New Right in the 1970s, most pro-life leaders have hitched their star to the Republican Party. Once Republicans control the White House and Congress, according to this strategy, the legislation will follow. But things have not worked out that way. As Johnson acknowledges, “I don't think [pro-life legislation] has been a top-tier Republican issue.”

To be sure, if Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, the anti-abortion agenda would face much greater hurdles. Contrary to the opinion of pro-life writer Joseph Sobran, it does matter who controls the legislative and executive branches.

But while an elect-Republican strategy may be a necessary condition for pro-life success, it's not sufficient. Politics alone will not solve a social problem. As Senator Paul Douglas, a pro-civil rights Democrat from Illinois, once wrote, “[I]t was hard to arouse the general public to a realization that the walls of Jericho could not be leveled by a mere blast of the senatorial trumpets.”

What should the pro-life movement do?

At the risk of sounding like every would-be social reformer from the past 40 years, I think it ought to borrow a few pages from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

After all, it already shares the same philosophic goal: expanding the social definition of personhood. (Pope John Paul II, in a statement read three years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., said issues such as abortion were “the civil rights issue of our time.”)

Now it should employ two of its key strategies: mobilizing grass-roots supporters and harnessing the power of a major new technology.

Although we think of the struggle for civil rights as ancient, the actual movement didn't exist until fairly late in the game. In 1896 the Supreme Court handed down Plessy v. Ferguson. Not until more than half a century later, in the early 1950s, did black leaders really try to mobilize ordinary citizens. And once they did, in Baton Rouge and then Montgomery, Ala., the movement gained steam.

By applying constant pressure to local authorities and, by extension, the nation, the cause made heroes of ordinary people like Rosa Parks and Emmett Till.

By contrast, the pro-life movement sits at about where the civil rights movement did before the early’ 50s. The grass roots haven't been mobilized. With the notable exception of the annual march on the Washington Mall and occasional letters to Congress, there's not much for ordinary pro-lifers to do politically.

Nor is there much for them to do socially. Although plenty of pro-lifers pray in front of abortion clinics and work in crisis-pregnancy centers, they don't as a rule spread their message to the wider public. You never hear about people running marathons or bicycling 50 miles on behalf of a pro-life cause. Nor do you hear, among the working classes, about people bowling or going to fish fries on behalf of the same.

Granted, even a newly energized pro-life movement couldn't fully imitate civil-rights era protesters. Because of a series of court rulings and legislation passed in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, pro-lifers face major hurdles in trying to block or shut down abortion clinics. Nonetheless, there is nothing from stopping the pro-life movement from a host of other things. Catholics could be urged to pray at Mass and school every day on behalf of the gospel of life. A political candidate's views on the major issues should be made known to churchgoers.


For if ordinary pro-lifers were mobilized, they could borrow another page from the civil-rights movement: harnessing the power of technology.

In the early 1960s, black leaders used television to advance their cause. By showing innocent black protesters getting attacked by German shepherds and beaten up, the movement was able to humanize blacks in a way not possible before.

They became men and women and children, not just Negroes or “coloreds.”

As Coretta Scott King said, “Little would have been accomplished without television. When the majority of white Americans saw on television the brutality of segregation in action … they reacted … with revulsion and sympathy and with demands that somehow … this must stop.”

Today the pro-life movement should try to do something similar with ultrasound or sonogram images. As was the case with television 40 years ago, ultrasound is just now entering the mainstream. This year alone Time and Newsweek have had cover stories with powerful images of pre-natal life.

No longer are they regarded as “products of conception” or “the blob” but rather pre-born children. As the June 9 Newsweek story put it, “Recent dramatic breakthroughs in fetal and reproductive medicine only add to the confusion [over the abortion debate]. Once just grainy blobs on a TV monitor, new high-tech fetal ultrasound images allow prospective parents to see tiny fingers and toes, arms, legs and a beating heart as early as 12 weeks.” (Actually, sono-grams can show images of the enwombed child as early as the 10th week of pregnancy.)

One way the pro-life movement can put this technology to use is by supporting federal funding of it. Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, is sponsoring legislation that would spend up to $3 million a year in order to buy ultrasound machines at crisis-pregnancy centers.

There seems to be little question that, if abortion-vulnerable women see an ultrasound image of their child and receive the proper counseling, many of them will choose life. Take the results of a three-year study by Dr. Eric Keroack, the medical director of A Woman's Concern in Boston. He found that; before the clinic used ultrasound, about three fifths of the women aborted; afterwards, fewer than one quarter did. That's an extra one in three women who ended up choosing life.

To be sure, ultrasound can't help the cause in as immediately dramatic a way as television did. For starters, only 376 out of 1,900 crisis pregnancy centers have ultrasound or sonogram machines, according to Heartbeat International. Even if all 1,900 centers had one, they still couldn't serve most women considering abortion.

Right now a good medical clinic will use ultrasound on only 100 to 200 women a year.

Another problem is timing: Women can learn about whether they're pregnant as early as six days after conception, but can't start to see their child on the ultrasound until the start of the 10th week. That's more than two — literally vital — months.

Still, ultrasound, combined with major support from ordinary citizens, could represent a major breakthrough for the pro-life cause. Pro-life legislation in Congress would likely pass freely. More children would be born instead of aborted. And wonder of wonders, we would have a viable and major pro-life movement.

Mark Stricherz writes from Washington.