Forty Years After 'Roe' and 'Doe,' Pro-Lifers Are Hopeful

A discouraging new Pew Forum poll conceals evidence of a pro-life majority, according to some leading pro-life advocates.

(photo: Michelle Baumann/ Catholic News Agency)

WASHINGTON —The fanfare over President Barack Obama’s second public inauguration ceremony Jan. 21 briefly overshadowed the 40th anniversary of what future generations may well consider a far more momentous event: the 1973 Supreme Court decisions of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that removed the right of state legislatures to ban abortion. (Roe did so for the first three months of pregnancy, Doe for the rest.)

After four decades of heated debate over Roe and Doe, popular opinion remains divided on the issue. According to a new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans don’t like abortion on demand, but they want to keep Roe.

The poll found that 63% of Americans don’t want Roe overturned by the Supreme Court,  while only 29% want it thrown out, virtually the same as 20 years ago, when Pew first asked this question (the split then was 60%-34%).

Also showing little movement was public opinion on the morality of abortion, with 47% deeming it immoral, and only 13% considering it morally acceptable (in line with a 52%-12% response in Pew’s 2006 survey).

Yet the lack of movement on public attitudes towards Roe v. Wade is far from discouraging to America’s pro-life leadership — some because they take a very long view about its repeal; others because they say Pew’s findings distort the real picture; and most because they believe the key picture is one of a grassroots pro-life movement experiencing membership growth and increasing impact.

“The pro-life movement is amazing,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). “It is so broad and so deep. It is going ahead on so many fronts: the laws being passed in state legislatures, the medical research into the development of the unborn in the womb, the development of ultrasound to show the baby in utero.”

Added Shawn Carney, co-founder of the 40 Days for Life vigil. “Since we started in 2004, we have grown from one city in Texas to 482 cities in 15 countries and 50 states. Over half the abortion facilities in America have closed, and pregnancy-crisis centers outnumber abortion centers three to one.”


The Aging Abortion Lobby

The recent resignation of Nancy Keenan as head of Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) was cited by both Carney and Ruse as evidence of the other side’s discouragement. The Washington Post reported the resigning leader as saying, “If the pro-choice movement is to successfully defend abortion rights, it needs more young people in leadership roles, including hers.”

Three years earlier, Keenan had accidently encountered the annual March for Life, which brings a reported 200,000 pro-life Americans to Washington each year (on Friday, Jan. 25, this year). “I just thought, 'My gosh,'” she told Newsweek, “'they are so young. There are so many of them, and they are so young.'” Keenan indicated that her organization had spent the last three years developing a new marketing campaign to reach young people, soon to be unveiled.

Pro-life leaders such as Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, say the Pew poll failed to reflect accurately the opposition of most Americans to most abortions.

Doerflinger cited Gallup polling since 1994 indicating an increasing majority of Americans want either no or few abortions.

He said,  “The way Pew asked the question would lead people to think overturning Roe and Doe would make all abortions illegal. In fact, it would just free up the democratic process and allow legislatures to decide the issue.”

Said Donohue, “Pew just shows that people don’t know what Roe v. Wade does.”


The Intensity Gap

Leaders were more impressed by another Pew finding because it supports what both they and their opponents have reported: the “intensity gap.” Pew reported that 38% of those who wanted to overturn Roe believed it to be a “critical” issue, but only 9% of those who opposed overturning Roe felt it to be critical.

This dovetails with Pro-Choice America’s own 2010 poll result showing 51% of pro-life supporters under 30 deemed the issue “very important.” Only 26 % of pro-abortion supporters under 30 felt equally strongly.

Dave O’Steen, executive director of National Right to Life, said, “We have a grassroots structure they can’t match. There are simply more people coming out to save babies than standing up for killing them.” Added 40 Days for Life’s Carney: “You can’t pay people to run 40 Days for Life vigils. They only happen because of a huge commitment.”

Opinion was divided on the direction the Supreme Court might take with future challenges to Roe and Doe. Joe Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League, said the Supreme Court was so unpredictable that he was no longer worried about that.

Doerflinger, meanwhile, acknowledged that Obama could significantly alter the court’s makeup by replacing any pro-life justices that might retire over the next four years with pro-abortion-rights justices.

“Progress in these areas moves at a glacial pace, but I can take comfort in belonging to an operation [the Catholic Church] that deals in centuries.”

Doerflinger added that the process of undoing Roe and Doe began in 1980, in Harris v. McRae, when the Supreme Court allowed governments to withhold funding for abortion. Additionally, the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, while “not the big win we hoped for,” did allow existing restrictions on abortion to stand.


Chipping Away

O’Steen said that National Right to Life is vitally involved in efforts to get incrementally restrictive laws passed in many state legislatures. O’Steen thinks this is the only approach likely to lead eventually to the end of abortion.

“The smart people are chipping away at Roe and Doe until they collapse of their own weight,” he said.

Leaders surveyed by the Register agree that one thing the Pew poll does reveal is a pressing need to educate the public and especially the young outside the pro-life camp, who are not so much pro-abortion as totally ignorant of the facts of life — and death.

Carney said the Pew results show “most people are not taking abortion seriously. They think it is immoral but don’t want to make it illegal. They need to be confronted with the reality. This needs to happen at the grassroots level.”

C-FAM’s Ruse agreed. “Education is needed. Most people are shocked when they find out we have abortion on demand for nine months.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, believes that “we need to get more graphic with people and help them face the truth, even though it makes people angry.” A Priests for Life initiative will place explicit descriptions of abortion procedures on its website, some taken from medical textbooks.

Priests for Life already has organized the Silent No More campaign, which puts forward women who have had abortions to discuss the impact the procedure has had on them.

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, says her organization will concentrate on highlighting the role of Planned Parenthood, which she notes performs a third of America’s abortions, and on showing young people what unborn children look like at the early stages of pregnancy to highlight their humanity. “They [abortion lobbyists] want you to believe the fetus is just a blob.”


Moving Beyond Abortion

But Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University and former director of planning for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’s Pro-Life Secretariat, believes that the pro-life movement must move beyond abortion itself if it is to make meaningful progress.

“We’ve done that very well, but we have to go the demand side of abortion culture if we are to make more progress,” she said. “We have to change the whole current attitude that sex is like tennis — lots of fun but with no weight to it.”

Abortion and contraception have served “to remove the connection of sex to children and marriage,” Alvaré said, and “women have acceded to pressure from men that sex is the price of having a relationship.”

Said Alvaré, “We’ll be tarred and feathered for advising women to connect sex with marriage and children. But it is in the long-term interest of both women and men.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.