Post-Roe Pro-Life Prudence
ROUNDTABLE: Mary FioRito, Catherine Hadro, and Molly Sheahan share their thoughts on the road ahead for the pro-life movement.
If anyone thought the path toward the abolition of abortion would be an easy one after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus June 24, the defeat of a pro-life ballot measure in Kansas on Aug. 2 proved just how challenging the road ahead will likely be.
The Value Them Both Amendment — the first abortion-related measure put to a democratic vote in the post-Roe world — was defeated by 18 points in the Midwestern state. It was a disappointing setback, and it has left many in the pro-life movement looking for answers — or at least recommitting to the hard work ahead.
To get a better understanding of how the pro-life movement can prudentially move the cause forward in a post-Roe America, the Register spoke with three movement leaders:
Mary FioRito, an attorney at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
Catherine Hadro, an EWTN News contributor and inaugural host of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.
Molly Sheahan, the California Catholic Conference’s associate director for respect life.
Prudence is defined as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” What do the results in Kansas indicate about the prudent path forward for the pro-life movement in a post-Roe era?
HADRO: There’s a well-known quote from Winston Churchill which I think describes this new era well: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The long-road ahead will require prudent pro-life leaders to carefully examine the abortion landscape state-by-state in order to determine what legislation can both have political success and save the most lives.
Legislation will obviously vary across state lines, as each state presents its own unique history, politics and receptivity to pro-life laws. Once you factor in current events as a variable, election results can be unpredictable — as we recently saw in Kansas. To be successful, we must identify expert local leaders and empower them to do their job as best as possible. While continuing to support the important work of national pro-life groups, special attention and resources must now be devoted to local state groups. We must adapt our approach to each state, depending on the unique situation at play.
SHEAHAN: My heart goes out to all the Kansans who poured themselves into this campaign and are carrying a heavy loss. They bore the difficulties of a “Yes” campaign, tough timing with backlash after Dobbs, confusion about the law, and a crossfire of media disinformation — statements saying abortion bans also ban treatment for ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage even though those are clearly not abortions, or the real fears that women will be harmed if abortion ends.
However, the Kansas vote is not a repudiation of pro-life work. Most Americans are opposed to abortion extremism — abortion on demand, late-term abortion, and taxpayer funded abortion — and want gestational limits on abortion. There is plenty of room for the pro-life movement to move the needle further. Kansas has taught us to be eminently clear about what our laws do and about what abortion is. Crucially, we must insist on excellent, compassionate care for mother and baby, especially when her life or health is at risk. Any potential confusion in the law and in medicine about how to save both lives demands swift correction and repudiation.
FIORITO: It’s not a great idea to extrapolate the Kansas situation to the rest of the country or to Americans’ viewpoints on abortion as a whole. The Value Them Both Amendment failure was the result of a variety of factors — including millions of dollars the abortion industry poured into its defeat, outspending pro-life efforts exponentially — compounded by a difficulty explaining the impact the amendment would have in the face of so many falsehoods spread by abortion advocates who capitalized on the lack of legal knowledge of the average voter.
Polls have consistently shown that a supermajority of Americans support parental involvement laws and safety regulations for abortion clinics, and a slight majority support six-week “heartbeat bans” and 12-week bans. There’s actually a lot of consensus out there, and the prudent thing to do going forward is to act on that consensus swiftly and decisively. When Americans begin to realize that abortion never was the solution to social problems like poverty, their discomfort with it will only grow. Roe v. Wade never captured the hearts of the American people. It’s time our law reflected what they really believe about the value of unborn human lives.
Some of the post-Kansas discussion has focused on the merits or lack thereof of “incrementalism” in pro-life advocacy. For instance, some suggest that “overreaching” undermines any meaningful progress toward eliminating abortion, while others warn that being too restrained in the reforms being sought can end up implicitly protecting abortion. What are your own thoughts about the role of incrementalism in pro-life advocacy?
HADRO: This hits on one of the most hotly debated topics in the pro-life movement: How can we negotiate over protections at 20 weeks or 15 weeks or six weeks of pregnancy when what’s at stake is a human life? But incrementalism has proven to be the successful approach in certain places. This approach is not about choosing the lesser of two evils: It’s about choosing the option which will bring about the greatest amount of good. We need to “be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16)” in discerning our approach.
When I was on the ground in Kansas last month, a few pro-life Catholics expressed hesitancy in supporting the Value Them Both Amendment, which sought to affirm that the state constitution doesn’t provide a right to abortion. They wanted to ban abortion outright and this amendment did not do that. But the alternative to not supporting Value Them Both means the Sunflower State will now continue to serve as an abortion hub for women in neighboring states, while existing pro-life laws remain in jeopardy. Incrementalism has its strategic place in our movement. We cannot forget that it was an incremental 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi that ultimately reversed Roe v. Wade.
SHEAHAN: Current political realities make it difficult to achieve our ultimate goal of ending abortion, and we can’t let perfection be the enemy of good. There are numerous opportunities to advance our cause in meaningful ways, even if we don’t move the needle all the way to our side. There will always be more work to do, but all pro-life causes must come together to support each other’s work, and each stride made must be recognized as a mutual win. The stronger we are united, the more impact we have.
Incrementalism has brought hundreds of life-affirming laws into place throughout the country that are truly effective in reducing abortions and protect women and children. It’s not just a tactic but a genuine movement toward justice, the dignity of the human person and the common good.
FIORITO: Almost since its beginnings, the pro-life movement has grappled with the morality of incremental approaches to abortion. Pope St. John Paul II gave specific guidance on this issue in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, where he noted in Paragraph 73 that public officials — under specific conditions and in specific circumstances — can advocate for legislation that limits abortion, even if it does not ban it completely. Yet it is not carte blanche permission to support any incremental proposal. He specified:
“When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
The condition given here is important; it is critical for Catholics to avoid giving scandal when voting for or supporting laws that might permit abortion in some limited circumstances. A lawmaker who has given his or her entire professional career to working to protect the unborn must make it clear to constituents that his or her vote is not of a repudiation of Church teaching; rather, it is only a reflection of the current political reality and the desire to save as many lives as possible.
In an Aug. 6 article entitled “The New Politics of Abortion,” Ross Douthat wrote that “if you bring abortion back to the democratic process, you have to deal with public opinion as it actually exists. And the way you change opinion is by proving the incremental version of your ideas workable, so that voters trust you more and more.” Most Americans favor restrictions on abortion, but still think it should be accessible in the earlier stages of pregnancy and in certain exceptional cases. How can the pro-life movement continue to shift public opinion?
HADRO: Laws influence culture and opinion. With the reversal of Roe, our nation is free to finally begin a fair debate on abortion; pro-lifers are now on a level standing with abortion proponents. We’re seeing the cultural impact of the Dobbs decision already. Just last month, Harvard CAPS/Harris released a poll revealing 72% of Americans want abortion to be banned no later than 15 weeks and 49% would like it to be banned no later than six weeks. This is profoundly encouraging and reveals that Americans are recognizing the humanity of the unborn earlier and earlier.
While we are still in the midst of hysteria and frenzy stirred up by the abortion industry, we will ultimately see the truth stand firm and the lies crumble. As states continue to enforce pro-life laws and we continue to witness that it’s possible to support both the unborn child and the mother, the dystopian picture the abortion industry [has] painted will eventually dissolve. Those fear-based lies bubbling up to the surface right now from miscarriage management to ectopic pregnancies — will eventually burst. We can slowly shift public opinion by peacefully moving forward in our mission to support families and let the work speak for itself.
SHEAHAN: The pro-life community has to tell our story. We need our neighbors to know that they belong to the majority that rejects abortion extremism. People deserve to know that a majority of low-income women identify as pro-life, and 68% of Latinos and African Americans support restricting abortion to the first trimester or ending it entirely. Our neighbors want support for parents, not more abortion.
We also must tell our story of how much we care and the myriad of support in the community. The pro-life community knows the amazing work of our pregnancy centers, Catholic Charities, and parishes to respond to the real, concrete needs of women, children and families. We have always cared for mother, father and child. Post-Roe, it’s imperative that our communities know we have been here all along and are committed to increasing our efforts. In California, we have called our campaign We Were Born Ready. Because we support women, children, and families every step of the way. That’s who we are and it’s what we do.
FIORITO: The key to the question here is the phrase, “continue to.” The pro-life movement did make tremendous strides during the 49 long years of Roe v. Wade. And not just in the area of public opinion — which overwhelmingly rejects the core holding in Roe (that abortion is constitutionally protected for the duration of pregnancy, and for any reason) — but also in learning the reasons that many women feel they have no other choice than abortion and meeting those needs head-on, often at a great personal sacrifice.
Supporters of legal abortion have always been good at storytelling. Prior to Roe, they told stories of thousands of women dying from illegal, “back alley” abortions, even though they knew the numbers were wildly exaggerated — former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson admitted he lied when he testified that thousands of women each year were dying from illegal abortions (when he knew the nationwide number in the year prior to Roe, 1972, was 39).
The pro-life movement has science on its side. It has human rights on its side. It has women’s best interests on its side. But it needs to present those facts in a story format that the general public can easily understand.
Pretty much anyone recognizes the name “Joe the Plumber” from the 2008 presidential campaign, or Ken Bone, the “guy in the red sweater” from the 2016 election. The pro-life movement needs to better tell the stories of women who have chosen life — often heroically — and have triumphed because of it; or of children who, after being adopted, went on to live beautiful and fulfilling lives; of children with special needs whose disabilities don’t define them, and whose families love them immeasurably.
Any and every abortion is a grave injustice. So, on a personal (and even spiritual) level, how do you hold together the desire to eliminate all abortion with the practical realities and limited possibilities before us today? And what advice would you share with others who experience this kind of tension?
HADRO: I believe the pro-life movement right now is called to imitate St. Paul: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Just as evangelists are called to change elements of their approach based on the individual in front of them, we in the pro-life movement must tailor our approach state-by-state. This does not mean we are disingenuous or compromise our standards, but it does mean we must listen to the unique state populations and needs. We must meet people where they are and walk with them towards truth.
I believe this new stage in the pro-life movement will be an era of accompaniment. Incremental laws, for example, will be like walking step-by-step towards greater protections. Accompaniment is messy and gritty and nothing about it is convenient. But when we pro-lifers meet people — and states — where they are at; when we do the hard work of answering questions, expanding social safety nets for women, and witnessing what true care for families looks like — that’s where conversion can and will happen. We must do this “for the sake of the gospel.”
SHEAHAN: Staying grounded in truth and reality is essential. Abortion is a grave injustice that always takes the life of a human being and harms mothers, families, and society. For the most part, in their heart of hearts, our sisters want to choose life. But abortion will always appear as the easier choice. We are ambassadors for a vision of life that requires a complete lifestyle shift to what is sacrificial and difficult. That means it is incumbent on the pro-life movement to make it easy for women in dire straits to choose what is virtuous — and really hard.
When communicating with others, I try to keep in mind that people’s thoughts and feelings about abortion are deeply personal. It lies at the intersection of our most intimate and personal realities: our sexuality, fertility, family, children. We need to speak in language that our neighbors understand, with grace to help them embrace what is hard and loving.
FIORITO: It’s not easy — no one wants to be even remotely responsible for the death of an unborn child. When working on a law that can’t protect all, but only some, it is very difficult to square the approach with your understanding of the value of each human life. I often think of the final scene in Schindler’s List, where Liam Neeson’s Oscar Schindler agonizes with guilt over not having done more when he had the means to. He laments, “I could have sold my car, that would have been 10 more people.” And when you see the descendants of all those he saved at the film’s very end, you have a clearer understanding of the impact of even one human life. But I also take great consolation from the words of the late Congressman Henry Hyde, who once noted that when we as pro-life workers are at the moment of our particular judgement, “God will look at you and say not, ‘Did you succeed?” but “Did you try?”
So we all have to try. Do what you can, when you can, as much as you can.