Safe, legal, and stigmatized

Human Life Review, Winter 2003 by Barnes, Fred

A stigma. That's the great achievement of the pro-life movement: Having an abortion once again carries a stigma. The legal right to an abortion is one that almost no one boasts of exercising. Abortion is a medical procedure that fewer and fewer doctors and hospitals want to perform and not many medical schools want to teach. Even the word "abortion" is rarely spoken by its advocates nowadays. The National Abortion Rights Action League has changed its name to the less explicit NARAL Pro-Choice America. And politicians, particularly Democrats, talk about "a woman's right to choose" without saying what the choice involves. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina told a NARAL gathering last week that "the important thing" about a woman "wrestling with a decision" is that "she and she alone has the right to make her choice." Her choice of what? He didn't say.

Those who claim there's a pro-abortion consensus in America are wrong. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said Roe v. Wade is settled law, but he's wrong too. Pro-lifers are winning, but very gradually and incrementally, and they're not winning what they had hoped to. Their goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade, which would let each state decide its own abortion law, or to ban abortion outright by constitutional amendment. The prospect of either of those outcomes happening is nil at the moment. Instead, there's a new consensus in favor of sharp restrictions on abortion. This is why Kate Michelman of NARAL looks perpetually stressed. This is why Faye Wattleton, the former head of Planned Parenthood and now president of the Center for Gender Equality, finds it "disturbing" that women are becoming more conservative and religious. It means more of them support these restrictions.

The most telling shift, though, is not in public opinion but in the actions of pregnant women. Backers of legalized abortion say the decline in the number of abortions from 1.6 million to 1.3 million a year is due to greater use of contraceptives. Maybe that has something to do with it. More important is the fact that a growing percentage of women who've become pregnant reject abortion and have the baby. This represents a cultural shift, a small one perhaps, but indicative of the stigma now attached to abortion.

Another factor is the explosion of crisis pregnancy centers across the country. They take in pregnant women, discourage them from having abortions, and care for them through childbirth and afterwards. The latest count of such centers is more than 3,000, but that's probably low. People start them with little money and a few volunteers. A friend of mine, Jim Wright, who works in commercial real estate in Falls Church, Virginia, opened one called Birthmothers a few years ago. He quickly built up a group of financial supporters, hired a director and a small staff, and now takes care of dozens of women. Imagine what Michelman and Wattleton must think when they see crisis pregnancy centers popping up everywhere and advertising in the Yellow Pages.

Pro-lifers, including me, have always been suspicious of politicians who balked at concentrating on the banning of abortion, arguing the culture must change first. But it turns out the queasy pols may have had it right. We just couldn't see it until the culture actually began changing. The change is especially evident among young people. Focus groups have found them to be surprisingly tilted against abortion. A poll of college freshmen in 1996 found that only half backed efforts to keep abortion legal, down from 65 percent in 1990.

It's taken years-plus this small but real cultural shift-but Republicans finally understand that opposing abortion often helps them politically. It took years because Lee Atwater, President Bush senior's political adviser, had sold the party on the notion that whenever the abortion issue is on the table in any form it hurts Republicans. The Atwater axiom was notably untrue in Senate races last fall. In a Fox poll on Election Day in Missouri, 17 percent of voters said abortion was the issue that mattered most. Eighty percent of them voted for Republican Jim Talent, who defeated Democratic senator Jean Carnahan. In the Minnesota Senate race, 14 percent said abortion was their paramount issue, and 81 percent of them voted for Republican Norm Coleman, who beat former Vice President Walter Mondale, a strong backer of the right to an abortion.

For now, the abortion issue is right where Republicans want it. President Bush is pushing this year to enact a ban on partial-birth abortion and on human cloning of any sort. He has an excellent shot at winning the first, a better than even chance on the second. I once asked GOP senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania why the partial-birth issue was so significant in turning the debate on abortion. "You can see the baby," he said. The baby is partly outside the mother's womb when this procedure takes place (the baby's brain is sucked out and its head crushed). Bush notably didn't mention overturning Roe v. Wade when he spoke by phone to the pro-life rally in Washington on January22. He's said as much before, but why repeat that now? That would only complicate the politics of abortion and give Democrats something to rage about.

With their lockstep allegiance to pro-choice groups and feminists, Democrats are in a corner on abortion. They're leery of all the popular restrictions: on partial-birth abortion, late-term abortion, parental consent, informed consent. Only one of the six Democratic presidential candidates who appeared before a NARAL audience last week opposes partial-birth abortion-Richard Gephardt. And he didn't mention it. The loudest pro-choicer was Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who seemed to regard adoption and abortion as morally equivalent alternatives. That pleased the NARAL crowd, and none of his Democratic rivals called him on it. Before an audience of average voters, Democrat or Republican, he wouldn't have fared so well. There, the stigma would apply.

[Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where the following appeared (Feb. 3, 2003). (C) Copyright 2003, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.]

Bibliography for: "Safe, legal, and stigmatized"

Barnes, Fred "Safe, legal, and stigmatized". Human Life Review. 31 Aug, 2009.