(OPINION) For decades, the pro-life movement in America was essentially a grassroots movement. The soul of this movement was compassion. That compassion was most evident in the network of more than 3,000 pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) that had grown up around the nation.
Each of these 3,000 PRCs had staff, volunteers and donors in the tens of thousands, in the hundreds of thousands. Many of them have been part of two large networks called Care Net and Heartbeat International.
These organizations are not flashy or full of firebrands. They quietly go about their work. Over the decades, they have saved millions of babies and helped millions of women.
They were also quietly changing hearts and minds. According to the Gallup organization, by the early 2000s, a majority of Americans thought abortion was morally wrong. In 2010, the percentage of Americans who thought abortion should be legal in all circumstances was just 21%. That means a full 79% of Americans favored some form of abortion restrictions.
But in the past decade, the numbers have changed dramatically. Today the number of Americans who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances has risen to 35%.
Succumbing to ‘the political illusion’
What happened? I think it is likely that some who say they are pro-life were seduced by what philosopher Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion.” The political illusion is the notion that all problems are political problems, and therefore have political solutions.
Further, the pro-life movement got “faked out of position” (as they say in sports) by the “political illusion.” The pro-life movement pursued legal and political victories, most notably the Dobbs decision which overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Overturning Roe was a worthy goal. But we are now discovering that how one wins is as important, if not more so, than what one wins. The tactics and political liaisons of some in the pro-life movement both alienated those pro-lifers need to persuade and simultaneously energized the pro-abortion movement. After years of decline, the number of abortions in America are now once again on the rise. (And the growth in chemical abortions likely means we are dramatically undercounting the number of abortions.) Planned Parenthood’s fundraising has exploded. In July of this year, Gallup issued a new report that expressed the rapid turnaround in sentiment about abortion:
After years when Americans were closely divided on the morality of abortion or leaned against it, a slight majority in 2022 said they consider it morally acceptable. That continues in the 2023 poll, as 52% say abortion is morally acceptable and 41% call it morally wrong.
The pro-life movement won the battle over Roe. But it is losing the war for the hearts and minds of Americans. It has formed liaisons with politicians that most Americans consider to be immoral and obnoxious, who claim to be pro-life in order to consummate political transactions.
I am not just talking about Donald Trump, though he is an obvious example. As I have documented elsewhere, during the Trump Administration, funding for Planned Parenthood reached an all-time high, and Planned Parenthood’s private fundraising more than doubled. Planned Parenthood’s annual budget (about $2 billion) now dwarfs the combined budget of all 3,000 pregnancy resource centers combined.
This week we see new evidence that the pro-life movement’s shift to “ends justify means” activism continues to alienate Americans. In Ohio, a state that has been reliably red in recent election cycles, a statewide referendum to limit abortion was defeated.
This defeat for pro-lifers in Ohio is the latest in a streak. Last year, California, Michigan and Vermont approved pro-abortion amendments to their state constitutions. The red states of Kansas and Kentucky rejected measures that could have led to bans on abortion. Earlier this year, in Wisconsin, a pro-abortion candidate easily won a judicial race that focused on the issue.
On Wednesday, The New York Times, in its coverage of the Ohio defeat, wrote, “Democratic officials have been saying for months that the fight for abortion rights has become the issue that best motivates Democrats to vote, and is also the issue that persuades the most Republicans to vote for Democrats.”
It’s important to note that some of these votes were bound to happen. Roe federalized abortion. Dobbs did not ban abortion. It simply returned the question to the states. It is no surprise that liberal states would legalize abortion. But it is surprising that such states as Kentucky, Ohio and Kansas would liberalize abortion laws, or at least fail to enact reasonable restrictions. That should cause pro-life leaders to question their strategy.
Regaining the high moral ground
Given these hard realities, how can pro-lifers regain the high moral ground on the abortion issue?
The question suggests the answer, and that is to remember that the issue is a moral one, not merely or mostly a political issue. If Christians compromise moral and ethical commitments to the truth in order to win political battles, we should not be surprised to find our moral arguments on other issues — abortion and marriage, for example — will be less powerful, less credible.
Secondly, we must redouble our efforts to love our neighbors. A common argument against pro-lifers has sounded something this: “You care about babies, but only until the moment they are born.” The practical, local and compassionate care of the 3,000 pregnancy resource centers around the nation have made it difficult for that charge to stick. But the beautiful work of PRCs, who walk with women not only through pregnancy but often for years afterward, is now getting slandered. PRCs have been physically attacked by groups such as Jane’s Revenge. We need, now more than ever, to make PRCs the front lines of our pro-life activism, taking precedent over even our political activism.
Some of my friends in the pro-life movement have said that the real goal of the movement is not merely to make abortion illegal, but unthinkable. I agree with that goal. The overturning of Roe has placed some restrictions on abortion in some states, but it has taken us farther away from making it unthinkable.
We will never make it unthinkable if we jettison our commitment to the truth in order to win short term political battles. If we do, we will become what we say are fighting against. And we will get what we deserve.
This article was originally published at MinistryWatch.