Last fall our longtime contributor George McKenna sent us “Getting There,” in which the seasoned political scientist, with over 20 articles in the Review’s archive, insisted pro-life politicians sharpen their messaging and deepen their commitment in response to the Supreme Court’s controversial (to say the least) Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Pro-life leaders, argued McKenna, need to rethink the movement’s strategies and tactics—maybe even establish a “central command structure” to determine what worked and what didn’t—now that its initiatives will be taken up in 50 state legislatures, the majority of them not ready to seriously restrict abortion and some of them actively hostile to any restrictions at all. In “Where Do We Go from Dobbs?,” a symposium in our last issue focusing on the ideas McKenna presented in “Getting There,” we heard from nine Human Life Foundation Great Defenders of Life: Helen Alvaré, Carl A. Anderson, Gerard V. Bradley, Clarke D. Forsythe, Edward Mechmann, William Murchison, Marvin Olasky, David Quinn, and Wesley J. Smith. Now we hear again from McKenna, who graciously addresses the remarks of each one of them, acknowledging agreement— and answering criticism.
My deep thanks to Maria Maffucci and Anne Conlon for inviting Helen Alvaré, Carl A. Anderson, Gerard V. Bradley, Clarke D. Forsythe, Edward Mechmann, William Murchison, Marvin Olasky, David Quinn, and Wesley J. Smith to share their thoughts on my article. I thank all of them most heartily for taking the time to do so. I’ve learned a lot from their remarks, and I hope to be able to incorporate some of what I’ve learned into my thinking as this new turn in the abortion debate proceeds.
What I liked most about Helen Alvaré’s contribution to the abortion debate is the way she fits together rights and responsibilities. The two, she writes, are linked, yet the abortion debate seems to turn only on the former, “as if there is no life to consider on the business end of the abortion instruments.” Once in a while, she adds, we need “to flip the script,” by asking “those on whom vulnerable children completely depend [to] think first about what is due those children.” This is just the kind of approach that will help us emerge from our “defensive crouch.”
Carl A. Anderson identifies Ronald Reagan as a president who was firmly pro-life in principle but also willing to move forward incrementally to advance pro-life policies. In 1983, on the tenth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Reagan submitted an essay entitled “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” to the Human Life Review, which as you know was founded by Maria’s father, James P. McFadden. As Maria later revealed, her father knew the document to be real when it was delivered by the White House with notes and revisions on its pages, written in the President’s own handwriting. On the first page of his lengthy essay, Reagan made it clear where he stood on the issue by noting that “since 1973, more than 15 million children have had their lives snuffed out by legalized abortions.” Today when that figure has risen to 63 million, we need more than ever to heed Carl Anderson’s witness to the importance of “loving both mother and child.”
Gerard V. Bradley rightly observes that “there are many routes to legally protecting the lives of unborn children from the moment of conception,” from seeking a constitutional amendment recognizing the personhood of the unborn to seeking relief separately through state legislatures and courts.
Some of this can be pared away. Probably there was never a serious hope for a constitutional amendment, which is one reason the Catholic bishops ultimately rejected that solution in favor of a state-by-state campaign. That is what it comes down to now, and Bradley cites a variety of strategies worth considering. He expresses what sounds like frustration at all the “summits” and “consultations” he has attended that never produced any agreements.
Up to this point I am with him entirely. Yes, we do have an astounding variety of ideas for stopping the killing. But that is just why I pray that the 200plus pro-life lobbies can find some way, some sort of structure, for bringing together many different minds and ideas, then seeing if they can unite behind a central strategy. Faced with the same facts, though, Bradley draws the opposite conclusion. Because of the successes of the pro-life movement in reversing Roe, “no such overarching structure is needed.” With respect, I disagree. We have entered a new chapter of the fight now, and a new field of battle in our states. We need some coordination among all those 200 groups now fighting for the unborn. Some time ago I spoke before a large audience of pro-life gays and lesbians, and was received very cordially. If we are able to put aside our viewpoint differences on that fraught issue in order to stand together for life, we can bridge every other issue as well. My opinion is that it’s worth a try.
Clarke D. Forsythe begins by focusing on the new set of facts we are confronted with in this second phase of our fight to save unborn children from the knives and poisons of the abortionists. The main thrust of the fight is largely out of the hands of courts and lawyers now, so “the major challenge will be to persuade our fellow Americans that abortion should be prohibited.” In this campaign we will face some formidable obstacles—he cites in particular the abortion lobby’s ballot initiatives over the next two years designed “to shortcircuit the legislative process in the states with ‘direct democracy,’ aided by multimillion dollar campaigns.” These are formidable developments, and he worries that “some pro-life advocates have yet to show a democratic disposition to appeal to the public” at large, focusing instead “on rousing ‘the base,’ demanding complete prohibitions on abortion immediately in every state, and criticizing leaders who propose advancing less-than-complete prohibitions of abortion as an intermediate measure.” His own approach is a lot like mine: “Accept as much as you can get in the current context of existing obstacles and work over the long term for a greater good.” Hurrah!
Edward Mechmann compares our situation today with that of antebellum America, where there was a patchwork of laws in the various states, none of which granted full legal personhood to blacks. Today, with abortion, some states ban it at six weeks, others at twenty weeks. “And radically proabortion states basically hold that unborn children have no rights that born people are bound to respect.”
Mechmann agrees with the step-by-step agenda I have laid out, but he adds that there “must be an active, assertive defense” against pro-abortion legislatures and administrative agencies. This is an area I had not covered in my essay but should have. Pro-life pregnancy centers, he notes, have been constantly harassed for “treating unborn children and their mothers like real persons,” and “religious hospitals are under constant regulatory pressure because they refuse to treat murder as if it were health care.” I have personally heard from Christian doctors about being pressured to withhold treatment from “defective” newborn children. All of this cries out for a determined pushback, a point Mechmann emphasizes in his remarks.
William Murchison is of two minds in reaction to my essay. On the one hand he agrees with me that we don’t yet have the votes to ban all abortions in every state but we do have enough to make a start, so we should “take what we can get.” On the other hand, he doesn’t think it is possible to do that because it’s impossible to get the American people to reach “a single viewpoint on anything under the sun.”
On its face that can’t be true. The American people eventually reached a single viewpoint, or at least a working majority, on slavery, prohibition of alcoholic beverages, fighting the Nazis, and other issues much argued but finally resolved. I would agree with him, though, if what he means is that it takes time, and sometimes great sacrifice, to get enough Americans on the right side of a controversy; he notes that the Civil War cost the lives of 750,000 Americans, no small sacrifice for a great cause.
He rejects my analogy of abortion and slavery on two grounds: first, “Slaves were visible persons,” with “faces, bodies, names; all the marks of realized life.” While conceding that unborn children also have these features, “the problem is their out-of-sightness.” But are they really out of sight in this age of ultrasound? I am looking right now at an ultrasound film of an eight-week fetus. To me it looks very much like a baby. The child has little button eyes and a fat tummy. Her legs are curled up and moving, and so are her arms. I can see her fingers. She seems, indeed, to have “all the marks of realized life,” to cite Murchison’s first test.
Here I will pause to remind you of what I have called the “weak hand” of the abortion lobby. If an eight-week fetus looks very much like a baby, what about a thirteen-week fetus? Or a twenty-week fetus? If you look at their ultrasound photos, you will basically be seeing baby pictures. Yet, together with their younger counterparts, hundreds of thousands of these children are being killed every year. Nor is this all. Six states and the District of Columbia actually allow nine-month abortions. Now, I firmly believe that the vast majority of Americans are good people, and if that is true, I can’t imagine that they would react with anything but shock and anger if the facts I have presented here were widely publicized, especially in the states that allow nine-month abortions. Living myself in a nine-month abortion state (New Jersey), I have reason to believe that they are not aware of this license to kill. So perhaps it is in these states that the fight should begin. It will be a tough fight, because facts do not speak for themselves; you have to make them speak.
Returning to Murchison’s argument, his second reason for rejecting the analogy between abortion and slavery is that abortion is inextricably tied up with feminism. The two are “joined together at the hip.” But that is not true historically. From what we can gather, most of the suffragettes in the late nineteenth century shared Susan B. Anthony’s firm opposition to abortion. Even if some did not, it still shows that there is no organic connection between feminism and abortion. As for the present, it’s worth noting that one of the 200-plus pro-life organizations in America is called “Feminists for Life.” My brother Murchison is on much, much stronger ground in identifying the root of the problem as our “I-want-to” way of life. This reflexive selfishness has embedded itself in our culture, with consequences that do not look good for the survival of the family and the larger community. In spite of this, however, he sees a developing backlash against “the moral soot now enveloping us.” What is needed now is “moral inquiry, serious, serious moral teaching—and yes, the earnest prayers of God’s faithful.” Amen.
Marvin Olasky identifies the main difference between Martin Luther King’s battle against racial segregation and our resistance to the killing of unborn children: “King had nationally prominent journalists on his side, with newspapers, magazines, and television networks amplifying his message, but the national press has been highly pro-abortion for a long time.” This is indeed a formidable obstacle, and he spells out in painful detail the near-total support for abortion at any stage of pregnancy by the national press and TV networks. In contrast, the national press was one of King’s major allies in his crusade against racial segregation. No American who was alive then will ever forget the respectful coverage they gave to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. In contrast, the annual March for Life every January is lucky to get any network coverage—unless the march or its aftermath gets stormed by counter-demonstrators. They love to cover that.
The challenge, then, is to find a way to “circumvent the biases at the top,” and Olasky apparently agrees with me about one of the best ways to get around those biases. It stems from what I have called the abortion lobby’s “weak hand,” a weakness that reveals itself, Olasky notes, “when people see even an 8-week-old unborn child: They say, ‘that’s a baby.”’ Olasky apparently agrees with me that ultrasound is the most powerful weapon we have against those who keep insisting that there’s nothing much down there to see. It has already caused a number of abortionists and their aides to throw down their weapons, including, most famously, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who had performed more than 70,000 abortions and whose opinions were favorably cited in Roe v. Wade. He was so appalled when he saw on ultrasound the dismembering of an unborn baby—apparently for the first time!—that he became an active pro-life spokesman. He later recalled, “I was shaken to the very roots of my soul by what I saw.”
David Quinn begins by recalling Ireland’s two-to-one vote in 2018 to repeal his country’s constitutional protection of unborn children. He was relieved to some extent four years later when he heard about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Now, however, he knows that Dobbs did not end or even limit abortion but simply moved the controversy to our state legislatures. That portends a very long fight “because abortion has become so embedded in our culture.”
How to change this lethal mindset? “What we need is a social revolution in what people see as ‘the good life.’” In case you think that’s putting it too broadly, Quinn narrows it down by citing what is not good in modern life besides abortion: “continuing high divorce, a declining marriage rate, growing loneliness . . . and (on the horizon) widespread euthanasia.”
When it comes to specific strategies for combatting what he rightly calls the “embedded” abortion culture in America, he seems to agree with me when he suggests “a very broad-based, well-coordinated campaign by prolife groups statewide and nationwide guided by good, high-profile leaders.” Finally, I was happily surprised by his invocation of Pope St. John Paul II, who summed up in a few words what I argued at length in my essay: “[John Paul II] said that Catholic politicians could in good conscience vote in favor of laws that permitted abortion so long as the imperfect new law they were supporting was replacing a worse one” (my emphasis). There it is! I have a Catholic saint on my side.
Wesley J. Smith also invokes that powerful bit of wisdom from John Paul II, adding that the goal should be “saving as many lives as possible.” And I would add this ending: “as we move toward victory.” But that is emphatically not the language Smith recommends. Why not? Because “the strategic questions with which the pro-life movement grapples are not properly framed as matters of winning or losing, but instead, of saving as many lives as possible.” So we can’t talk about winning? That doesn’t sound right. Other moral-spiritual campaigns haven’t held back from doing so. “We Shall Overcome” sounds to me like an expectation of victory. Martin Luther King, by the way, also got a lot of inspiration from St. Paul, and here is what Paul says on the subject of victory: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Smith reminds us that victory will take a long time; it will have to be “measured in decades.” Maybe—but I can remember a time when you could get a good laugh if you predicted that black legislators would play decisive roles in governing Southern states and that a black man would be sitting in the White House. It wasn’t that many decades ago.
But I will say no more about this difference in outlook. There is so much more I agree with in Smith’s presentation. He lays out three initiatives on behalf of human life: First, make the choice of birth easier. This, as he notes, is already well underway, thanks to the numerous pro-life clinics that sprang up during the Roe era, providing free pregnancy tests, ultrasound scans, postnatal education, diapers, and social services for mothers. But he would also push some outside-the-box efforts, such as making childbirth “free for every mother in the country” and—this one sounds a bit vaporous but maybe it’s worth a try—promoting a national dialogue on “how best to promote a culture of life” regardless of one’s views on the legality of abortion.
The other two suggestions Smith provides, “Increase Commitment to Oppose Assisted Suicide” and “Protect Medical Conscience,” I will deal with briefly here because you can read them at full length in his presentation. I don’t have even a shadow of disagreement with them. In his second suggestion, Smith notes that assisted suicide is rapidly gaining strength in the United States, and we must join forces with any and all groups fighting against it, including those—this is how I would put it—who have not yet recognized the similarity between killing people outside the womb and killing those inside. Smith’s third suggestion, “Protect Medical Conscience,” is really an extension of the second. By “protecting the right of doctors and other medical professionals to refuse complicity in abortion and assisted suicide,” we get a double benefit: We save a life then and there, and by doing so communicate to others the deep truth that killing innocent people is wrong “regardless of legality.”
“Finally,” he concludes, “to be effective in these and other efforts that will need to be undertaken, prolifers will have to work to change the movement’s (largely but not totally false) popular reputation as angry [my emphasis] into one recognized as steeped in love.” To this I plead guilty. There have been times during this angry controversy when I have let my own Irish temper get the better of me. I need to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile. But it’s hard, Lord, it’s hard.
George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York.