By Dave Andrusko
Editor’s note. Today is the 40th anniversary of the Hyde Amendment. We’ve been posting about this life-saving provision for months and have again today. As I was composing my story on the Hyde Amendment for today, I remembered an introduction I wrote to “Call to Conscience,” a collection of pro-life essays I edited and which NRLC published in 1985. It reminded me, yet again, of the staying power of our Movement, the impossibility of us ever growing weary.
The genius of the Abortion movement has always been a masterly capacity to portray itself as riding the crest of history’s wave and to evade addressing all the substantive moral and ethical considerations raised by the deliberate destruction of 18 million preborn children. For all the kaleidoscope variety of justifications for abortion, what has made them persuasive is the knack for making abortion seem “progressive,” and so self-evidently necessary as to place it beyond serious dispute.
Which is not to say that at various times, abortion advocates did not genuinely believe their own mythology. Especially in those heady days in the late ‘60s and early’70s, as law after law protecting preborn babies fell, abortion proponents must have been convinced their movement was in sympathetic harmony with the movement of history. Opposition, they were sure, could only by the rearguard of a tiny minority trapped in a cultural lag.
Viewed in this light pro-life opposition was less wrongheaded than it was foolish and irrelevant. So thoroughly had abortion supporters convinced themselves of the certainty (and correctness) of their triumph, that when the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973 many felt confident the “battle for choice” had come to a close.
Thirteen years later, the difference in attitude is starting. Speaking in 1985 at conference after conference, abortion supporters openly confessed that the tables had turned. Whether the reaction was panic or reassurances that all would be well. The common thread running through these speeches was that abortion proponents had lost control of the public agenda.
Many bitterly complained that abortion was no longer discussed in terms of “women’s rights.” This, of course, is wrong and misleading. What had actually occurred was that, thanks to a remarkable new film, a competing set of rights was now on the table: those of the preborn child. The film? The Silent Scream.
Virtually every essay in this book makes reference to this celebrated film and how it profoundly altered the course of events in every arena in which pro-life and pro-abortion combatants did battle. One participant at a national Abortion Federation convention held last June summed up the film’s role-reversing impact this way: Abortion supporters, she said, had sunk into the “pits of despair.”
And although we talk a great deal about the film, I hope I will be forgiven if I also spend a fair amount of space trying to come to grips with all its consequences. For if we are looking to the future it is not The Silent Scream’s initial seismic impact on the abortion controversy that matters most but the aftershocks that have and will follow in its trail.
It is quite true, of course, that the pendulum had begun to swing back in favor of life before the premiere of The Silent Scream. But is very misleading to interpret the film as merely helping the Pro-Life Movement retake a few additional yards of territory lost in the early wars somewhat more rapid than before. In fact, a quantum change had occurred, one which is worth looking at closely.
How can we describe the magnitude of this turnabout? Well, imagine yourself a paleontologist living tens of thousands of years from now. You are attempting to trace the evolution not of some bird or mammal but of the most hotly contested issue of the second half of the twentieth century: Abortion. Your task is not easy, for the changes in the abortion debate were always the culmination of a confluence of many events and forces. In tracing an idea, the fossil remains are not bone fragments but rather issues of old newspapers and videotapes from nightly newscasts. By fitting pieces together from a number of these different sources, you discover an intelligible whole.
You are trying to settle a raging dispute within the science community. How could such a “pro-natalist” society as the United States in the 1950s so rapidly lose its moorings that by the 1980s abortion would be its leading export to the developing world, yet, then, seemingly against all odds, turn around and right itself. As you thumb through the pages and watch the kinescopes and videotapes, you find that the layers of justifications laid down by abortion proponents can be read sequentially, like so many stratums.
In the beginning, for example, fears about fetal deformities engendered by the German measles and Thalidomide scares conditioned the public to thinking in terms of a minute expansion in the acceptable justifications for abortion. In a very complex and subtle way, abortion on demand proponents capitalized on these tragedies, parlaying the fear of “deformed babies” into a nationwide campaign to eliminate all laws protecting preborn children.
However, the drive bogged down in 1970 and 1971. It was at this juncture that the Supreme Court came to the rescue. In an opinion held together only by the will to reach a pre-determined verdict, the Court in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton not only threw out the abortion statutes of Texas and Georgia, it invalidated the abortion laws of all fifty states. In one fell swoop, the Court ushered in abortion on demand.
Continuing to read the record, you see that a pro-life opposition sprang up almost immediately, but that its first real successes did not occur until 1976, with the passage of the Hyde Amendment, and 1978, when liberal pro-abortion senators started to regularly lose any election in which the voting was close. The election of a pro-life President in 1980 capped the first stage of the return to a more pro-life America.
The combined power of the Reagan Administration and grassroots Pro-Life Movement produced a string of successes. Based on the pattern of incremental pro-life success, you would expect to find evidence of a slow but steady shift against abortion and in favor of life.
All at once, however, you discover a gigantic change in the records. Suddenly, newspapers run front-page stories with headlines such as “Relentless Pro-Lifers” and “Anti-Abortionists Gain As Furor Spreads And Uneasiness Grows,” while nightly news anchors speak of “anti-abortionists” finding a “better way.” Frankly, you are puzzled. You can find no succession of intermediary forms to link the debate’s previous record of gradual change to the wholly different situation found in 1985. Had there been a mutation? Was this an example of what your predecessors in the 1980s called punctuated equilibria?
You decide to move the site of your archaeological dig to Washington, D.C. After long months of work, you discover the missing link. You find it in the record of January 22, 1985, the night the networks aired significant excerpts from the centerpiece of the National Right to Life Committee’s annual press conference: The Silent Scream.
So powerful was the drama of this film that the easiest way to understand 1985 is as the attempts by both sides to adjust to a radically new environment. Watching a defenseless 12-week-old preborn baby torn to pieces, abruptly awakened consciences long since lulled to sleep by soothing pro-abortion assurances.
Certain irreducible facts could no longer be wished away. Everyone who witnessed the killing now knew that abortion is ugly, unbelievably violent, and takes the life of a developing human being whose only offense is to follow the laws of biological development. The Silent Scream forced the American public to wrestle with hard questions.
This book is an overview of the year’s developments in the areas of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. It is written, quite frankly, from the pro-life perspective. But we have taken particular care that our facts are both accurately reported and delivered in context. That way, we believe any reader can profit from reading our book, whether they agree with our interpretation of the record or not.
Some may by surprised that the Pro-Life Movement addresses all three issues. From the beginning, pro-lifers worried that infanticide and euthanasia would eventually rear their ugly heads. We understood that while each assault on life had its own grammar, the logic behind each was the same. Our activist, increasingly public opposition to infanticide and euthanasia parallels the increasingly militant demand that we extend the lethal logic of Roe to treatment of babies born imperfect and to the “unproductive” elderly.
So it is not surprisingly that the Pro-Life Movement in 1985 threw its energies into vigorously opposing all three manifestations of the anti-life mentality. What is surprising–pleasantly so, for us––is that both the public and the media are beginning to address the substance of our case rather than dismiss our arguments on the grounds that they came from a “tainted” source.
In a real sense, fundamentally 1985 was about our success at bringing clarity to a struggle too long muddled by proceduralism and false dichotomies. As we begin a new year, thankfully, no longer can opposition to abortion be cavalierly dismissed as religious superstition. No longer can the violent deaths of millions of babies be drowned in morally-neutral language about “emptying the contents of the uterus.” No longer can demagoguery about “imposing morality” carry the fright for pro-abortionists.
And thanks to Professor Kristin Luker, one other crucial aspect of this struggle was clarified. Luker’s book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, is flawed, dramatically so, in my opinion. By a serious misinterpretation both of the history of the abortion controversy and of the information she gathered in interviews with pro-and anti-abortion activists in California. Nevertheless, the raw data she collected speak for themselves.
As we read what activists on each side have to say, we realize that the battle over abortion is a life and death struggle between people passionately committed to competing values. On one side are people whose core values sound like they were lifted from a textbook assigned for a course in economics (with a forward by Carl Rogers): utility, reason, planning, self-actualization, maximization of potential, etc.
Pro-lifers’ values by contrast are decidedly non-economic: love, compassion, sacrifice, responsibility, caring, and the like. Indeed, common to these pro-life activists was an overwhelming repugnance for utilitarianism–for converting people into things.
Like all utopians, Luker’s pro-abortion activists believe in a kind of negative freedom—that is, the perfect freedom that comes when we have no debts to the past, no obligations to the future. That this freedom is illusory and profoundly dangerous to the social component of our natures simply is too counter-intuitive to be considered.
Pro-lifers understand that preoccupation with self is the universal solvent that dissolves the bonds making human community possible. We, too, believe in “maximizing our potential.” Only we believe we do not do so by steaming the rights of others but when we respect those rights as we would have them respect ours.
Pro-abortionists have no choice but to cling to the status quo. Push them to the wall and they retreat into defeatism, a kind of pseudo world-weariness characterized by contempt for pro-lifers. “Women have always had abortions,” they snap. “They always will.” What is, must be, and even to talk of a world in which women find better answers than killing their unborn babies simply irritates abortion partisans.
The irony is too obvious to belabor. Without exception every reform movement, including the women’s movement, has met the same resistance: don’t talk to us of what should be, look at the way it is.
Yet the common denominator to the past four hundred years of greater humanitarianism has been precisely the willingness to assign moral value to actions that had always been accepted as “just the way things are.” Reformers driven by a vision of more humane world have never been about the business of resigning themselves to injustice and cruelty but eliminating them.
Rather than make predictions, it is more useful to observe that, organizationally, the Pro-Life Movement has only begun to scratch the surface of its virtually unlimited potential. The Movement is alive and thriving, its stout branches and promising shoots watered daily with the sweat of thousands of volunteers. The sense of inevitable triumph is as pervasive today among pro-lifers as it was fifteen years ago among pro-abortionists.
Why? Because, as President Reagan remarked on Jan, 22, 1985, “…as never before, the momentum is with us.”