Contrary to a political scientist, pro-lifers are not looking to “rebrand themselves as not religious”

By Dave Andrusko

The headline tells you where Prof. Anne Whitesell is coming from: “As Ohio and other states decide on abortion, anti-abortion activists look to rebrand themselves as not religious.”

The implication is clear: “Anti-abortion activists”—that’s you and me—are looking around at the lay of the land and have decided that their/our “brand” needs to be altered to “not religious.”

If that is our objective, the caption that accompanies the photo that begins the story doesn’t help: It’s “Roman Catholic nuns pray with anti-abortion activists across the street from a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York in September 2023.” By the way, there is another photo near the end of her essay. That caption reads “Anti-abortion activists pray in New York in August 2022 outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.”

Prof. Whitesell tells us she is “an American politics scholar who focuses on how groups outside of government attempt to influence policy.” Speaking of the June 2022 Dobbs decision, she writes

Since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to get an abortion, I have interviewed 45 anti-abortion activists across the country and collected Facebook data from approximately 190 organizations. I wanted to better understand how anti-abortion groups are working in a post-Roe v. Wade world to ban abortion.

What does she preliminarily conclude?

Prominent anti-abortion groups continue to reference religion, and specifically Christianity, in their arguments against abortion. But I found that these activists also recognize that framing abortion as a human rights issue may appeal to a broader audience.

“Framing”? Slightly on the cynical side, wouldn’t you say?

The appeal of the pro-life movement is uniquely broad. We have the Catholic Church with its long, long history of defending unborn children at one end, Secular Pro-Life whose appeal is geared to atheists and agnostics, on the other end. National Right to Life, the largest and oldest non-denominational pro-life organisation, is in the middle of this spectrum.

Did any of these organizations suddenly discover that abortion is a human rights issue—indeed, the preeminent human rights issue of our time? I’ve been in the Movement since the late 1970s. What always appealed to me was the breadth and depth of what is the ultimate grassroots movement in which people could be motivated to join for a dozen different reasons.

(By the way I wonder if Prof. Whitesell interviewed the Pregnancy Help Movement which is a key component of our coalition?) She writes

In my interviews, anti-abortion rights activists said they understood that the public views their movement as anti-woman and driven by conservative Christians. More recently, the movement has adopted pro-woman messaging to counter the perception that they do not support women.

This makes sense, does it not, that faced with a media-created caricature of our Movement we would do everything possible to show how untrue that is?

But this has been the message of our Movement since the very beginning!

We are pro-child and pro-woman. We didn’t need to test market this foundational truth: it is in our DNA.

I wish to make clear that in my opinion, Prof. Whitesell’s essay is not some hatchet job. It is, rather, incomplete.

We can be motivated by faith yet send a message of love, hope, and inspiration that transcend religious/non-religious boundaries.