Sister Sharon Dillon has been attending the annual March for Life for 20 years. A pro-life activist since high school, the 50-year-old former director of the Franciscan Federation doesn't agree with Roe v. Wade—the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But as strong as her convictions are, she's also frustrated with the kind of single-minded activism she sees around her: young girls chanting, "hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go!" "So much time has elapsed since Roe," says Dillon. "I think among veterans, like me, few if any, think the Supreme Court is going to overturn it."
That realization is why she has come to Washington with a different message this year. Dillon is marching with a group called Catholics United who carry a banner that says: "CONGRESS: SUPPORT PREGNANT WOMEN AND REDUCE ABORTIONS NOW!" This is the first time that Dillon has seen any mention of abortion reduction; the battle has always been about Roe and bans. "We need to start thinking in practical terms: what can we do now to reduce abortions?" she says. "And I think that is very pro-life, if we can lower the numbers," she says.
What Dillon is promoting may not sound radical. But to legions of pro-life activists, even the use of the word "reduction" instead of elimination borders on heresy. The pro-life movement began with Roe v. Wade and has, for 36 years, been centered on protest against legal abortion. The idea of lobbying Congress to reduce abortions—rather than ban them outright—strikes many as a wrong-headed signal that tolerating any level of abortion is acceptable. So they have pushed presidents to appoint justices likely to overturn Roe and urged Congress to outlaw at least some types of abortion, like with the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed in 2003. But at the march in Washington last Thursday, the leftover signs from the massive celebration of President Obama's inauguration were persistent reminders that such a strategy faces stiff challenges—at least in the short term.
The election of a pro-choice administration and a Democratic Congress has divided the pro-life movement, between those who are preparing for the fight of their lives and those who see an opportunity to redefine what it means to be pro-life. During the eight years of the sympathetic Bush administration, pro-lifers made progress. The Supreme Court is just one vote shy of an anti-Roe majority. Pro-life groups have also promoted state-level restrictions on access to abortion, such as requiring women to have an ultrasound prior to abortion or wait 24 hours. It's been their most popular tactic and has been on an upswing in recent years: approximately 400 bills restricting abortion were considered by the states in 2007, a more than 50 percent increase from 2006, according to Americans United for Life, the country's oldest pro-life organization.
But now, many pro-life activists worry that their victories from the past eight years have been made vulnerable. Obama has already repealed the Reagan-era global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, which had barred the federal funding of non-government organizations that perform or even discuss abortions in foreign countries—even if they don't use American money for the procedures. And here in the United States, pro-lifers fear that their push for more state-level restrictions may have run its course after all three pro-life ballot initiatives introduced in 2008 failed.
"In reality, if you look at the current situation we're in, I think those kind of statutes have gone as far as they can go," says James W. Brown, chief of staff for pro-life Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who recently introduced the Support Pregnant Women Act. "The question is, where does it go from here?"
The future of the movement is a subject that some new pro-life organizations are starting to address, like RealAbortionSolutions.org, a Web site that launched during the 2008 election. They ran advertisements in the Washington Examiner and Washington Post's Express during this year's March for Life, calling on pro-lifers to "ask ourselves what it really means to be pro-life" and "come together on solutions based on results, not rhetoric." They're among a handful of groups at the intersection of religion and politics, including Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, that spent the election cycle pushing for a new understanding of how to pursue a pro-life agenda.
But some advocates see such discussion as unacceptable backsliding. So they're focused on returning to the grassroots tactics they've used for decades. "He's got the House, he's got the Senate, so I think we may go more guerilla warfare, or go back to working harder on your own turf, protesting at your abortion clinic in your town," says Jill Stanek, a prominent pro-life blogger. "We won't get anything past them. The only reason we'd be introducing legislation now is to gain public awareness." Activists are particularly anxious about the Freedom of Choice Act, a piece of legislation that would expand abortion rights by guaranteeing each women's "right to begin, prevent or continue a pregnancy." Obama once expressed support for the Act, but most legislators and policy experts say it's extremely unlikely to become law, since it has languished in Congress for two decades now.
But while the majority of pro-lifers may be preparing for an escalated battle, there is a small group that sees the change in Washington as an opportunity to reshape some of the movement's core principles. "In this context, no matter what your convictions are, we're not going to change the rule of the law," says Jim Wallis, who directs Sojourners, a progressive evangelical group. "Even if Roe is repealed, it just goes back to the states." Wallis, who is pro-life, and other progressive leaders are trying out a strategy that has so far failed to gain much traction on either side of the debate: "Let's look at results. How do you really reduce abortion? You support women's health care, you promote involved fatherhood. I think those programs are significant if you're saving unborn lives." Recent research has shown strong correlations between poverty and abortion, so these activists are betting on anti-poverty, social-welfare initiatives to bring down the abortion rate, like better support for mothers in high school or college, providing support for adoption as an alternative to abortion and increasing food stamp and Medicaid benefits for mothers.
Proponents of this path, hope that in this new political climate, pro-choice and pro-life leaders will be motivated to get behind abortion reduction tactics. The approach is popular with the public: 72 percent of Americans support the public policy goal of 'reducing the number of abortions in America by preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term,' according to a 2008 Survey by Third Way, a non-profit think tank that promotes bipartisan cooperation. And it's had a successful year politically: the Democrats added an abortion-reduction clause to their party platform for the first time in 2008.
In a statement released last Thursday (on Roe's anniversary), President Obama offered an optimistic view of the level of cooperation possible between pro-lifers and pro-choicers: "While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services."
Unlike his Democratic predecessor, Obama did not use the anniversary of Roe to reverse the Mexico City Policy. Wallis, the Evangelical leader, was involved in discussions with Obama advisors about how the president would announce that executive order and says the timing—late on a Friday afternoon—was intentional. "Everyone knew it was going to be rescinded," says Wallis. "He was trying to do it quietly, without fanfare. By issuing a statement first, he sent a clear signal that he's not looking to start a fight with people who are pro-life."
But the Obama team may still have a hard time bringing the two sides together—even in the early days of an administration pledged to bipartisanship. In the past, the "common ground" approach to abortion politics has stalled. Although both camps want to reduce abortion, legislators are loath to put their votes behind the other side's tactics. Pro-choice legislators push for access to contraceptives, while those on the pro-life side vote for increased funding to pregnancy-support programs. "If you want to get to 51 [votes], we think let's do pregnant women over here, and contraceptives over there," says Brown, in Senator Casey's office, who recently introduced legislation to support pregnant women.
The feeling is mutual; pro-choice groups have been reticent to support legislation that does not make provisions for contraception. NARAL Pro-Choice America opposes the Support Pregnant Woman Act because of "the absence of important pieces, like contraception, and the presence of some parts tinged with anti-choice values," says Donna Crane, their policy director. Legislation promoting both types of reduction strategies in one bill has floundered without enough support from either camp. On the Hill, says Brown, "they're two different issues," even though they have identical goals.
The issue is so polarizing, that even if a piece of legislation does not have an overt "pro-life" or "pro-choice" label, some legislators and activists are determined to categorize it anyway. "I think the biggest obstacle [for abortion-reduction legislation] is that people look at it and they're going, 'okay, what's the angle here? What are you pushing?'" says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. "It's support for pregnant women. There's no hidden agenda here."
There are hints that Sharon Dillon and her group aren't the only ones open to compromise. Take Stanek, the pro-life blogger. Asked if she could ever see herself participating in this new approach, she answers definitively: "We will never, ever agree; we will never, ever come together on our worldviews on how to reduce abortions." But as she reads over an advertisement published that day by Real Abortion Solutions, she takes a different tack. "We would definitely agree with them on that, expanding adoption," she says. "That's an area where we could work. We would definitely agree with them on increasing pre-natal and post-natal healthcare."
But then Stanek moves back toward her doubts. "Then again, how? You have look at how they want to expand adoption. It's very, very tough to find areas of agreement." That is one point where she, the pro-choice, and pro-life community, have found plenty of common ground.