Pro-Life Incrementalism is Working

Over at the Corner, Michael New draws attention to a recent op-ed by Frances Kissling of the oxymoronic group Catholics for a Free Choice:

In a column that appeared in last Friday’s Washington Post, Frances Kissling, who served as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, offers some advice for supporters of legal abortion. Kissling acknowledges that recent pro-life efforts — specifically our focus on fetal development and our efforts to pass incremental laws — have been effective in shifting public opinion in a pro-life direction. She acknowledges that supporters of legal abortion are now losing, and that the pro-choice arguments that were persuasive in the 1970s are no longer working today.

As a result, Kissling suggests a shift in strategy. Specifically, she urges her pro-choice allies to support some restrictions on late-term abortions. She states that supporters of abortion rights need to “firmly and clearly reject post-viability abortions, except in extreme cases.” She even says that abortions in the second trimester “need to be considered differently.” Kissling encourages an approach that would mandate counseling for women seeking abortion in these circumstances.

The fact that even staunch pro-choice activitists feel constrained to hem in their support for abortion rights suggests to me that pro-lifers have been winning the battle for hearts and minds on the abortion issue. And as Kissling herself admits, a big part of this success has been the tactic of focusing on incremental issues which, while small in themselves, highlight the humanity of the unborn. In my view, the recent Arizona bill banning race and sex selective abortions falls into that category.

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  1. BA,

    Well, obviously I disagree about the AZ bill.

    I think we are winning the battle for hearts and minds precisely because, at least until recently, we focused solely on abortion as murder. We did not focus excessively on demographics, nor did we adopt the dishonest strategies of the left. We instead crushed all of the self-serving and manifestly absurd arguments of the pro-abortion movement.

    That is why the debate shifted from “when does life begin” to “is it a person”, this is why the slogans shifted from “my body, my choice” to “abortion is a tragedy, a necessary evil.” We did this with the truth, not with sideshows and distractions.

    The rhetoric surrounding the AZ bill is ridiculous and absurd. Hardened Republicans making speeches about racism and sexism? It’s completely cynically and duplicitous. All anyone has to do is say, “fine, its not because I wanted a boy instead, its because I’m just not ready right now.” Who ever admits, openly, anyway, to getting an abortion for gender reasons in this country? How about race? No one admits this, and if they were asked, even if it were the true reason it would be denied.

    This is just idiocy.

    As I said elsewhere, though, I don’t reject incrementalism in total. Parental notification laws, informed consent laws, these are good things, because they don’t take the focus off the truth; they make the best of a bad situation, and they are actually enforceable, not empty gestures.

  2. I am in favor of incrementalism since there is no other way forward at present. I think it diminishes the moral force of our argument not one whit. Lincoln could call for restricting slavery in the Territories while continuing to attack it as a complete evil.

    On the other hand, once pro-aborts admit that some abortions should be restricted or banned that weakens their argument immeasurably. The current abortion regime can only survive long term if it has a dedicated cohort willing to fight all out for it. Once they begin saying late term abortions are evil because they take human life, it starts a domino effect in our favor.

    The pro-life cause has many avenues of service of course. If some prefer a more head on approach that is fine. For myself I will support the baby steps now towards our ultimate goal of banning abortion and protecting all the unborn, and pray that the day will come in my lifetime when we can take great leaps.

  3. I don’t think there is much convincing evidence to link incrementalism to the perception that the abortion industry is “losing.” Correlation, as we all know, does not equal causation. Here are some explanations that I find far more likely:

    a. As the article admits, the perceived shift is largely generational. Those of us under 40 are survivors. The knowledge that we had a 1 in 4 chance of getting wiped out by abortion is being reflected in public opinion.
    b. We young pro-lifers are less willing to compromise babies conceived in rape or incest and are more likely to reject the culture of contraception.
    c. The rise of 40 Days for Life, the recent explosive growth of the March for Life and other grassroots apostolates provide a way to create effective communication opportunities.

    I’m getting tired and my thoughts are getting a bit less cogent, but I also think it’s worth considering that Planned Parenthood has a very clear strategy to get around the problems posed by incrementalism: shift abortions to earlier in pregnancy. I’m all for promoting the use of ultrasound and fetal development to reach particular women in crisis. But if we rely too much on these measures, we risk losing the very early abortions–those that take place before the baby has clearly identifiable features. That’s why Planned Parenthood is working to get RU-486 in EVERY affiliate. It’s why we’ve seen no real decrease in the use of abortifacient birth control. And it’s why the abortion industry developed the new “week after” pill.

    I think it’s important for us to recognize that incrementalism and the “home run” approach (for lack of a better term) are not mutually exclusive. I work full-time in the pro-life movement, and we push for incremental victories. But we also push for personhood. You can do both. And we have to do both. Regardless of its political success, personhood provides a great opportunity for education that we simply must take advantage of. Instead of debating on PP’s terms (choice, access, etc.), we get to address why we’re really opposed to abortion: because it kills a child. Such strategies have worked in the past.

  4. Abortion kills a human being. Killing is not health care. Murder is not a human or reproductive right. Assassination is not a choice: no compormise, no debate.

    Sadly, the problem is that abortion ranks about number ten (e.g., the 2008 election) on many catholics’ lists of moral imperatives: behind raising taxes of the hated rich and dismantling the evil, unjust American way of life.

    Speaking of oxymorons, try: “military intelligence” and “happily married.”

  5. I think that incrementalism has worked in shifting the zone of possible agreement towards the pro-life position. Kissling’s piece (and other similar ones in the past from high profile feminists and abortion advocates) indicates that the absolutist pro-abortion position simply isn’t working anymore, and that the “clump of cells” claim is mostly only holding among those who are hard boiled pro-aborts anyway.

    Part of what needs to be kept in mind with this and other similar issues, I think, is that it’s not just increasing the number of advocates on one side of an issue that makes a difference in how an issue stands in the political balance. Equally important, at times, is taking the middling people without strong convictions and shifting them from mildly the other side to mildly your side. I think where the pro-life movement has been fairly successful in recent decades has been in making those who are not strong advocates either for or against abortion to lean slightly against it and feel that it might be taking a life. These folks won’t tell you that “abortion is murder”, but they lean anti-abortion and that gives the pro-life movement room.

    However, that kind of shifting of slightly held opinion only gets one so far. At a certain point, in order to make further progress, we’ll need real converts. And though those are coming, they are not yet enough.

  6. Roe v. Wade stands in the way of doing anything BUT the incremental approach right now. And the incremental approach is the best way to chip away at Roe.

    Once Roe is overturned and the issue is back with the voters where it belongs, THEN we can talk about all or nothing approaches to ending abortion.

  7. “The voters should decide whether murder is legal???”

    As opposed to the courts having decided for us all that not only IS murder legal, but that we can’t do anything to restrict it at all? Absolutely.

    How else do you suggest we get from where we are to where we should be? Magic?

  8. And I’d be more likely to believe in magic than to believe that either of the following scenarios could occur:

    (1) that the Pro-Life Amendment will pass 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures; or

    (2) that there will ever be 5 Supreme Court Justices sitting at one time who would find abortion to be unconstitutional. Right now, there is MAYBE one Justice who leans in that direction, and that is Clarence Thomas.

    We’ve had trouble enough getting Justices who will find Roe to be the piece of legal garbage that it is and thereby overturn it, thus sending the matter back to the states and/or the voters; it is wholly unrealistic to believe that we will have any chance of getting Justices on the Court who will not only overturn Roe, but then go in the complete opposite direction and hold that abortion violates the constitutional right to life.

  9. Jay, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I, too, don’t think that political strategies will end abortion. In fact, I’m pretty sure as long as 98% of the country is contracepting, and the average age for first exposure to pornography is 11, that abortion-on-demand will remain the law of the land. Looking back, it’s very easy to cite the passage of some law, or a war, or a court decision as the moment that a great injustice was ended. But that’s just lazy history. Typically, politicians are dragged kicking and screaming across the finish line.

    What we need is a cultural transformation. When the United States is a pro-life country, our judges and our lawmakers will fall in line. Let’s face it, for better and (usually) for worse, our judicial system reflects the trends of the age.

    So how do we do this? By making somebody wait 24 hours for an abortion? Don’t get me wrong, I am ALL for incremental improvements (assuming they don’t concede the lives of the politically inconvenient babies conceived in difficult circumstances). They might save lives. They might help us become more like Europe where abortion after 12 weeks is incredibly rare (and often illegal). But these measures don’t get us closer to seeing abortion end.

    Why are we pro-life? Because we value every life, beginning at the moment of conception. We believe that the single cell zygote is a person. I merely propose we endeavor to change our laws to reflect that belief. I don’t begrudge somebody for preferring a different strategy. I do begrudge everybody who actively opposes the strategy. And I get a little defensive when the nascent personhood movement is derided as having failed everywhere as though 38 years of incrementalism with no results is successful…

    Again, cultural transformation is needed. And how can we expect the culture to take us seriously if we don’t posit legislatively that the pre-born child is a person? If we restrict our efforts to parental notification and waiting periods, we allow the pro-aborts to define the debate in terms of access and choice. When we expand the debate to include personhood, we debate on our own terms: which human lives do we defend, and which do we kill?

    So in summary, yes, personhood is likely to be a political loser for the forseeable future. But personhood as a political strategy cannot be divorced from the great educational opportunity to tell America “Yes, the embryo is a person deserving of full protection under the law.”

  10. “I merely propose we endeavor to change our laws to reflect that belief.”

    I don’t disagree, but isn’t that the same thing as allowing voters to decide this issue? It seems we’re both in agreement that voters and their representatives do a far better job of representing where our culture is on life than the courts do.

  11. I suppose so, but I tend to think the prohibition on murder is already settled, right? When the embryo is declared a person on the law, that won’t so much kick it back to the states as it will aborb the pre-born into protection granted by existing homicide statutes. Maybe we are using different terms to say the same thing?

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