A Pro-life State of the Union


As one who is privileged to devote all my time and energy to fighting abortion, I get a pretty good view of the pro-life movement. On the average, I speak in four states every week, and my speaking engagements and strategy sessions bring me into contact with people at every level of society and in every form and variation of pro-life work. My service to the pro-life movement, moreover, extends far beyond Catholic circles, particularly through my role as President of the National Pro-Life Religious Council, an umbrella group of many different denominations working to end abortion.

Amidst all this activity, therefore, I’m often asked, "How are we doing in the pro-life movement?" My short answer is, "We’re winning." My longer answer would include, though not as an exhaustive list, the following ten observations:

1. An Industry in Collapse

As strange as it sounds, much of the hard work of ending abortion is done by those who promote it. The abortion industry is corrupt to the core and cannot help itself. As time goes on, therefore, the corruption becomes more and more evident. It is most evident, of course, to those who actually work in the abortion industry. They have to see the dismembered bodies of the victims, as well as the tearful faces of the women in despair over their abortions. These clinic workers have to experience what it is like to actually kill another human being, and to make excuses to themselves as to why that is all right. They also have to witness, and participate in, a wide range of corrupt and illegal practices that take place daily in legal abortion clinics—practices that include a failure to report statutory rape to competent state authorities, medical malpractice, insurance fraud, money laundering, violation of OSHA standards, sexual abuse of patients, and much more.

Because of all these factors, the biggest problem abortion clinics have is finding and maintaining staff. Since 1994, over half of the freestanding abortion mills in this country have closed, and staff turnover is the biggest reason. The primary fear of the abortion industry is not that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, but rather that abortion will remain legal and there won’t be anywhere to go to get one. This is an industry in collapse, and its workers know it. And more of the public is noticing the corruption, too.

St. Paul gives us the game plan in Ephesians 5:11 when he says, "Have no part in the fruitless works of darkness, but rather, expose them." A key reason abortion continues is that it is hidden. When we expose it to the light of day, the conscience which the vast majority of Americans still have will be quick and certain in its rejection of this evil.

2. Silent No More

The pro-life movement is composed of more and more women and men across the world who are speaking out about how they regret having their child killed by abortion. These men and women are inspiring others to acknowledge their own pain, seek healing from their abortion, and likewise become voices for life. Abortion advocates can do nothing to stop this tidal wave. In fact, it puts them in quite a dilemma, because for decades they have been saying, "Listen to the voices of women!" Now, if they practice what they preach, they hear those women’s voices repudiate that same preaching.

The "Silent No More Awareness Campaign" (a joint project of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life) provides these women and men an opportunity to share their testimonies in public gatherings (most notably every January 22 in front of the Supreme Court), before the media, in pulpits, and in legislative hearings. As Jennifer O’Neill, the campaign’s National Celebrity Spokeswoman, says, "Experience trumps theory."

Though the pro-life movement has put up the signs along the road of abortion saying "Wrong way," many have ignored those signs. Now, having reached the dead end, these women and men have repented, turned around, and have themselves become the sign pointing society away from the road of abortion. (For more information, see www.SilentNoMoreAwareness.org.)

3. Abortion Survivors Speak Out

The pro-life movement is also marked by more and more involvement of the survivors of abortion. It is not simply the presence of youth in the movement which is reason for hope; it is the motivation they have. If you ask them why they are involved, they will tell you, "It could have been me." These young people realize that Roe vs. Wade is a personal insult to them, because it says that they were not persons when they were in the womb. In speaking up for the unborn, these youth are also speaking up for themselves. They likewise realize that among the tens of millions killed by abortion were people who would have been their friends, neighbors, classmates, spouses, brothers, sisters, and cousins. This is an awareness and motivation that the abortion advocates can do nothing to stop.

4. Gonzales vs. Carhart: A Victory

The April 18, 2007 Supreme Court decision, Gonzales vs. Carhart, by which the Court upheld the ban on partial-birth abortion, is one of the most important Supreme Court decisions on abortion, and it lays the groundwork for much future progress on this issue. By permitting this federal ban to stand, the Court also reaffirms certain rights of individual states to legislate on abortion. Although Roe vs. Wade told the states they could not prohibit abortion, the degree to which the states could regulate it has swung back and forth as a result of subsequent Supreme Court decisions. In 1992, the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, while reaffirming the core of Roe, nevertheless gave states wide latitude in passing abortion regulations. In 2000, however, the Stenberg vs. Carhart decision on partial-birth abortion again created obstacles for the states, and was used to challenge any common-sense abortion regulation unless the regulation included an unlimited emotional health exception. Recall that "health" has a special meaning in abortion law: It includes "all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient" (Doe vs. Bolton). The practical impact of Carhart was that common-sense regulations of abortion supported by 70-80 percent of the public were enacted by state legislatures only to be bottled up in court for years.

For example, parental notice could not be required if the minor girl could cite an emotional reason for not wanting notification to be made. Such an unlimited emotional "health" exception would swallow any regulation. In Gonzales, the new majority effectively rejected such an unlimited emotional health exception.

This new decision reaffirms the latitude given to the states by the Casey decision, stating that abortion legislation will only be unconstitutional "if its purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability." Henceforth, this will be the guideline for state abortion regulations.

Abortion advocates want abortion to have the privileged status accorded by courts to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Abortion advocates insist that courts use very strict standards for constitutional review of any legislative efforts to respect unborn human life, and that if a law regulating abortion might be unconstitutional even in a rare and hypothetical circumstance, the whole law should be thrown out. In the Gonzales decision, the Supreme Court rejects this approach. The Court sent the message that it will not strike down abortion regulations simply because they are abortion regulations. Nor can the courts strike down abortion laws based merely on abortion proponents’ speculative claims. The Court reaffirmed that states have legitimate interests in protecting fetal life and the health of women.

This important victory has also taught us how our movement handles victory. Some segments of our movement have been bitterly divided in the wake of this decision. Some groups have complained about how other groups have exaggerated the significance of the decision. Some leaders have warned that because no state can legitimize even a single abortion, it is quite wrong to be happy about a decision that still leaves abortion legal, with just the slightest modifications needed in a single procedure.

Of course, even when Roe vs. Wade is reversed and the legality of abortion is determined state by state, the same argument will be made. Abortion will still be legal in most places, and one will still have to say that no state can legitimize even a single abortion. But to fail to see at that moment that progress has been made will be as much of a mistake as it is now to fail to see the progress made. In short, we should never exaggerate our progress, and neither should we fail to recognize it.

5. Activism on the Rise

There is a certain restlessness in the movement right now, aware as we are that despite decades of effort, every child in the womb in America can still be legally aborted. But the movement’s restlessness is a positive restlessness, seeking outlets for activity that is more local, direct, and measurable in its effectiveness. Some of this restlessness is fueled by a disappointed weariness with the political process and the outcomes of the elections of 2006. Some of it is fueled by the involvement of the survivors, as mentioned above. People want to be called to action and given direction and guidance about what to do to end abortion. There is an even a resurgence of "rescue" activity, that is, the peaceful blockading of the doors of abortion mills at the very time that babies are scheduled to die. A number of blockades have taken place recently, and November of 2007 marks the twentieth anniversary of Operation Rescue, which in 1987 launched seven years of blockades across America. Observances of this anniversary will be held in various cities, with the goal of helping the new generation of pro-life youth catch the vision of activism and learn how to get involved.

The restlessness in the movement provides an opportunity to recruit many people to pro-life action. It also presents a danger, namely, that if we do not call people to action and give them specific things to do, we can actually harm them. Too many people want to be "cheerleaders," supporting the efforts of others to end abortion, but not "getting dirty" themselves. They may engage in token pro-life efforts, perhaps giving a donation or going to a banquet, but may not do anything beyond that.

The awareness people have that abortion is happening and that it is the biggest holocaust of human history calls forth from the human heart the desire to do something. That desire, that energy, must be channeled. Otherwise, individuals must begin to rationalize why they did not respond to an obvious emergency, and that rationalization will dull their conscience and their sensitivity to human needs across the board.

6. Pro-Life Candidates are Winning

Even though the political climate of the 2006 elections was hostile to many pro-life candidates, it was for reasons other than abortion. Voters’ behavior on the abortion issue continued to be an advantage to the pro-life side. Voter surveys have shown that the intensity of motivation for the pro-life side is stronger. Opinion polls also show that newer, younger voters are more pro-life and want to see abortion eliminated or more highly restricted.

Each election cycle, pro-life political action committees succeed in electing most of the candidates they endorse. In the elections of 2006, for example, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List won 17 of the 29 races it backed, for a success rate of 59 percent, whereas the pro-abortion Emily’s List won only 13 of the 30 races it backed, for a 43 percent success rate. In those races where Emily’s List candidates faced off against candidates supported by the National Right to Life (NRLC) Political Action Committee, the NRLC PAC won 14 out of the 18 races! Moreover, the NRLC PAC had an overall success rate of 53 percent.

It is noteworthy that the pro-abortion political action committees have been losing most of the races they support despite outspending the pro-life groups by wide margins. That’s because on election night, it’s not dollars that are counted, but actual votes. And voters for whom abortion matters in their decision vote in favor of pro-life candidates by a two-to-one margin. In 2006, some 36 percent of voters said that abortion affected their vote. Within that group, 23 percent voted pro-life and only 13 percent pro-abortion.

Winning elections continues to be a key priority for the movement and an achievable goal. Upcoming changes in the U.S. Supreme Court will be the critical issue meriting the attention of pro-life voters as they choose a president and senators in the 2008 elections.

7. Focus on Partial-Birth Abortion

Much of the pro-life movement’s current energy and conversation is about stem cells, cloning, and morning-after pills. Of course, these things must be addressed. But we also have to keep in mind that the pro-abortion movement would much prefer that we talk about stem cells than partial-birth abortion. The reason, quite simply, is that it is easier to see the wrong of partial-birth abortion or dismemberment abortion than it is to see the wrong of destroying embryos.

Let’s be perfectly clear: The destruction of the tiniest zygote is just as wrong as putting scissors in the neck of a partially born baby. But it is not just as obvious. If we want to rouse the public to action and change public policy, we must keep the primary focus where we have the psychological and pedagogical advantage—partial-birth abortion—and move from there to the less-obvious issues.

8. The Slippery Slope Impact

The murder of Terri Schiavo in 2005 spurred a lot of people to get involved in the pro-life movement. Because of her death, the slippery slope argument no longer has to be made. Now it is simply a matter of empirical evidence. Terri would not have been killed had 42 million unborn children not been killed first, and her death reminds us that we cannot take protection away from the unborn and keep it for ourselves.

9. Grassroots Volunteers do Heavy Lifting

Grassroots pro-life volunteers remain largely disappointed with what is seen as a lack of courage and activism on the part of the institutional church (of every denomination). They agree that the "heavy lifting" of the pro-life movement is being done by "independent" organizations rather than by the "official structures" of the Church. A large part of this problem is that the institutional Church is given overly restrictive legal advice by its attorneys; a related problem is that there are many practical alliances between Church leaders and pro-abortion politicians. A third source of this problem is that those entrusted with pro-life work in the institutional Church structure often isolate themselves from the wider pro-life movement and are, to that extent, out of touch with many of the strategies and tactics that work, such as the use of graphic images of aborted babies.

10. Fruits of the Same Tree

Pro-life activists today tend to be more opposed to the death penalty than a decade ago. At the same time, they rightly understand the difference between the death penalty (which has theoretical justification in some circumstances) and abortion (which never has any justification). The increasing no of the pro-life movement to the death penalty is based in part on the awareness that it is harder to convince society not to solve problems by throwing away children when it is trying to solve problems by throwing away prisoners. Of course, the converse is also true.

Speaking of connection between different issues, pro-life people of all denominations are also more aware of the link between abortion and contraception, and this link is being mentioned in more documentation, such as the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. Pro-lifers who see this link, however, are not always precise regarding the nature of the link. John Paul II described it as a relationship of "fruits of the same tree." In other words, it’s not that abortion comes from contraception, but that they both come from the same tree (consisting of a perversion of freedom, relativism, a loss of the sense of God, and other problems). He also pointed out that the evils of abortion and contraception are distinctly different in nature and degree (except, of course, when the "contraceptive" actually causes an early abortion).

Victory is Our Starting Point

So what is the state of the pro-life movement? We are winning, even as we struggle along. The biggest obstacles are not Planned Parenthood and its allies. The biggest obstacles are the fear and doubt in our own hearts and minds. We need the courage to risk more, and we will accomplish the task of restoring protection to the unborn. Our movement needs to see the signs of progress, yet allow those signs to increase our energy and commitment rather than cause us to relax.

The biggest reason we are winning is that we have already won. There is one among us who holds the keys of death and of hell. He was overwhelmed by the Culture of Death, and trampled death by death. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! The pro-life movement does not simply work for victory; we work from victory. Victory is our starting point. We joyfully proclaim to the world that Christ is risen, and that for this reason, we must choose life. Then we work to apply that victory to every sector of society. We do not stand in front of the Culture of Death afraid, worried, and wondering how we will ever overcome it. Rather, we stand before it with victorious confidence and declare, "Begone! You have no room here, no place here, no further authority to menace the human family. Your kingdom has been conquered, and Christ reigns!"


Fr. Frank Pavone is one of the most prominent pro-life leaders in the world. Originally from New York, he was ordained in 1988 by Cardinal John O’Connor. He is a priest of the Amarillo Diocese and serves full-time in pro-life leadership with his bishop’s permission. In 1993 he became National...

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 9.