Before and after the annual March for Life on January 23, the capitol was host to a dizzying array of receptions and conferences, masses and youth summits and strategy sessions–an ingathering of the pro-life tribe. Father Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life, was making the rounds, playing the role of movement granddad. But there were newcomers, too: The women of Silent No More, who have been on the road for the past four years regretting their abortions, were a popular draw, as were the directors of A Distant Thunder, a “supernatural courtroom drama” that they promise will blow the lid off “partial-birth abortion,” and the ubiquitous brother of Terri Schiavo. This reporter found herself in a conference room at the Family Research Council on G Street at the first-ever convention of antiabortion cyberati, Blogs for Life.
It seems that while the rest of us were quixotically forwarding our Filibuster Alito action alerts and speed-dialing quivering prochoice senators, the antiabortion set had already moved on. “We’re entering into a whole new policy era,” Family Research Council vice president Charmaine Yoest told those assembled. “It’s what I call ‘post-Roe America.’ ”
For thirty-three years, overturning Roe v. Wade has been the brass ring for the pro-life movement and the annual cri de coeur of march organizer Nellie Gray. The decision was a political turning point, with most of the major players on the Christian right, from the National Right to Life Committee to the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family, forming in its immediate wake. Along with decisions restricting prayer in the public schools, Roe was what triggered the right’s decades-long obsession with remaking the federal courts. And yet at this year’s March for Life events in Washington, pro-life leaders were so confident of Roe‘s downfall that they were dismissing it as a mere historical footnote. “The question that always gets asked,” Concerned Women for America’s Wendy Wright said on the organization’s radio program on Tuesday, “is will this person vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, as if that were the end of the game…. What we’ve been explaining to the media and others for a while is, all it would do is just throw it back to the states.” Yoest even went so far as to claim that it is “prochoicers [who] try to make us believe that overturning Roe will be the end of abortion”–this from the representative of an organization that just months ago ran ads attributing a “death toll” of 43 million to the Roe decision alone.
How to mobilize support for the fait accompli named Alito never even came up at Blogs for Life. Instead the talk was of passing state legislation–a scholar with the Heritage Foundation was hawking his new study, which uses shaky statistics to show that parental consent requirements, partial-birth abortion bans and “informed consent” legislation, which often requires women to hear untruths about the medical risks of abortion before they can get one, each reduce the actual number of abortions in the states that enact them–and of reaching across the prochoice/pro-life divide. As Yoest told the crowd, “We’re on a campaign to win hearts and minds.”
What Karen Hughes is to Bush’s “war on terror,” Charmaine Yoest is to the pro-life movement. She was recently hired by the Family Research Council to develop a new web and e-mail strategy and to create an FRC blog. And just as Hughes’s public relations job has been stymied by Abu Ghraib, Yoest and her small army of conservative bloggers have to contend with a “pro-life” legacy of clinic bombings (forty-one), assassinations of doctors (seven), confrontational clinic blockades (731) and a general atmosphere of hostility toward women.
Christina Dunnigan, who runs a site called Cemetery of Choice (“For some reason, my calling is the dead”), refers to the self-righteous pro-lifers who wave pictures of bloody fetuses as “banshees” who suffer from the sin of pride. She says she wants to reach the “other side,” and quotes the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, who broke down the ideological spectrum into such categories as the “privately pro-life” and the “reticent prochoice.” “They’re a real target,” said Dunnigan. “I think those folks could be a juggernaut.”
Much of the talk was focused admiringly on sites like Afterabortion.com (which has more than 10,000 registered users) and Afterabortion.blogspot.com that encourage women to tell their own stories about experiencing abortions–as long as they follow a storyline of loss, regret, emotional trauma and healing through Christ. “If they’re not a Christian and truly forgiven by their savior,” said LaShawn Barber, who blogs at LaShawn Barber’s Corner, “they’ll never be free from the pain.”
For years, watchers of the far right have been tracking this shift in the antiabortion movement. The rise of so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which deceive women about their mission but project a veneer of concern; the launch of Silent No More and other organizations that focus attention on the ambivalence of women who’ve terminated their pregnancies (not uncommon, since the life circumstances surrounding abortions are often far from ideal); the creation of such organizations as Feminists for Life, which assert themselves as the true defenders of women’s rights against the voracious “abortion industry”–all are part of a carefully planned strategic shift.
The goal, as a participant from Priests for Life said, was “to bridge the gap between the postabortive woman and the pro-life woman.” Some debated how to confront the themes of freedom and personal choice, aspects of the prochoice argument “that really hit home,” said one. Others discussed how to reach those “postabortive women” who are “afraid to talk to pro-lifers,” fearing judgment. With the GOP now in charge of most state legislatures, pro-life advocates succeeded in getting 614 measures restricting abortion access introduced in 2005 (prochoice measures, including bills related to birth control access, numbered 458) and fifty-eight passed, including an outright ban in South Dakota, set to take effect the moment Roe is overturned. Yet the crowd was with Yoest when she said, “You can’t make abortion go away with laws. You have to reach people, and reach women when they’re hurting.”
Wasn’t this was once the prochoice line, that criminalization wouldn’t end abortion, just push it underground? Perhaps the March for Life week’s triumphant pro-lifers have begun to suspect that “post-Roe America” will entail grappling with the fact that they hold the minority view. “Some 65 percent of Americans are prochoice,” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, pointed out in a phone conversation, “and ever since Terri Schiavo, the American public is sensing that these folks have overstepped.”
For now, they’re enjoying their day in the sun. One blogger who attended the event, Mary Worthington, posted the following on her site, The Revolution, the day after the tens-of-thousands-strong march: “At a great Irish breakfast with a friend from high school that I only get to see at the March…we pondered the idea of what we pro-life activists will do once abortion is illegal.” One player in that imagined future is a new website, ProLifeUnity.com, which, starting in early February, will aggregate hundreds of antiabortion blogs at a central address and allow calls for action to be cross-posted instantaneously and coordinated through monthly conference calls.
But the movement’s new hubris is most hilariously on display in the much-linked “Battle of the Babes”, which purports to settle the reproductive rights debate once and for all by posting photos of marchers from the recent Walk for Life in San Francisco and asking “who is cuter–the prolife gals…or the pro-choice womyn?” It is the parade of virginal pro-life Catholic teens who will “win this epic battle and determine the future of America,” apparently. Just as long as they don’t renege on those abstinence pledges and find themselves at the door of their local Planned Parenthood.