The Abortion Wars Will Never Go Away (A Former "Pro-Life" Crusader Reconsiders)

I was wrong when I was an anti-abortion activist.

I changed my mind.

Today, I am pro-choice.

Today, I'm decidedly not pro-abortion.

Abortion must be legal because women have a need to determine their individual futures, because many women find themselves pregnant without the support of a loving community and in horrible circumstances, because women have been picked on and kicked around throughout history as a result of religious beliefs related to "family values" that turn out to be anything but.

But the way abortion was legalized in America in Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton, was needlessly sweeping and extreme. It's left us with a culture war that won't quit and turned the Republican Party into a far right fringe element dominated by religious extremists.

In The Beginning...

The 1970s Evangelical antiabortion movement that my father -- evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer -- Dr. C. Everett Koop (who would become Ronald Reagan's surgeon general) and I helped create seduced the Republican Party. By the early 1980s the Republicans were laboring under the weight of a single-issue religious test for heresy: abortion.

I was there-- and/or Dad or Koop was-- participating in various meetings with congressman Jack Kemp, Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush, Sr., when the unholy marriage between the Republican Party and the Evangelical-infected "pro-life" community was gradually consummated.

Dad and I--as did many other Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell--met one on one or in groups with key members of the Republican leadership quite regularly to develop a "pro-life strategy" for rolling back Roe v. Wade. (Even today this influence persists. For instance Michelle Bachmann says she got into politics because of reading my father's books.)

Our strategy in the early days of anti-abortion activism was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their anti-abortion commitment to the Evangelicals, and in turn we'd vote for them--by the tens of millions.

To help matters along, I organized the 1984 publication of President Ronald Reagan's Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation an anti-abortion book with Evangelical Bible publisher Thomas Nelson. Reagan's book had first appeared as an essay in the Human Life Review (Spring 1983). I was friends with Human Life Review founder and editor: the conservative Roman Catholic anti-abortion crusader Jim McFadden. He and I cooked up the presidential project over the phone.

I worked with James Dobson in the early days of his "Focus on the Family" radio program, and I was on his show several times. He offered my "pro-life" book A Time for Anger as a fundraising fulfillment and distributed over 150,000 copies. The book eventually sold over half a million copies.

No one seemed to notice (or mind) that Republicans weren't really doing anything about abortion other than talking about it to voters. And by the mid- to late 1980s the cause shifted: We Evangelicals paid lip-service to "stopping abortion," but the real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping Evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of having access to power.

The Republicans and Abortion

If the Republicans had wanted to prevent abortions, they would have...

  • Funded a thorough and mandatory sex education initiative from the earliest grades in all schools and combined it with the distribution of free contraceptives in all high schools, public and private (religious schools included)

  • Legislated generous family leave for both mothers and fathers
  • Provided federally funded day care as a national priority
  • Expanded adoption services, including encouraging gay parents to adopt children, and they would have encouraged gay couples to marry and adopt
  • Provided a generous tax incentive to have children and direct financial assistance and educational opportunities for all families, including single parents
  • Raised taxes to pay for these programs
  • Never have equated stem cell research with abortion, much less with murder, thereby making the anti-abortion position patently ridiculous
  • Above all, they would have addressed the injustice of the growing gap between the superrich and everyone else and fought to raise the living standards of poor people. (Forty percent of all women seeking abortion live on $10,000 a year or less.)
  • What the Republicans did instead was misuse abortion--again and again and again--as a polarizing issue to energize their base.

    Abortion Before the "Culture Wars"

    Before 1973, abortion was already being legalized state by state without starting a civil war.

    No one got shot in 1959 when the American Law Institute (ALI) proposed a model penal code for state abortion laws. The code proposed legalizing abortion for reasons including the mental or physical health of the mother, pregnancy due to rape and incest, and fetal deformity.

    On April 25, 1967, the governor of Colorado, John Love, signed the first liberalized ALI-model abortion law in the United States, allowing abortion in cases of mental or physical disability of either the child or mother or in cases of rape or incest. No buildings were firebombed, nor did the Republican Party decide to define itself as "pro-life" and fight every election, local, state, and national, by declaring its antiabortion credentials.

    There were even Southern Baptist leaders on the record as being in favor of abortion rights. For instance, Dr. W. A. Criswell (a two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention) and my father (in later years) argued over abortion. Criswell was on record saying he didn't think life began until a baby took his or her first breath.

    Laws were passed in California, Oregon, and North Carolina legalizing abortion, and no one chained himself to any clinic gates. In 1970 New York allowed abortion on demand up to the twenty fourth week of pregnancy. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller signed a bill repealing the state's 1830 law banning abortion after "quickening" (the ancient term indicates the initial motion of the fetus as felt by the mother).

    Rockefeller's life was not threatened by people nailing up "wanted" posters listing his home address and where his children went to school. Similar laws were passed in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State without the Democratic Party changing its platform to become thereafter "The Abortion Party" (as Republicans would soon label it).

    By the end of 1972, a total of thirteen states had an ALI-type law, and none had sparked a culture war. Four states allowed abortion on demand, and there were no mass demonstrations, let alone assassinations of doctors. Even ultraconservative Mississippi permitted abortion for rape and incest, while Alabama allowed abortion for the mother's physical health. Ronald Reagan (albeit somewhat absentmindedly) was pro-choice. No clinics in New York State, Alaska, or California (where abortion was legal) were being bombed.

    The Supreme Court Drops the "A Bomb"

    On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Roe v. Wade. The incremental state-by-state approach to finding a more humane (not to mention realistic) way to deal with unwanted pregnancy than the nefarious "back-alley" abortion ended with a smash.

    In Roe, the right to privacy was discovered to be "broad enough to encompass" a right to abortion. Roe adopted a trimester scheme of pregnancy. In the first trimester, a state could enact no regulation to protect a fetus. In the second trimester, a state could enact some regulation, but only for the purpose of protecting maternal health. In the third trimester, even after viability, a state could (but did not have to) "proscribe" abortion, provided it made exceptions to preserve the life and health of a woman seeking an abortion.

    Then the Doe v. Bolton ruling (also in 1973) defined health to mean "all factors" that affect a woman, including "emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age." In other words--in practical terms--if you could find a doctor willing to do the deed, abortion was made legal at a stroke in all fifty states, up to the moment before a fully grown baby was born. Roe as "refined" by Bolton created the culture wars as we know them today.

    This was a "life-and-death" matter sparking raw emotions to match: dead babies pitted against women killed by coat hangers.

    Unlike debates over prayer in public schools, the right to bear arms, racial issues, and gay rights, Roe offered no middle ground, let alone the psychological space for an incremental adjustment to a new sensitivity to women's rights. Unlike capital punishment, this issue wasn't about a few hundred murderers on death row but about everyone's daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends, not to mention about the fate of every baby conceived from then on.

    As redefined by Bolton, Roe was extreme when compared not only to the heretofore more nuanced and gradual evolution of abortion laws in America but also as compared to the laws defining access to abortion in other Western countries.

    And Roe Was About Sex!

    Matters sexual generate a special sort of heat in Sex- obsessed/Sex-fearing America. Thus, the 1960s ruckus over the pill and "what it will lead to" was just a foretaste of what the battle over abortion became--and has remained.

    Roe as restated by Bolton fed the passion that has burned within each successive generation of antigovernment protesters since the early 1970s. This has included the rise of the so-called Tea Party movement and the Far Right's vitriol-laced reaction to President Obama's twenty-first-century moderate legislative health care reform, including predictions of "Death Panels," and "government takeover."

    Roe even indirectly energized those members of the far right who didn't care about abortion per se or who were prochoice libertarians. Roe had such far-reaching effects because reactions to Roe and Bolton set the scorched-earth, winner-take-all tone and volume of the political fights since 1973.

    Abortion Views Are Personal

    Many Evangelicals and Roman Catholics I know would have long ago been voting for progressive candidates (i.e., Democrats) because these voters (particularly young people) are sick and tired of the Republican Party's slide into the role of Far Right war machine/shill for corporate America. Many religious people have become increasingly sympathetic to gay rights, favor closing the gap between rich and poor, and root for policies that foster racial diversity.

    They want immigration justice. They're for cutting back the bloated defense establishment, and they favor the conservation of the environment. If it weren't for the needlessly sweeping way abortion was legalized, as defined by Roe and Bolton, the Evangelicals and the many Roman Catholics who joined them would not have been manipulated into voting as a Republican Party bloc since 1973.

    Both sides on the "life issues" remain totally invested in being morally "right." The purists on both sides also refuse to admit that most Americans (if public opinion polls are to be believed) occupy a--sensibly conflicted--middle ground on "the issue."