The Future of the Pro-Life Movement

Pro-life activists Kelsey Hazzard and Aimee Murphy at the Life/Peace/Justice Conference at Villanova University in Wayne, Pennsylvania, in April. (Kelsey Hazzard)
Pro-life activists Kelsey Hazzard and Aimee Murphy at the Life/Peace/Justice Conference at Villanova University in Wayne, Pennsylvania, in April. (Kelsey Hazzard)

In the era of Trump and Whole Woman’s Health, the future of pro-life activism is young, female, secular, and “feminist.”

If you are a pro-life activist, you have several reasons to be discouraged at the moment. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s most vociferously anti-abortion justice, died in February. Then in June, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—the most sweeping abortion decision since 1992—the court struck down parts of a 2013 Texas law that placed strict restrictions on abortion clinics under the guise of women’s health and safety; similar laws in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin rapidly fell in the wake of the 5–3 vote. As the Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty summed it up this summer, “2016 is turning out to be the worst year for the pro-life cause in at least a generation.”

Normally, an election season would bring the promise of a restart: the possibility of a Republican ally in the White House, and a Supreme Court justice or three following in his wake. But Republican nominee Donald Trump called himself “very pro-choice” as recently as 1999 and has been downright incoherent on the issue during the past year. Even if you believe his conversion to the anti-abortion cause, he has shown almost no grasp of its language or the ideas behind it. As evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson put it in July in an essay titled “There Is No Pro-Life Case for Donald Trump,” Trump is “someone who in his personal life has not merely lived in, but reveled in the moral atmosphere and commitments that stand beneath our abortion culture.” The video made public on Friday of Trump boasting about sexual assault was just a visceral reminder of a well-known truth: The Republican candidate’s private moral code is built on what you might call anti–family values.

Despite recent setbacks, however, the demographic outlook for the pro-life movement looks anything but bleak. On issues from race to sexuality to drug law, Americans are used to seeing each new generation become more progressive than their parents; with abortion, it’s not happening: In a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey, 52 percent of millennials said the label “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well, a number that roughly mirrors the general population. A 2013 poll showed that 52 percent of people aged 18 to 29 favored bans on abortion after 20 weeks, compared with 48 percent overall. Pro-choice activists now worry about the “intensity gap” among young people: A poll commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2010 found that 51 percent of anti-abortion voters younger than 30 considered the issue “very important,” but for pro-choice voters the same age, only 26 percent said the same.

Normally, an election season would bring the promise of a restart: the possibility of a Republican ally in the White House, and a Supreme Court justice or three following in his wake. But Republican nominee Donald Trump called himself “very pro-choice” as recently as 1999 and has been downright incoherent on the issue during the past year. Even if you believe his conversion to the anti-abortion cause, he has shown almost no grasp of its language or the ideas behind it. As evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson put it in July in an essay titled “There Is No Pro-Life Case for Donald Trump,” Trump is “someone who in his personal life has not merely lived in, but reveled in the moral atmosphere and commitments that stand beneath our abortion culture.” The video made public on Friday of Trump boasting about sexual assault was just a visceral reminder of a well-known truth: The Republican candidate’s private moral code is built on what you might call anti–family values.

Despite recent setbacks, however, the demographic outlook for the pro-life movement looks anything but bleak. On issues from race to sexuality to drug law, Americans are used to seeing each new generation become more progressive than their parents; with abortion, it’s not happening: In a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey, 52 percent of millennials said the label “pro-life” describes them somewhat or very well, a number that roughly mirrors the general population. A 2013 poll showed that 52 percent of people aged 18 to 29 favored bans on abortion after 20 weeks, compared with 48 percent overall. Pro-choice activists now worry about the “intensity gap” among young people: A poll commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2010 found that 51 percent of anti-abortion voters younger than 30 considered the issue “very important,” but for pro-choice voters the same age, only 26 percent said the same.

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Murphy was a pro-choice 16-year-old in California when an abusive, on-off boyfriend raped her. When the rape resulted in a pregnancy scare, Murphy’s rapist wanted her to get an abortion, and threatened to kill her and himself if she didn’t. A decade later, she still chokes up when she talks about that time in her life. But the threat was also clarifying. “In that moment, something clicked,” she said. “I could not use violence to get what I wanted in life. I realized that if I were to get an abortion, I would just be passing oppression on to a child.”

Now 27, Murphy is the founder of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Life Matters Journal, which describes itself as a “human rights organization dedicated to bringing an end to aggressive violence.” The organization and its flagship publication oppose abortion as well as torture, the death penalty, and “unjust war.” Murphy believes that the modern conservative movement doesn’t grasp what she calls the “intrinsic worth” of every human life, echoing Catholic theology. “And if they do understand it,” she said, “they’re making a lot of exceptions.”

Life Matters Journal’s slate of ethical and political stances is very similar to official positions of the Catholic Church. In particular, it echoes the “consistent life ethic,” a concept promoted by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin starting in the early 1980s, which began with the premise that all life is sacred. But many young pro-life activists, even if they are Catholic—and many are—prefer not to frame their arguments as religious. The Southern Baptist co-president of Harvard’s pro-life club, Will Long, told me that talking about “intrinsic human rights” is a way to open up conversations about the morality of abortion with students who aren’t religious. “Human rights” was a phrase I heard over and over from the young activists I spoke to.

The pro-choice movement has long framed access to abortion as a human right; pro-life advocates have been able to borrow that language thanks in part to technology. When Tina Whittington, now the executive vice president of Students for Life of America, got started in pro-life activism in the 1990s, she held signs depicting aborted fetuses outside abortion clinics. The premise of this notoriously confrontational approach was that to see a fetus’s fingers and toes, or its tiny profile, would provoke a kind of awakening: This can’t be just a “clump of cells,” to borrow from pro-choice rhetoric, because it looks just like a baby. Today, though, ultrasound images—including incredibly precise three-dimensional sonograms—are widely available and shared heavily on social media.

“The millennial generation has had access to the womb,” Whittington said. “A lot of young people have seen those images, and realize that there’s a baby, and it’s a human being.” On college campuses, according to Whittington, many pro-choice students acknowledge that the fetus is a form of human life—even if they believe the mother deserves preference—or that a fetus exists on a kind of continuum of life that still makes abortion morally acceptable within a prescribed time frame. “It’s more of a nuanced discussion now,” she said.

It’s also an increasingly nonreligious one. In her talks on college campuses, activist Kelsey Hazzard, founder of the organization Secular Pro-Life, likes to point out that millennials are both the “pro-life generation” and the least religious generation. The 2013 Pew survey showed that 25 percent of nonreligious Americans believe having an abortion is morally wrong; as the nonreligious population, or “nones,” continues to grow, the number of pro-life “nones” will grow, too. A 2014 Pew survey found that 18-to-29-year-olds make up a disproportionate 39 percent of anti-abortion “nones.”

But these would-be activists had trouble finding each other without church-based institutions to coalesce around, according to Hazzard, 28, who works by day as a civil litigation attorney in Naples, Florida. She started Secular Pro-Life as a student at the University of Miami, initially just as a place for nonreligious pro-lifers to connect online. Although Christian churches served as convenient organizational bases for the first decades of activism in the post–Roe v. Wadeera, those spaces can be alienating to nonbelievers who might be otherwise sympathetic to the anti-abortion message. Hazzard sees the internet as an alternative infrastructure for the next generation of pro-life activists, who have different moral assumptions and different political concerns than the old-school Christian right. “We’ve been in the process over the last five to 10 years of a baton-passing,” she said. “I think as that process continues, and particularly as people drop the same-sex marriage issue—please—and focus on life issues, that will be the cultural shift.” That shift involves a pivot to “human rights arguments” as opposed to Bible-based ones, she says.

Maria Oswalt, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Alabama who leads the campus’ Students for Life chapter, gets frustrated when pro-life advocates vocally oppose, say, transgender bathroom bills—the kind of issue that she sees as having no inherent connection to abortion and that serves only to make the movement look intolerant. Her Students for Life chapter focuses on abortion, but it also opposes the death penalty and assisted suicide; Oswalt sees these issues as naturally connected to abortion in a way that gender and sexuality are not. “Let’s just focus on life issues, and not try to pull these other nonrelated issues into it,” she said.

As Murphy and others told me, moral consistency matters a great deal to their younger compatriots in the movement, whose pro-life ethic means concern for life “from womb to tomb.” “It’s not a partisan issue, it’s not a religious issue,” Murphy said. “It’s a human rights issue.”

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SOURCE: Slate
Ruth Graham

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