To Stop Abortion, We Must Reframe the Debate

"Pro-life leaders are smart, but they aren't smarter than Martin Luther King."

by Gregg Cunningham

"He was in his mid-50s. He has a Ph.D. He teaches at one of this country’s top-tier academic institutions. He didn’t know. If he didn’t know, what chance do his students have of knowing? Almost no one knows. And almost nothing we are trying to achieve can be accomplished until they do know. And if we don’t show them, no one else will."
We must reframe the abortion debate from an issue of "choice" to an issue of "what’s being chosen."

"What’s being chosen" is either a sustained crisis pregnancy (whose struggles are well known but can be managed through the crisis pregnancy centers which didn’t exist prior to 1973) or an elective abortion (whose evils are poorly known and more horrifying than most people realize). The competing interests are those of the reluctant mother and her unborn baby. Unless we make the humanity of an unborn baby as real as is the humanity of his mother, we will lose. Unless we make the plight of an unborn baby in an abortion more evocative of sympathy than the plight of his mother in a crisis pregnancy, we will lose.

We will never outlaw abortion until we convince more Americans that abortion clinics offer a far worse solution to the problem of undesired pregnancy than the solution offered by crisis pregnancy medical centers/clinics and or adoption agencies. A Family Research Council poll has confirmed high levels of awareness of, and public approval for, crisis pregnancy ministries. The problem isn’t that people don’t think crisis pregnancy ministry is as good as it is. The problem is that they don’t think abortion is as bad as it is.

Most Americans believe first trimester abortion (the phase of pregnancy during which 90% of abortions are committed) is evil but perhaps the "lesser of two evils." That is why they "don’t think it is any of their business," as Fr. Frank Pavone (Director of Priests for Life) often notes. The conventional cultural wisdom is that nominal evils are private matters, best left to personal discretion. Society believes that government should restrict personal choice only when the behavior sought to be limited involves enormous evil. Americans have little idea how evil abortion really is because the church has joined the government, the press, the entertainment media and the education establishment in covering it up. Abortion will never be outlawed until the public is convinced that it is an evil of sufficient enormity to justify criminalizing the act. Because abortion is inexpressively evil, you won’t get most people to that conclusion merely by talking about it.

Many Americans feel residual guilt over their involvement in having abortions and their lack of involvement in stopping abortions. They avoid the issue to minimize those feelings of guilt. Showing them the horror of abortion (especially using media which are non-consensual) often makes many repent of that behavior but it also often makes most angry at the activists who forced them to see the terrible truth.

Many pro-activists mistakenly believe that to be effective, they must be liked. They fail to realize that, throughout the history of social reform, effective activists are seldom liked and liked activists are seldom effective. This isn’t about what people think of us. It is about what they think of abortion. When Jesus said "Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow Me," He was talking to us.

The public display of abortion photos is not some magic wand which can be waved to win the abortion wars. But it will help motivate pregnant women to go to the crisis pregnancy center instead of the abortion clinic. They are being told that their baby isn’t yet a baby so it is morally acceptable to abort if they do it "early." The pictures prove otherwise.

Showing the pictures also helps post-abortive people to repent of their sin and deal with their spiritual needs. It helps motivate people who oppose abortion to actually do something to stop it. It makes pro-life consumers more likely to participate in pro-life economic boycotts. It makes pro-life voters more likely to elect candidates who will defend life. It makes pro-life pastors more likely to invite persecution by mobilizing their church to defend life. We aren’t guessing about any of this. We hear it all the time. Every pro-life project becomes more effective when the people at whom it is aimed realize that abortion is an indefensible act of violence which kills a baby. Some can be brought to that realization with words along, but many cannot.

The most common response we receive from people who see our abortion pictures is, "I didn’t know." Just a few months ago, during our Genocide Awareness Project display of abortion photos on the campus of U.C. Berkeley, a professor approached me and I braced myself for the usual blast of profanity. Instead, he said thoughtfully, "These pictures are more compelling than I thought they would be." He then repeated several times as he glanced from photo to photo, "I didn’t know that this is what they looked like." He was deeply moved by the pictures and I was deeply moved by his humility. He was in his mid-50s. He has a Ph.D. He teaches at one of this country’s top-tier academic institutions. He didn’t know. If he didn’t know, what chance do his students have of knowing?

Almost no one knows. And almost nothing we are trying to achieve can be accomplished until they do know. And if we don’t show them, no one else will.

The ultimate goal of the pro-life movement has always been to outlaw abortion. The ultimate means through which to accomplish that objective is to amend the Constitution of the United States with a provision which confers rights of personhood on unborn children. This process requires a proposed amendment approved by a two-thirds vote of Congress or by two-thirds of the state legislatures. It must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The difficult task of amending the Constitution is made necessary by the fact that reversing Roe v. Wade will almost certainly not outlaw abortion. And you can’t create those kinds of pro-life super-majorities among voters who have never seen an abortion.

The Supreme Court justices who are most likely to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade are "strict constructionists" (who believe there is nothing in the Constitution which does not appear there in so many words) rather than "judicial activists" (who believe they have the power to "infer" constitutional doctrines which may not be obvious from the plain meaning of the text). Strict constructionists (sometimes referred to as conservatives) are likely to rule that the word "abortion" doesn’t appear in the Constitution so abortion isn’t a constitutional right. But conversely, they are also likely to decide, at least by implication, that the words "unborn child" don’t appear either, so rights of personhood for the unborn are not constitutionally guaranteed. They would, therefore, deem abortion to be a political issue to be decided by the "political branches," which include the Congress and state legislatures. We have predicted this outcome for years but until recently lacked direct evidence that our analysis was correct. Then a pro-life justice spoke directly and publicly to the issue.

On April 24, 2008, Fox News ( reported a story headlined "Justice Scalia: Abortion Not Prohibited in Constitution." Justice Antonin Scalia is widely regarded to be the most pro-life justice who has ever served on the high court but on the CBS news program "60 Minutes" (as reported by Fox) he made it clear that abortion may have been legalized from the bench but he has no intention of outlawing it from the bench:

‘On the abortion thing, for example, if indeed I were ... trying to impose my own views, I would not only be opposed to Roe v. Wade, I would be in favor of the opposite view, which the anti-abortion people would like to see adopted, which is to interpret the Constitution to mean that a state must prohibit abortion,’ Scalia told correspondent Lesley Stahl.

If Justice Scalia finds no right to life for unborn children in the Fourteenth Amendment, neither are his colleagues likely to find it. That means that the abortion question will be settled by state and congressional legislators.

Some commentators believe that approximately thirty states would outlaw abortion after Roe’s reversal and about twenty would preserve its legality. The geographic locations of those twenty states would place the great majority of American women within one day’s drive of an abortion clinic if some were willing to cross a state line. The number of abortion clinics might drop significantly but without a proportional drop in the abortion rate. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have both imposed legal limits on abortion rights but these restrictions are largely meaningless because pregnant women can quickly and inexpensively fly to England for an abortion and be back home the same day. Mexico City recently liberalized its abortion laws and women by the thousands are flocking to the capital to get abortions which are illegal in their home states.

Slavery wasn’t portable in quite the same way abortion is. Most plantation owners couldn’t easily relocate their farms across state lines to take advantage of laws permitting slavery. On the other hand, if abortion is available anywhere, it is effectively available everywhere.

Each time a state can be persuaded to outlaw abortion following the reversal of Roe v. Wade, we will gather momentum toward the goal of assembling the two-thirds of the state legislatures (or two-thirds vote of Congress) required to propose a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the three-fourths of the state legislatures needed to ratify it. Each time a state legislature enacts an abortion ban, we need to make certain that the executive agencies of that state government promulgate and enforce regulations which uphold the intent of the legislature. Where abortion is banned by amending a state constitution, we must ensure the enactment of enabling legislation which gives full effect to the state constitutional ban, as well as the promulgation and enforcement of effective regulations. Following the ratification of a federal Constitutional Human Life Amendment, we will need to press Congress to enact federal enabling legislation and the relevant federal agencies to promulgate and enforce truly proscriptive regulations. Every time we change the law at the state or federal level we will have to be prepared to defend those changes against pro-abortion legal challenges in state and federal courts.

"Pro-choice" liberals often tell us that they are personally opposed to abortion but they don’t think it should be against the law. "Pro-life" conservatives (such as Sarah Palin) often tell us they are personally opposed to abortion but they don’t think it should be against the law in states where it’s popular (another way of describing opposition to a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in favor of allowing each state to decide the issue for itself). Relative to the "pro-choice" position, that is a distinction without a difference. And it is a distinction which would be cold comfort to the unborn children who would be driven across state lines to be killed. "Pro-lifers" who support reversing Roe but oppose a Human Life Amendment are guaranteeing approximately the same abortion rate that exists under Roe. It is logically and morally incoherent to call their position "pro-life."

But even if abortion were banned by federal law, it may still be difficult to find federal law enforcement officials who will seriously investigate illegal abortionists in pro-abortion states. There could also be problems finding prosecutors to file charges, juries to convict and judges to sentence fairly. Special investigators and prosecutors may have to be sent in from Washington in appropriate cases, assuming we have an attorney general appointed by a pro-life president.

It will also be important for pro-life lobbyists to press for enactment of federal abortion restrictions which contain language creating "private attorney general provisions." This mechanism would allow citizen groups to help enforce abortion prohibitions where federal officials refuse to do their enforcement work. The law enforcement fiasco in the conservative state of Kansas demonstrates what happens when the government decides to protect rather than investigate even a notorious late-term abortionist. Environmental activists have succeeded in getting these kinds of provisions inserted into environmental law which they then enforce much more aggressively than was sometimes intended by the Congress which enacted the regulations.

Even following the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the banning of abortion by most state legislatures and the eventual ratification of a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with enacting and defending the required enabling legislation and promulgating and defending the necessary regulations, the need for constant public education will never diminish. In that sense the abortion wars, like the war on terror, will never be over. Complacency will become our greatest enemy. Many will think the battle won and want to turn their attention to other matters. But this fight will never truly end because Satan, through his feminist minions and illicit abortionists, will never stop trying to kill babies. If we ever again allow the public to become ignorant of the humanity of the unborn child or the inhumanity of abortion, defiance of laws banning abortion will again become widespread and enforcement inconsistent.

For this reason, a rigorous and aggressive campaign of pro-life public education curricular mandates must be adopted and implemented in all fifty states. Abortion must become unthinkable if it is to be outlawed and remain unthinkable if it is to remain unlawful. These courses must present materials on prenatal development, the maintenance of fetal/maternal health during pregnancy, abortion, the negative maternal health consequences of abortion, the availability of crisis pregnancy support and adoption.

Sustained effort will also have to be invested in providing theological seminaries with pro-life curricula and clergymen with sermon helps and encouragement to teach a Biblical perspective on the sin of abortion. Otherwise, we will end up with something as useless as the criminal prohibitions against adultery which remain on the books in twenty states but haven’t been enforced in nearly thirty years ("Actually It Is a Crime,", February 22, 1998).

But Roe may never be reversed if the composition of the Supreme Court does not become more pro-life. Making the court more pro-life requires the election of sufficient numbers of successive pro-life presidential candidates if the right kinds of judicial nominees are going to be sent to the Senate for confirmation. Also necessary is the election of sufficient numbers of pro-life senators if those pro-life judicial nominees are going to be confirmed.

These electoral goals will be difficult to achieve because most Americans don’t vote pro-life as a high priority. One important reason for this devaluation of abortion as an election issue is that a substantial majority of Americans (as many as 66% in a December 2003 Gallup poll) do not believe the unborn child is developmentally worthy of protection during the first-trimester of pregnancy, the period during which 90% of abortions are performed. Nor do they believe that first trimester abortion should be criminalized. They see it as the "lesser of two evils," to the extent that they believe it is evil at all. Most disapprove of later-term abortions, but the second and third are the trimesters where relatively few abortions occur (about 9% and 1% respectively).

Our friend Lila Rose, of Live Action, recently caught on film abortion clinic staff members telling a supposed abortion patient "A fetus is what’s in the uterus right now." They added "It’s not a baby at this stage or anything like that." recently reported an abortion clinic in New York advertising "gentle abortion" and for those inclined to use RU-486, "a natural, in-home experience." Another New York advertises "gentle care" and still another "gentle aspiration" abortions. Notorious late-term abortionist George Tiller was repeatedly described in the press as "a kind and gentle man." When the pro-life movement covers-up the horror of abortion by suppressing the pictures, we lend credence to these lethal lies and undermine our prospects for succeeding with any of the many worthwhile projects to which we have dedicated ourselves.

I am not saying that everyone needs to show the pictures. But I am saying that those who don’t use them need to stop impeding the efforts of those who do. The non-users also need to encourage their use and try to coordinate their projects with projects involving the display of photos. It is unwise for pro-life candidates to use abortion photos but pro-life educational organizations can helpfully show those pictures in the districts in which our candidates are running without directly linking them to those candidates. Pictures can be used to improve the effectiveness of economic boycotts when they are displayed one pro-life outside abortion complicit businesses targeted by another pro-life group. Pictures publicly displayed in key Congressional districts can be an effective way for one pro-life group to influence the vote of a wavering Member of Congress who is being lobbied by another pro-life group, for instance, on public funding for abortion in health care legislation. Pro-life newspaper advertising inserts can have more impact if they are distributed at the same a campus abortion photo display is taking place at a targeted college. When one pro-life organization displays abortion photos outside a high school can make it easier for a different pro-life organization to interest students in forming a pro-life student group.

In the entire history of social reform, there is not a single example of any great injustice ever being outlawed by activists who covered it up. Richard B. Speed’s review of Mark Kurlansky’s book 1968: The Year That Rocked The World, describes the enormously successful strategy using shocking photos to change public opinion at the levels required to change public policy:

In discussing the impact of civil disobedience, Kurlansky relates a telling incident that took place during a 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. Martin Luther King apparently noticed that Life Magazine photographer, Flip Schulke had put down his camera in order to help a demonstrator injured by the police. Afterward, according to Kurlansky, King rebuked Schulke, telling him that ‘Your job is to photograph what is happening to us.’

And our job is to photograph what is happening to unborn babies. Some of the pro-life leaders who refuse to associate themselves with the use of abortion photos are very smart. But they aren’t smarter than Martin Luther King.

Gregg Cunningham
Executive Director
Center for Bio-Ethical Reform