The general approach crystallized over several months in early 1996 when 45 antiabortion and religious right leaders, organized by the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, formally adopted abortion reduction as a series of related tactics short of criminalization.1 Their manifesto, The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern was published in the flagship journal of Roman Catholic neoconservatism, First Things.
The writers were inspired by the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which ratified the state level laws seeking to discourage abortion by making the procedure more difficult to obtain.2
“Now, as pro-life leaders and scholars,” they declared, “we want to propose a program of action…” And the core of that program was abortion reduction via the erection of barriers to abortion access “in all 50 states” while also creating incentives for women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. While they understood that the legal obstacles upheld in the Casey decision “do not afford any direct legal protection to the unborn child,” they stated that “experience has shown that such regulations—genuine informed consent, waiting periods, parental notification—reduce abortions in a locality, especially when coupled with positive efforts to promote alternatives to abortion and service to women in crisis.” [Emphasis added]
Under the gun to distance themselves from the anti-abortion violence of the era, anti-abortion leaders had found a way to hold to a credible political strategy that conveyed a sufficient urgency. Nevertheless, they struggled with the emotional and political disconnect between the demagogic, if heartfelt, “bloody shirt” type rhetoric (i.e.: abortion is “murder” or a “holocaust”) and the moderate, incremental policy ideas of abortion reduction. They declared, for example, that abortion “has killed tens of millions of unborn children,” but that they were nevertheless committed to abortion reduction and providing “the infrastructure for “alternatives” to abortion via a national network of 3,000 “Crisis Pregnancy Centers.”
More consistent with their sense of moral urgency, was their referencing bills then being considered in Congress that would involve “criminal sanctions” for abortion providers, and demanded that Congress “recognize the unborn child as a human person entitled to the protection of the Constitution.” The America they seek is one whose politics and public policy advances reduce abortions while seeking to build political clout sufficient to criminalize abortion forever. But they recognized that while criminalization was unlikely in their lifetimes, they were not then, and are not now, without options. But of course, the tension remains, and the state level campaigns aimed at constitutional declarations of fetal personhood and thus challenges to the constitutionality of Roe, are ongoing.
The authors of The America We Seek were a bipartisan group of significant leaders led by host George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (the official biographer of Pope John Paul II) and included Roman Catholic legal scholars Robert P. George of Princeton and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard (whom George W. Bush would appoint as Ambassador to the Vatican), Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life; Clarke D. Forsythe of Americans United for Life; James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Ralph Reed of the then-powerful Christian Coalition, Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America; William Kristol, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle; Phillip E. Johnson founder of the theocratic think tank of the “intelligent design” theory, Discovery Institute; Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago, and currently a cochair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; and former Gov. Robert P. Casey, (D-PA).
Three of this group later played pivotal roles in the development of Third Way’s Come Let Us Reason Together document outlining an abortion reduction plan for the Democrats: David Gushee, then of Southern Baptist Seminary; Reverend Jim Wallis of Sojourners; and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action.
- I first reported the origins of the contemporary abortion reduction agenda in Frederick Clarkson, “Where Did the Abortion Reduction Agenda Come From?” RH Reality Check, February 16, 2009.
- George Weigel, et al, “The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern,” First Things, May 1996, pgs. 40-44. Also published in The National Review; and on the web site of Priests for Life. An earlier, less policy oriented statement of principles issued by some of the same group, led by then-Governor Robert Casey (D-PA) argued for policies that “would provide maximum feasible legal protection for the unborn and maximum feasible care and support for pregnant women, mothers, and children.” Robert P. Casey, et al, “A New American Compact: Caring about Women, Caring for the Unborn,” 1992. Republished at Catholics Online, June 17, 2008.