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Facing Tough Washington Climate, Abortion Foes Move Debate Online

By STEPHANIE SIMON

Wall Street Journal

April 1, 2009

The video is stark, and startling. Against a black background, an ultrasound image flickers and a story unfolds. "This child's future is a broken home...he will be abandoned by his father...his single mother will struggle to raise him...."

The classical music in the background rises as the ultrasound fades, replaced by footage of President Barack Obama addressing an adoring crowd.

The tag line: "Life. Imagine the Potential."

Mr. Obama supports legal abortion. Yet this video by CatholicVote.org -- viewed nearly 1.8 million times on YouTube since it was posted in January -- has turned his life story into an advertisement for the antiabortion movement.

The White House declined to comment. The producers describe their 40-second video as a strategic triumph that can help chart a new course for their movement as abortion opponents face a hostile climate in Washington, with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House.

"When you're out of political power, you start thinking about new ways to do things," said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org. "How do we continue to be relevant?"

His answer: Create provocative online content and rely on the power of viral networking to spread it widely.

Known in some antiabortion circles as the "hearts and minds" tactic -- as in, winning hearts and opening minds -- the strategy depends on presenting the antiabortion movement in an unexpected light, the better to catch and hold attention.

"We're getting beyond the hackneyed ways of holding up posters with graphic pictures of abortion," said Father Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person. "That just doesn't work."

So CatholicVote.org plans a series of biographical videos along the lines of the Obama video. The goal is to get people thinking about what the world would be missing if musicians, athletes and other luminaries with hard-luck life stories had been aborted.

An antiabortion lobbying group, the Susan B. Anthony List, is offering $2,000 in prizes for activists as young as elementary school to come up with creative videos that bring new converts to the cause.

And Lila Rose, a college student in California, has developed an online following by shooting grainy undercover videos inside Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation. Ms. Rose poses as a young teen impregnated by a much-older boyfriend and films her conversations with staff. Using edited footage, she accuses Planned Parenthood of failing to report her as a victim of statutory rape. The effect is to present her, and by extension her fellow antiabortion activists, as crusading protectors of young girls.

Planned Parenthood says the undercover footage is "edited and spliced...to create propaganda videos," though at least one affiliate took disciplinary action against staff members seen on Ms. Rose's video.

Proponents of the hearts-and-minds strategy acknowledge they have no way to measure its effect. But after decades of laboriously building mailing lists one name at a time, they are thrilled to see their page views mount as their messages circle the globe. Some say donations are starting to come in with letters referencing the online videos.

"We're able to reach people directly," said Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. He stars in a series of matter-of-fact videos that explain how abortions are performed, with a plastic model of a fetus as a prop. The clip describing a first-trimester abortion has been viewed more than 680,000 times on YouTube. "TV networks would never show this type of video," Father Pavone said, "but now that doesn't matter."

Abortion-rights groups are online, too, of course, using text messages, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to energize supporters. "All these new tools are critical for engaging activists," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

NARAL's cerebral yet funky online video "Free.Will.Power." celebrates the right to make personal choices and uses animation to raise the specter of big government peering into bedrooms. It has been viewed about 30,000 times on YouTube.

Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood also post clips of celebrities and activists talking about the importance of choice; most haven't attracted near the number of hits as the antiabortion videos.

Despite their viral appeal, Ms. Keenan dismissed most antiabortion videos as too shrill to win over the masses. In her view, those clips fail to address the issues most people care about, such as preventing unintended pregnancies or preserving women's health.

But some longtime analysts of abortion politics say the right's online campaign appears to be having an impact.

"Certainly, there's a preaching-to-the-choir effect, but I don't think you can discount the effect on society over time," said Alesha Doan, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who supports legalized abortion. "They've altered the parameters of the discourse."

Ms. Doan said ultrasound images circulating online have been especially helpful to abortion opponents, because they humanize the fetus. "I've seen a marked change in how people talk about abortion," especially young adults, Ms. Doan said. "It's much more favorable to the pro-life movement."

Write to Stephanie Simon at stephanie.simon@wsj.com

 

2009 Clippings
 

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