Public opinion on abortion has been remarkably stable since Roe vs. Wade. (Most Americans reject legal abortion except in circumstances of rape, incest, and preserving the mother’s physical life and health.) Movement in public opinion has been in the pro-life direction, and the most visible movement came when the reality of partial-birth abortion first came to public light just over a decade ago. In that debate, what actually happens to the baby was the focus, rather than abstract arguments about “freedom of choice” and “Constitutional rights.”
Abortion supporters would have been well-advised to just let us ban partial-birth abortion and forget about it. The more they fought to keep it legal, the more people rejected the “pro-choice” mindset. Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the partial-birth abortion case again, to determine if the federal law that President Bush signed to ban it is constitutional, we are poised for another burst of news coverage that can only be helpful to the pro-life cause.
Now that it’s too late to hide partial-birth abortion, pro-abortion groups want to do the next best thing: shift the focus of the argument from later abortions to earlier ones, and from partially-delivered babies to embryonic stem cells. Of course, the earlier in pregnancy an abortion occurs, and the smaller and less visible the baby is, the more people are willing to allow abortion. The pedagogical advantage we have in talking about partial-birth abortion is that people learn when they are led from the more obvious to the less obvious, from the concrete to the abstract, and from what is self-evident to what is reached only after a process of reasoning.
Notice how much of the pro-life conversation in our day is about stem cells, cloning, and morning-after pills. Don’t misunderstand me – these things must be addressed, and we at Priests for Life are addressing them. But don’t think that the shifting of the conversation is by accident or totally by the decision of pro-life leaders. The pro-abortion movement would much prefer that we talk about stem cells than partial-birth abortion, and we must not let them succeed in making the public forget that partial-birth abortion is still being performed without criminal penalties. The upcoming Supreme Court case on this procedure should propel us into action, talking about it constantly and demanding that candidates for public office declare where they stand on it.
Most Americans are unaware of partial-birth abortion, and when they are told about it, many don’t even believe it’s happening. Yet the medical papers and the court testimonies about it are available to the public (visit www.priestsforlife.org/partialbirth.html).
Let’s be perfectly clear: The destruction of the tiniest zygote is just as wrong as putting scissors in the neck of a partially-born baby. But it is not just as obvious. If we want to rouse the public to action and change public policy, we must keep the primary focus where we have the psychological and pedagogical advantage – partial-birth abortion – and move from there to the less obvious issues.