THE REFERENCES TO THE NAZI HOLOcaust weren't working. Neither were the gruesome photos of aborted babies or the audiovisuals showing how a fetus grows. College audiences just reacted with anger and hostility, so Dr. Jack Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee, decided to try a different approach. Now Willke and his wife, Barbara, preface their standard anti-abortion lectures with a statement of concern for the pregnant woman, expressing sympathy for the "agony of her decision" and assuring audiences that "we stand with her, not against her." The reception, they find, is much warmer this way. "The anger is gone, the combativeness is gone and the questions are civil," says Willke, now president of the Cincinnati-based Life Issues Institute. "We are listened to once again."
While some members of the pro-life movement are still picketing abortion clinics and shouting "Murderer!," a quieter group of activists is seeking to change the tenor of the debate. They hope that a more compassionate, less judgmental approach can help break the 23-year stalemate that has existed since Roe v. Wade. Ethicist David Reardon, author of a new book, "Making Abortion Rare," calls it a "kinder, gentler" movement and hopes to win converts among the "middle majority" of Americans who aren't comfortable with abortion, but don't want to ban it completely. Some neo-pro-lifers even argue that the movement should stop trying to outlaw abortion and focus on changing public opinion, much as shifting attitudes have helped cut cigarette sales. As Noemie Emery wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard recently: "One baby saved by persuasion and given to people who love it is one more than has been saved by the human life amendment," which the pro-life movement has been vainly pushing for decades.
A few activists on the abortion-rights side are arguing for a radical shift in rhetoric as well. In a controversial New Republic article last October entitled "Our Bodies, Our Souls," the feminist Naomi Wolf criticized some in the pro-choice movement for refusing to acknowledge that abortion involves a real death or that some women have lasting moral qualms. Wolf says she has met "strong, pro-choice women" who privately confessed that they light a candle every year on the birthday of the baby they didn't have. She also finds it increasingly difficult, in these days of "Mozart for your belly, framed sonogram photos [and] home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes" to accept the pro-choice language that calls unwanted babies mere "uterine material."
To date, though, mainstream pro-choice groups have been reluctant to give that kind of ground. …