Safe, Legal, and Stigmatized

Article excerpt

A stigma. That's the great achievement of the pro-life movement: Having an abortion once again carries a stigma. The legal right to an abortion is one that almost no one boasts of exercising. Abortion is a medical procedure that fewer and fewer doctors and hospitals want to perform and not many medical schools want to teach. Even the word "abortion" is rarely spoken by its advocates nowadays. The National Abortion Rights Action League has changed its name to the less explicit NARAL Pro-Choice America. And politicians, particularly Democrats, talk about "a woman's right to choose" without saying what the choice involves. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina told a NARAL gathering last week that "the important thing" about a woman "wrestling with a decision" is that "she and she alone has the right to make her choice." Her choice of what? He didn't say.

Those who claim there's a pro-abortion consensus in America are wrong. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said Roe v. Wade is settled law, but he's wrong too. Pro-lifers are winning, but very gradually and incrementally, and they're not winning what they had hoped to. Their goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade, which would let each state decide its own abortion law, or to ban abortion outright by constitutional amendment. The prospect of either of those outcomes happening is nil at the moment. Instead, there's a new consensus in favor of sharp restrictions on abortion. This is why Kate Michelman of NARAL looks perpetually stressed. This is why Faye Wattleton, the former head of Planned Parenthood and now president of the Center for Gender Equality, finds it "disturbing" that women are becoming more conservative and religious. It means more of them support these restrictions.

The most telling shift, though, is not in public opinion but in the actions of pregnant women. Backers of legalized abortion say the decline in the number of abortions from 1.6 million to 1.3 million a year is due to greater use of contraceptives. Maybe that has something to do with it. More important is the fact that a growing percentage of women who've become pregnant reject abortion and have the baby. This represents a cultural shift, a small one perhaps, but indicative of the stigma now attached to abortion.

Another factor is the explosion of crisis pregnancy centers across the country. They take in pregnant women, discourage them from having abortions, and care for them through childbirth and afterwards. The latest count of such centers is more than 3,000, but that's probably low. People start them with little money and a few volunteers. A friend of mine, Jim Wright, who works in commercial real estate in Falls Church, Virginia, opened one called Birthmothers a few years ago. He quickly built up a group of financial supporters, hired a director and a small staff, and now takes care of dozens of women. Imagine what Michelman and Wattleton must think when they see crisis pregnancy centers popping up everywhere and advertising in the Yellow Pages.

Pro-lifers, including me, have always been suspicious of politicians who balked at concentrating on the banning of abortion, arguing the culture must change first. …