Politics and the Pro-Life Movement: How the U.S. Learned to Live with Roe V. Wade. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

John Cavanaugh O'Keefe--a 52-year-old Harvard graduate, Vietnam War conscientious objector, and longtime pro-life activist--fervently believes legalized abortion in the United States will end. But not in his lifetime.

"The pro-life movement is going nowhere," says O'Keefe. "After 30 years of work, the movement is dead."

O'Keefe is not alone. "It would be both untrue and overly dramatic to say that the pro-life movement has lost," according to Teresa R. Wagner, former antiabortion lobbyist and editor of the forthcoming Back to the Drawing Board: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement. "But we are not winning. And the sooner we face it, the sooner we change it."

O'Keefe and Wagner are realists. Thirty years and 40 million legal pregnancy terminations after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, 1973, abortion competes with laser eye surgery for the distinction of being the most common surgical procedure performed in the United States.

While legislative fights over high-profile abortion-related issues continue to grab headlines--a proposed ban on "partial birth abortion" is the most recent example--the effort to overturn Roe is as far from reality today as it has been at anytime since Justice Harry Blackmun penned the landmark decision.

The venues for debating Roe change over time. At the center of today's storm are judicial nominees, whose appearances before the divided Senate Judiciary Committee are designed to ferret out their views on the decision. Even here, President Bush's nominees wave the white flag. Asked at a recent hearing if Roe was "settled law," meaning that it should not be overturned, Bush nominee Miguel Estrada agreed that it was.

Legal abortion in 2003, it seems, is as American as apple pie.

And yet.

American ambivalence over abortion is legendary--and maddening to the lobbies that have grown up on each side of the debate. Americans "think abortion should be legal, but they think it should be regulated," says Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling, "and they're much more comfortable with it remaining legal if they feel it is being regulated. And that, of course, is an unsatisfactory position to those who are either deeply committed to the antiabortion cause or to the pro-choice cause."

Where pro-life and pro-choice antagonists see black and white, most Americans view grey: willing to restrict and regulate the practice in some cases (late-term abortions and parental consent for minors who seek abortions, for example), but unwilling to require a woman to carry a "defective" child, or one created through the violence of rape or incest.

How do Americans view legal abortion? A necessary evil, say the public opinion polls, lying somewhere on a fuzzy continuum between birth control and infanticide. The nuance expressed by the public--nearly half of Americans call themselves "pro-life" though most favor some version of the legal status quo--is not shared by their elected leaders. With exceptions that prove the rule, modern Democrats are "pro-choice," while Republicans--especially those outside the Northeast--are "pro-life."

That wasn't always the case.

The shifting politics of abortion

In the late 1960s and '70s, before positions hardened and the lines were clear, elected Democrats favored abortion restrictions in roughly the same numbers as their Republican counterparts; Republican governors Ronald Reagan (his libertarian instincts winning out) and Nelson Rockefeller (population control was a family cause) signed the most liberal pre-Roe abortion laws in the country; Jesse Jackson compared abortion to slavery, while Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt was a "Democrat for Life." Five of the seven justices joining in the Roe opinion were Republican appointees.

It was in this muddled environment that the U.S. Catholic church's heaviest hitters visited Capitol Hill, just 14 months after Roe. …