Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States. Since the 1960s, citizen participation and the remoralizing of politics have been central goals of the left. Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the irony of American history” and, were he around to update his book of that title, I expect he might recognize this as one of the major ironies within the irony.
These are the issues addressed in a remarkable new book out this month from Princeton University Press, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, by Jon Shields, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. The book is by no means a pro-life tract. It is an excruciatingly careful study, studded with the expected graphs and statistical data—but not to the point of spoiling its readability—in the service of probing the curious permutations in contemporary political alignments.
The Port Huron Statement issued by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 called for a participatory democracy in which, through protest and agitation, the “power structure” of the society would be transformed by bringing moral rather than merely procedural questions to the center of political life. Almost fifty years later, Shields notes, “some 45 percent of respondents in the Citizens Participation Survey who reported participating in a national protest did so because of abortion. What is more, nearly three quarters of all abortion-issue protesters are pro-life, an unsurprising fact given that the pro-life movement is challenging rather than defending the current policy regime. Meanwhile, all other social issues, including pornography, gay rights, school prayer, and sex education, account for only 3 percent of all national protest activity.”
Shields says there are three categories of pro-life politics: deliberative, disjointed, and radical. Representative of the “deliberative” are Justice for All (JFA) and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), which have trained thousands of young people to engage in nonconfrontational pro-life persuasion on college campuses. The “disjointed” politics includes innumerable and loosely organized activities such as sidewalk counseling, prayer vigils, marches, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations. The “radical” includes what he calls “the broken remnants of the rescue movement,” focusing on civil disobedience and the closing of abortion clinics. “In many respects [the radical] is the exact opposite of deliberative politics, except for the fact that it too is highly coordinated and organized.”
He cites striking instances of the campus efforts of groups such as JFA and CBR meeting with frequently vicious hostility, often led by faculty members. The truth is that such hostility reflects vehement opposition to civil deliberation and argument about abortion. Pro-life students eager to engage others in serious discussion find this very frustrating, but it is not entirely surprising. Shields writes: “Such frustration is fueled by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, whose leaders discourage their campus affiliates from debating or even talking to pro-life students. NARAL’s ‘Campus Kit for Pro-Choice Organizers,’ for example, gives this categorical instruction: ‘Don’t waste time talking to anti-choice people.’” The campus organizer for Planned Parenthood told Shields that she “discourages direct debate.” Feminists for Life has had more success on campuses, mainly because its members shake up conventional notions on the “woman question.” As leaders of the organization put it, the goal is not to “fit into a man’s world on men’s terms,” which means above all not “troubling employers with their fertility problems.” As they repeatedly assert, “Women deserve better than abortion.”
But pro-abortion intolerance of discussion or debate is sometimes given dramatic expression. In San Francisco, the city and county board of supervisors unanimously declared January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, “Stand Up for Choice Day” and officially declared San Francisco a pro-choice city. Supervisor Bevan Duffy declared that pro-lifers were “not welcome in San Francisco.” Supervisor Tom Ammiano complained about the audacity of pro-life activists who “think that they can come to our fair city and demonstrate.” The head of the Golden Gate chapter of Planned Parenthood was outraged that activists “have been so emboldened that they believe that their message will be tolerated here.” The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the mid-1960s has come to this.