For the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, I went back to the 40th anniversary to see what I had to say then. It was instructive, on what still holds up even though Roe didn’t. Here’s what I wrote 10 years ago:
On this, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the “pro-life” movement is, no doubt, assessing the successes and failures of their Ahab-like quest to kill the Great White Whale of legal abortion.
The results, at best, have been mixed.
As a 40-year member of the pro-choice side, I have some sympathy — and grudging respect — for the anti-abortion side. So here’s some semi-friendly advice:
First, lose the label. “Pro-life” is insulting to anyone who doesn’t agree with you. It implies the rest of us are “anti-life” or “pro-death.”
It’s also inaccurate. If you were truly “pro-life,” you’d be picketing in front of NRA headquarters. You’d be lobbying to end the death penalty.
Having the nerve to call yourself “pro-life” undermines your credibility. Until you get out there and start vigorously defending the planet on which all life depends, you’re merely “pro-one-small-sliver-of-life.” Sorry, but pro-life is a very high bar indeed.
As a movement you are really “defenders of the unborn.” Truth in advertising.
Second, change your objective. For 40 years, the goal, pursued with single-minded, single-issue obsession (ala Captain Ahab in Moby Dick) has been to criminalize abortion. But you haven’t thought this through. If abortion were a crime, then every miscarriage would necessarily have to be investigated as a possible homicide. How well do you think that would go over? If you thought Prohibition (of alcohol) was unpopular, just wait.
You can win the occasional battle, but you can’t win this culture war through the legal system alone. You have to win the hearts and minds of the American people, and that can’t be done through legislation or court rulings. It can only be done in the court of public opinion. And in the court of public opinion, arrogance, born of absolute moral certainty, does not a persuasive argument make. Neither side can “win” this culture war. We need to reconcile, not conquer.
Which brings us to your biggest challenge: It’s one thing to respect life. It’s another to respect your opponent. To do so, it is necessary to understand why choice and reproductive rights are so important to the other side. There are good reasons why you haven’t made a dent in changing pro-choice minds and the fact that the majority of Americans still favor legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, just as they have — without wavering — since 1973. Dismissing the other side’s arguments as morally inferior will never result in mass conversion. Engaging in dialogue means recognizing there is something in the other trench worth listening to. You must open your mind wide enough to understand the other side’s argument, just as they need to understand yours.
This battle isn’t limited to abortion. There is a wider social context that you cannot ignore. But even in your narrow framing of the issue, abortion is a symptom of something deeper and more disturbing — disrespect for life. Actively resisting abortion, however, does not earn you “virtue immunity.” It does not absolve you of your own participation in a culture that doesn’t value life enough. If you supported the war in Iraq, if you support capital punishment, if you support easy access to guns, if you spend your entertainment dollars on Hollywood shoot-’em-ups and graphic shooting-gallery video games for kids, if your consumer and electoral choices contribute to rain forest destruction, extinction of endangered species, and accelerating climate change, then you, too, are a member in good standing of the “culture of death.” Opposing abortion doesn’t begin to absolve you of your moral compromises.
You can’t scold and shame people into valuing life. You can’t legislate it. You have to lead by example. There’s a reason no one with the moral stature and eloquence of Martin Luther King has emerged from this movement.
None of us are doing enough to promote increased respect for life. But at least I admit it. Neither do I make grandiose claims to being “pro-life.”
Both sides have more in common than you think. Many of us who are pro-choice have qualms about abortion. And everyone, I suspect, looks around and concludes that our culture does not value life enough.
It’s a starting point. The first step is out of the courtroom — and into the court of public opinion. If you can’t do that, I can pull out this column in 10 years and run it again. Maybe you’ll be ready to listen by then.
The choice is yours.
Ten years later, the defenders of the unborn are listening even less, now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and they think they’ve “won.” But they haven’t won. The whole point of the fable of Captain Ahab vs. the Great White Whale is that the exceedingly moral captain got his harpoon into the whale, but he and his entire ship were dragged down with it.
Something to think about.
See you in 10 years.