There is a lot to cover this morning about the state of the pro-life movement, how far we’ve come, and where we still have to go. I’m going to touch on all of this.
But, having spent a decade on Capitol Hill, I also want to talk about the relationship of the pro-life movement and political power – about how, in some cases, the pro-life movement has been used and manipulated by both parties to be more performative than results driven. And how best we, as a pro-life movement, can fix that.
But before we even get to that point, we begin with first principles: Why are we pro-life at all?
There are billions of reasons, if you think about it. All of us, here today, are one. So are the children scampering around somewhere in this building.
Why We Are Pro-Life
But in another sense – a deeper sense – there are not billions of reasons to be pro-life. There’s just one.
As the Founding Fathers put it – before they were canceled – it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Or, as Dr. Seuss put it, before he too was canceled, “A person’s a person no matter how small” – or how old or young, or how sick, or how inconvenient.
In the trenches of the abortion debate – whether in Washington, in the rhetorical dumpster fire of social media, or even in our local communities – this Truth can feel controversial. It’s portrayed as part of the so-called “culture wars” that have divided our country for decades.
But like so many narratives political elites and corporate-media journalists peddle, the life, dignity, and distinct identity of unborn children is the most natural and unifying notion in the world.
There is a reason there are no pro-abortion children. It’s the same reason that pro-abortion activists almost never use the word. They will talk about “choice” or “Roe” or “women’s health” or “reproductive freedom.” But when it comes to the thing they are actually pro, they clam up like Harry Potter characters whispering in terror about He Who Shall Not Be Named.
It’s the same reason that when Iceland announced in 2017 their nation would soon “eradicate” Down syndrome, the news was greeted not with fanfare but with quiet revulsion.
Because after a moment’s thought, everyone realized they didn’t mean “cured.” They meant “exterminated.”
Everyone who has ever met or known someone with Down syndrome – let alone those of us lucky enough to grow up with my Down Syndrome brother, Jesse Bovard – knows that it is a haunting tragedy that two-thirds of unborn American babies with Down’s are aborted every year.
They know… everyone knows… and everyone has always known – that abortion is not a right. It’s a wrong.
It’s a manifestation of the wrong, the first and greatest wrong – the setting up of ourselves as greater than others… and deeming others as lesser than us.
The temptation to dehumanize the weak, the sick, the old or the young, women, homosexuals, the Other – however defined – the helpless – like the line between good and evil – runs through every human heart.
No civilization – nor country, nor party – is innocent of it. At different times and places, it has given rise to gulags, killing fields, concentration camps, slave auctions, guillotines, battlefields and brothels… and today, Pornhub and Planned Parenthood.
Human dignity is an eternal truth that has been at eternal war with human nature since Eden, back to the Serpent’s lie from Genesis, “Ye shall be as gods.”
It is for this eternal, unalienable, and God-authored Truth that the pro-life movement has fought for the last 49 Januarys.
And it is to this Truth that, in recent years, the facts have finally caught up.
The Triumph of Technology
The Big Lie at the heart of the modern abortion movement can be summed up in three words: “clump of cells.” For decades, that is what the multi-billion-dollar abortion industry told women was in their wombs. Not a little boy or girl, not even a human being. Just a “clump of cells.”
An abortion, women were told, was no different than having one’s appendix or wisdom teeth removed. Make no mistake. Back in 1973 – or for that matter, 1973 B.C. – everyone knew it was nonsense. Contrary to the pro-abortion movement, women aren’t stupid. We know pregnancy means baby and abortion means killing. “Clump of cells” was just the product of their motivated reasoning: the wish was father to the thought.
Nobody wants to own the industrialized murder of 300,000 unborn children every year – not even the people who have profited off it for fifty years.
“Clump of cells” gave everyone involved – from the abortionists, to their lobbyists, to their political patrons and media cheerleaders – a euphemism to perfume the horror.
For years, the debate raged about abortion and Roe, but the law didn’t really change.
One political party gradually embraced the cause of Life, and the other gradually eschewed it … yet the law didn’t really change.
An entire philosophy of jurisprudential analysis – and a vast network of originalist-textualist lawyers, judges, lobbyists, and politicians – sprouted up where none had been before… yet the law didn’t really change.
In the 40 years between 1969 and 2008, Republican presidents filled 13 of 15 Supreme Court vacancies… yet the law didn’t really change.
What changed – and what changed more hearts and minds than anything else – was medical technology. First we heard the heartbeats with fetal Doppler machines.
Then we saw the ultrasounds. Then we saw the 3D ultrasounds, advances in fetal surgery, and the point of fetal viability inching earlier and earlier in women’s pregnancies.
Slowly but surely, as a generation of moms and dads met their sons and daughters when they were still the size of a blueberry, the “clump of cells” narrative disappeared from the national debate.
Pro-lifers in their 20s and even 30s may never have heard it.
Instead younger generations have been subjected to shallow sophistry, like when 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama said that the question of when life begins is “above my pay grade.”
Or flat-out cringe, like the blessedly short-lived “Shout Your Abortion” campaign that wheezed and clanged onto social media platforms for a few weeks in 2015.
It was early in this era, when Americans saw miracles of genius and hope, that technology showed us something else, too. Not just the truth about unborn life, but the truth about the abortion industry.
First came the training diagrams instructing young abortion doctors how to perform a procedure called “intact dilation and extraction.” The horror of partial-birth abortion was so shocking, for several years many Americans simply refused to believe it was real.
The news media – then as now partisans and pro-abortion extremists – dutifully denied, distracted, and dissembled.
But just like the ultrasounds, the cool, clinical, sickening pictures of the partial-birth abortion procedure could not be long denied. Once again, the facts – the evidence – confirmed the Truth everyone already knew.
The Partial Birth Abortion Ban
The story of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act – which outlawed a gruesome procedure where a living baby is born alive and then brutally killed – is an important one for pro-lifers in both parties to remember, as we move forward, hopefully, to a post-Roe world later this year.
The bill was first passed in 1995, when Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and President Bill Clinton was in his first term in the White House.
The bill passed the House with 288 votes – 215 out of 231 Republicans, plus 73 Democrats.
Two months later, it passed the Senate with 54 votes, including 10 Democrats – among them, Joe Biden.
President Clinton vetoed it.
The House overrode the veto. But the Senate, despite bipartisan support, fell well short of the 67 votes needed to override a veto – so the bill died for the 104th Congress.
Now, for most Americans, who learn about Congress in middle-school civics class… or, those of a certain age, who learned about it from Schoolhouse Rock’s cartoon “I’m Just a Bill,” this constitutional process may sound perfectly normal.
Having worked in both houses of Congress for a decade, I can assure you it’s not.
These days, presidents don’t even have to veto bills. Just the threat of one is usually enough to halt all momentum on Capitol Hill.
Contrary to the media narrative, Congress’s defining vice is not partisanship but laziness.
Members of Congress work only two-and-a-half or three days a week. Party leaders block all amendments and exclude all but a handful of members from the policymaking process.
Trying to pass bills the president won’t sign is, for most lawmakers and especially for party leaders, is a fruitless waste, like asking nuns out on dates. It never happens.
And yet, they did it again just a few months later…
In 1997, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban again passed the House, then the Senate. President Clinton again vetoed it.
The House overrode, and the Senate failed to do so. But this time, with 64 votes, six more than the previous year including more Democrats, and only three short of the 67 needed.
Both Houses passed it again in 1999.
They did it one more time, in 2003, and President George W. Bush finally signed the bill into law. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the law, and it remains federal statue today.
There are three key lessons here for the pro-life movement. First, it cannot be overstated how insistent pro-life activists were during this decade of advocacy. Every year, several times a year, they came to Capitol Hill demanding action.
They worked with pro-life back-bench members – Republicans and Democrats – to push partial-birth related amendments, sometimes even on unrelated legislation.
Second, these advocates made the issue of a partial birth abortion ban comprehensive. They didn’t just limit it to considering the bill on the House or Senate floor. Every issue became about partial birth abortion.
There were hearings, proxy fights on nominations, and heated committee markups. Pro-abortion congressmen and Senators in both parties were forced – over and over and over again – to vote on this issue.
And here is the third lesson. Voting on issues, as repeatedly and as often as possible, creates a record.
Have you ever noticed that this is what Congress hates to do most? To vote? Because they’re scared of the accountability it provides. They’re scared of creating a record they later have to defend.
Because of all this, partial-birth abortion went from a fringe, medical anomaly, to an unstoppable political juggernaut that not only overwhelmed pro-abortion hard-liners, but just as importantly, what might be called pro-choice “soft-liners” – many of them in the Republican Party – who would have preferred the issue disappear.
When President Bush signed and his Supreme Court appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito sustained the law, the pro-life movement thought that was the moment they finally made their way to the cockpit of the Republican Party.
But in truth, that was the moment the GOP made its way to the cockpit of the pro-life movement.
Long a non-partisan thorn in Republicans’ side, many pro-life leaders became more like puppies on its lap.
After the partial-birth victory, most pro-life advocates in Washington settled into a comfortable – and for some, personally lucrative – relationship with Republican leaders.
Republicans today, on paper, are more pro-life than ever before – just as national Democrats are the opposite. But the GOP now demonstrates nothing like the single-minded vigor and relentless legislative advocacy that won the partial-birth fight all those years ago.
Back then, Washington pro-life leaders – on behalf of grassroots organizations and activists – demanded elected officials produce bold, concrete legislative action.
Today, most pro-life lobbying goes the other direction.
Senior Republicans invite right-to-life leaders into their tony Capitol offices and explain to them why this yearisn’t the time to fight.
This year isn’t the time bring up that bill. This year isn’t the time to defund Planned Parenthood… or take up a fetal pain bill… or impose serious regulations on abortion clinics. We need to play the long game, they say.
We need to be smart, they say… because according to campaign consultants and D.C. insiders, the abortion issue is so controversial.
This faux-sophisticated justification for inaction – or worse, for manipulation – actually serves neither the pro-life movement or the Republican Party.
Rather, it serves the interests of incumbent Republican elected officials. And no one else.
By de-emphasizing pro-life floor votes, Republican leaders protect their “moderates” from being exposed for the pro-abortion legislators they are.
Republican leaders in the House and the Senate now choreograph just one “big” pro-life vote every year, right around the time of the March for Life in January. It known in congressional parlance as a “show vote.”
The vote is usually scheduled on a Monday evening when most members are still on planes heading toward D.C. There is no whip operation.
And the vote doesn’t ever pass. It’s not intended to pass. Rather, it’s mostly intended to give pro-choice Republicans an opportunity to cast a superficially pro-life vote. The goal is to “unify the conference” – allowing everyone to take a cheap, easy vote – so that the GOP appears to be “pro-life” without doing much.
I call votes like these “head pats” – like you would give to children or family pets for being good boys and girls.
For the party, this “pro-life-lite” approach is the best of all worlds. It easily checks the box for a powerful interest group. It lets pro-choice Republicans pretend to be more pro-life than they are. And it keeps grassroots pro-lifers in the dark about what’s really going on inside the Beltway.
To take just one example of this, consider the case of Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator from Alaska. She first came to the Senate in 2002.
In 2010, she ran for re-election after eight years in the Senate – most of them in the majority under President Bush – with a pristine pro-life voting record. This despite the fact that Senator Murkowski was and is pro-choice.
She’s not an extremist on the issue like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama. But the pro-life state of Alaska had a pro-choice Senator… and most of her constituents had no way of knowing it.
Murkowski is always loyal and obedient to Republican leaders in their internal fights against conservative reformers. And so they crafted their pro-life show-votes to shield Murkowski from having to publicly admit her pro-choice position, and thus give her easier re-election campaigns.
The game continues today. In 2018, Republicans held control of the House and the Senate. For all his controversies, the most effective pro-life politician of our lifetimes was in the White House. More Americans than ever were telling pollsters they considered themselves pro-life.
Never before or since was the GOP better positioned to legislate to defend Life. Yet early in the year, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Democrats not to allow any policy amendments on that year’s spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, where most federal abortion policy is administered.
“Clean bills,” leaders called them. “Clean.”
The bill would contain $286 billion for Planned Parenthood. It would continue President Obama’s grisly policy of funding research on “fresh” fetal tissue from aborted babies. Pro-life doctors and Catholic hospitals would not be protected from mandates to perform abortions.
Pro-life Senators and congressmen who tried to introduce amendments anyway were criticized in public… and excoriated in private.
I was one of the activists who was assured by Republican leaders that they would fight for the unborn next time. There was no next time, as they knew.
In fairness, the logic here is not crazy. Squishy, flexible subordinates like Lisa Murkowski are easier for party leaders to deal with than ideologues like Mike Lee or Josh Hawley. Funding Planned Parenthood is much easier than fighting it. It lets members go home on Thursday afternoons, and enjoy weekends and holidays with their families.
But that logic only explains why Mitch McConnell or the Republican National Committee plays this game – not why pro-lifers should go along with it.
Party discipline, internal politics, New York- and Los Angeles-based fundraising, primary challengers, moderate incumbents in tough districts and states … these are the Republican Party’s problem, not mine. Not yours. Not the pro-life movement’s. And certainly not mothers and unborn babies in crisis pregnancies.
When Kermit Gosnell was exposed… when Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue sales were exposed… when they admitted in court they were harvesting tissue from babies still alive… most Washington Republicans wrote tweets and fundraising emails, not bills and amendments.
The unsentimental fact is that the Republican Party does not think of itself as part of the pro-life movement. And so, the pro-life movement should not think of itself as part of the Republican Party.
Some of you may be old enough to remember when nuns used to patrol Catholic school dances, separating the hormonal boys and girls enough to “leave room for the Holy Spirit.” I think the pro-life movement could use the same advice today in its too-cozy relationship with Republicans politicians in “The Swamp.”
Make the Pro Life Movement Great Again
Compare the disappointing record of a generation of traditional pro-life politicians with the stunning pro-life successes of President Donald Trump.
I am not blind to Trump’s shortcomings… and don’t ask anyone else to be. But he cannot be described as anything other than the most effective pro-life elected leader the United States ever had.
Everyone knows about his excellent judicial appointments. But I’m talking about policy. It was Trump who allowed states to defund Planned Parenthood and how ended U.S. funding for abortion providers overseas.
It was Trump who defunded the pro-abortion United Nations Population Fund and who added conscience protections to health care providers under the Affordable Care Act. And, incredibly, it was Trump who barred the Department of Health and Human services from engaging in the sale of aborted fetal tissue – something even President George W. Bush had tried and failed to do.
Republican majorities in Congress would not touch those fights. Trump did… and won.
Whether he knew it, or guessed it, or – very probably – just led with his gut and turned out to be right, Trump stumbled on the Truth that all the smart, strategic, long-game-playing pundits and politicians always missed.
In the real world, away from Washington and the elite media, the abortion issue is not controversial: abortion is controversial.
For decades, Republican elites have urged caution, even to the point of hypocrisy and duplicity. Jab around the edges, they said. Don’t challenge Planned Parenthood, they said. Don’t challenge Roe, they said. Be patient, they said, as another million children were killed every year.
And for decades… nothing happened.
Then a few years ago, Donald Trump of all people started ignoring them… and almost immediately things started happening.
Inspired by Trump, state legislatures started getting bolder, not just beefing up regulations on abortion clinics or restricting access to abortifacients, but outright banning abortion after fetal viability… then banning it after 15 weeks… then banning it as soon as the baby’s heartbeat could be heard!
That’s six weeks of fetal development, in brazen defiance of Roe and Casey.
It is hard to overstate how terrified Washington Republican leaders were of the Mississippi and Texas “heartbeat bills.”
Consultants and pundits and wise-old-men privately warned that if the Supreme Court actually did overturn Roe, Republicans would never win another election. They didn’t even want to defend the state bills, because they were convinced a national debate about abortion would make pro-lifers look bad.
Yet sure enough, in the wake of the heartbeat bills and the Dobbs case at the Supreme Court, the national abortion debate Republican insiders feared came… and we wiped the floor with them.
The oral arguments inside the Court were a rout. Mississippi and Texas lawyers defending their state policies easily grounded their arguments in the facts, the law, the Constitution, the science, and American history.
The pro-abortion advocates, including three Supreme Court justices, mostly embarrassed themselves.
They made factual assertions they could not support. They cited historical events that never happened.
They insisted fetal viability was a religious question, when it is by definition a medical one. In the end, the abortion movement’s best lawyer came close to defending Plessy v. Ferguson – the monstrous “separate but equal” ruling that validated Jim Crow – rather than admit Roe could be overturned.
On the op-ed pages, pro-abortion columnists tied themselves in knots. High-profile “woke” spokesmen had just spent five years lecturing us about “birthing persons.”
They said there’s no difference between men and women, that men can have babies, and that it’s impossible to tell a baby’s sex at birth. Now they were saying Roe protected women’s health. Everyone knew they were lying – including themselves.
One poor schlub thought candor might help. He published an essay arguing that single men like him actually benefit from Roe because it gets them out of having to take care of unwanted babies after casual flings. It is a commentary about the abortion movement’s messaging these days that this Ivy-League educated lawyer thought this argument was both novel and made him look good.
This was the debate that Republican leaders and consultants and beard-stroking strategists had feared for 20 years. As my friend Ben Domenech of Fox News and The Federalist likes to say, “Consider the possibility that we are led by idiots.”
Somehow, somewhere along the line, in the fog of partisan conflict, amidst the din of the 24-hour news cycle, Republican insiders forgot the fundamental Truth of this issue: There are no good arguments for abortion.
And there are certainly no arguments for the extra-constitutional tyranny of Roe v. Wade.
When pro-lifers force pro-abortion advocates to try to come up with some, they make fools of themselves.
NO MORE FOOLING
To get to that point, though, to press our advantage, pro-life Americans must no longer let Republican politicians try to make fools of us.
We do not work for politicians. Politicians – in both parties – should be made to work for us.
If, God willing, Roe and Casey are overturned later this Spring, GOP leaders will take you by the hand, wish you congratulations, and celebrate the Court’s decision as the triumphant end of a long, hard struggle.
No. It is only the beginning of a struggle much harder, and more important than anything the Pro-Life movement has fought for since 1973. And if we want any political party to help us protect the unborn in a post-Roefuture, we have to act like it.
Unborn children don’t need friends in one party. They need champions in both.
But politicians will not hold themselves accountable. We must.
No more Monday night bed-check votes. No more head pats. No more “next time.” In the wake of President Trump’s success, and the abortion movement’s flailing incompetence in the debate over the recent challenges to Roe… “next time” is now.
Let the pro-aborts threaten to pack the Court, nuke the filibuster, pass the ERA. We will beat them.
And let there be no counsel of fear from fat-and-happy men who fancy themselves clever.
When they recommend caution, tell them the lessons of history are clear, and the right thing to do is always the right thing to do.
Like fortune, the pro-life movement now should favor only the brave. The persistently timid, we should not cajole or accommodate, but challenge.
In a new era when abortion can, for the first time in fifty years, be legislated, policymakers will have to choose: they can be with unborn children, or against them. There’s no more middle ground, no more punting to the courts or the White House.
And most importantly, in this political environment, there is no need to defer to partisan leaders. Political elites in both parties have so discredited themselves, that neither is a genuinely majority coalition.
What that means is that pro-life, pro-family, pro-community, pro-solidarity Republicans and Democrats will have an opportunity to craft creative, unconventional compromises that Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi may hate… but the American people support.
There isn’t a pro-life conservative in either house of Congress who wouldn’t be open to compromises with liberals on children’s health care, early-childhood education, income supports for single mothers in exchange for greater protections for the unborn.
The fact is, in a post-Roe world, we can do more than negotiate compromise – we can build a bipartisan, pro-life consensus. We can save babies… and help save the country.
It is a great moment for the pro-life movement. It’s a time for optimism. Hopefully soon, it will be a time for celebration. But it cannot be a time for complacency: moral, political, or strategic.
For 49 years, pro-lifers have put the hard truth of abortion ahead of party politics. Now we must put the hard truth of party politics ahead of our own comfort.
Making all children safe in the womb and welcome in our society is not the job of judges or politicians, but our own. This year, for the first time in most of our lives, we may truly be able to lead that fight… and win it.
In this fight, the priority cannot be elections, and certainly not re-elections. Our mission is vulnerable babies, not vulnerable incumbents.
The clearer-eyed pro-lifers are about our priorities, the more effective their Washington representatives will be, the more action we will see, and the more children will be saved.
“We the people” of the pro-life movement have the authority, the opportunity, and the duty now to lead. And when we do, the politicians, and the policies, will follow.
The statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke spoke eloquently about the covenant that exists in self-government between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. We fight now for those precious unborn and eternal souls, not yet witnessed by men, but known by their Creator and shepherded by the angels.
To echo the great Winston Churchill, we cannot guarantee victory on their behalf. All we can do – and what we must do – is to be worthy of it.