Abortion and the Obama Presidency

Four national pro-life leaders reflect on the challenges and opportunities ahead.


Pro-lifers in the United States were generally disappointed and discouraged by the results of the 2008 national elections. Barack Obama—as measured by his own record and campaign promises, the most pro-abortion presidential candidate the United States has ever seen—was elected with 52.6 percent of the popular vote. It appears inevitable that the modest but significant political gains made by the pro-life movement since 2000 will be eroded or undone when the president-elect takes office. In some areas the short-term damage may be even more extensive than veteran pro-lifers anticipate.

To step back for some perspective, when Roe v. Wade, the infamous Supreme Court decision striking down state anti-abortion laws nationwide, turned 25 years old in 1998, the pro-life movement was at a low point. Just fi ve years under then-President Bill Clinton had wiped out what little political progress there had been during the Reagan and Bush (I) administrations. 

In 1998, to mark that grim 25th anniversary, an anthology of essays entitled Back to the Drawing Board was published, in which around two dozen American pro-life leaders reviewed the political, legal, educational, and social gains and losses since 1973 and recommended courses of future pro-life action. The volume demonstrated that politics is only one area of a much broader social movement, and that practical efforts to help women in need and to educate the American public are as important as political measures.

Now, 10 years later, the prospects at the level of the federal government are again bleak, but this time pro-life leaders are not waiting until the second term of a pro-abortion president to take stock.
Anticipating an Obama victory, the Family Research Council, a pro-family policy think tank in Washington, DC, crafted a plan in advance. The FRC will use its expertise and lobbying experience to provide conservative and centrist members of the new Congress with the facts and arguments needed to stop a radical agenda, and it intends to release a steady stream of information to the national media that will highlight the extremism of the leaders controlling the White House and Congress in 2009.
Tony Perkins, president of FRC, emphasized in an e-letter to the group’s members in early November, “Never forget: Extreme liberalism does not work as a governing philosophy. As in the past, the Left is likely to suffer a rapid backlash as their policies are exposed…and as they fail to help Americans.”
On Wednesday, November 5, 2008, the evening after the election, Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life hosted a teleseminar, attended by 7,500 pro-lifers via telephone and Internet, during which 10 national pro-life leaders spoke about how their particular areas of activism could meet the challenges ahead. Most of the presentations were upbeat; some were inspiring. Father Pavone acknowledged at the outset, though, that many pro-lifers are feeling angry and betrayed. “That anger is something that we have to channel and direct to productive activity. What must we do next as a movement?”
In the age of instant communication, the teleseminar has already produced impressive results. One of the speakers, Dan McConaghy of Americans United for Life, described an online petition at www.FightFOCA.com urging legislators to reject the Freedom of Choice Act. The number of visits to the webpage surged in the next few days and thousands of signatures were added.
So, contrary to the impression that the mainstream media eagerly gives, the pro-life movement in the United States has not crawled into a corner to lie low for the next four years. In the interests of clarifying the condition of the complex pro-life movement, and in the pro-active spirit of the teleseminar, this article reviews the political pro-life achievements during the outgoing administration (2001-2008) and summarizes the assessments, insights, and hopes of four national pro-life leaders interviewed by CWR in mid-November 2008.
Immediately upon taking office in January 2001, George W. Bush revoked an executive order of his predecessor and reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which denies US family planning funding to any organization that promotes or provides abortion or lobbies for its legalization in another country. President Bush also prohibited the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research involving the destruction of new embryos (while allowing it for experimentation on stem cell lines that had been developed previous to his executive order). He repeatedly vetoed millions of dollars in appropriations for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its complicity in the coercive One Child Policy in the People’s Republic of China.
In 2003 the Supreme Court heard the NOW v. Scheidler RICO case on appeal and decided in favor of Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, overturning a lower-court ruling that sidewalk counseling outside of an abortion facility constitutes “racketeering.” Against fierce opposition in the Senate, Bush appointed two “strict constructionist” and reliably pro-life judges to the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. As for the legislative branch, during that same eight-year period Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (March 25, 2004) and a ban on the partial-birth abortion procedure.
On his recent trip to Africa, President Bush received a hero’s welcome, chiefly because of the PEPFAR program—the President’s Plan for Aids Reduction. Millions of lives have been saved in Africa through the distribution of antiretroviral drugs to people with AIDS. The program consisted of more than pharmaceutical foreign aid, however; pro-life and pro-family members of Congress and the administration made sure that it also included prevention programs that emphasize abstinence and marital fidelity. As a result, in several countries, including Uganda, the rate of new HIV/AIDS infections has decreased dramatically.
Practically all of the achievements listed above will be undermined or reversed by the incoming administration. During the presidential campaign Senator Obama, a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, made no secret of the fact that he considers unrestricted access to abortion, at taxpayer expense, good domestic and foreign policy. He openly favors embryonic stem cell research, and he has pledged to select Supreme Court justices committed to Roe v. Wade.
Steven W. Mosher, president of Population Research Institute, has testified before House and Senate committees and met with Bush administration officials to urge them to defund the UNFPA. The PRI has also worked successfully to keep the Mexico City Policy in place.
Mosher notes that a major setback to the work of PRI came as early as 2006, “when Nancy Pelosi took over as the Speaker of the House and promptly increased funding for population control programs at home and abroad.” He does not mince words in describing the seriousness of the challenges presented by the Obama administration:

The abortion lobby went overboard to elect Barack Obama. Planned Parenthood’s political action committee alone spent at least $10 million in the elections to turn out one million more pro-abortion voters in order to “elect a pro-choice president” and “to keep [their] doors open.” Now it’s payback time.


The three things that the abortion movement wants from a President Obama are more money for their [international] contraception and sterilization programs, an end to any and all restrictions on abortions [in the US], and a massive increase in [domestic] government funding, including funding for abortion itself.

Obama has said that he would like to increase Title X funding, much of which goes to Planned Parenthood, to $700 million and to double spending on overseas population control programs to $1 billion.

Obama has promised to sign the radical Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would nullify any and all restrictions on abortion…. He is also an original co-sponsor of the “Prevention First Act,” which will force insurance companies to fund, hospitals to provide, doctors to prescribe, and pharmacies to dispense abortifacient contraceptives. Obama pledges, for example, to provide “compassionate assistance to rape victims.” Translated into plain English, this means forcing you and me to pay for morning-after pills and abortions.

Although the Democrats will control both houses of the national legislature at least until 2010, Mosher pledges to “continue to work with Congress, both against FOCA and in favor of new legislation banning sex-selective abortion, a form of discrimination that feminists refuse to address.” Many Asian cultures traditionally favor sons, and the availability of abortion has resulted in the deaths of over 100 million girls worldwide. “ And it is happening here. According to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences, many American groups of Asian descent have the same skewed birthrates as found in their country of origin.”
Mosher encourages “all of those in the pro-life movement to stay the course.” The frontline troops picketing outside abortion facilities or staffing crisis pregnancy centers must remain at their posts. “ In the weeks and months to come, we [at PRI] will continue to highlight abuses in China’s one-child policy and elsewhere. We will make the argument that population control programs not only violate the right to life, but also human rights. We will point out the contradictions in the liberal mindset, how liberals talk incessantly about human rights but deny the unborn the right to be human.”
On Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Father Frank Pavone posted a sobering letter on the Priests for Life webpage emphasizing the disparity between the pro-abortion views of the president-elect and the values of the American people. A few lines from the letter follow:

It would be a serious mistake for people to think that this election means the pro-life movement has no political power. All politics is local. Political power is about people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was once told that civil rights legislation would be impossible to pass, given the political realities. “We’ll just have to see about that,” he replied. And the civil rights movement was born, stirring the hearts of the people to lead the nation to the victory of justice.


So it is with our movement. The vast majority of Americans are pro-life. They will fight abortion on the local level….

Father Pavone candidly acknowledges that “personnel is policy” and that “the 7,000 or so appointments that will be made by the new president to various positions that influence public policy will be pro-abortion ones, with the only likely exception being the ambassador to the Vatican.” He anticipates that, at least during a first term of a Democratic president, “the only changes on the Supreme Court will be the replacement of liberal justices with liberal justices, which, while it slows the progress of the court, at least would not reverse it.”
In the recent past, Father Pavone observes, “ our biggest obstacle has been our own fears and hesitations, especially those distorted and exaggerated forms of legal concerns within the Church that keep us from saying and doing things that are not only legally permissible but morally obligatory.” Pastors need to preach on the obligation to vote for pro-life candidates, and parishes should plan voter registration drives.
During the teleseminar, Father Pavone remarked, “Sometimes we [pro-lifers] don’t hold on to the White House or Congress, but we always hold on to the streets.” As he explained to CWR, “The more the government fails in its duty, the more the churches have to be activated.” The pro-life movement has “an immense grassroots outreach through the churches,” and pro-life lobbying, rallies at abortion mills and demonstrations will continue unabated.
The national director of Priests for Life sees many reasons for hope in long-range trends. A generation of “survivors”—young people who themselves might have been aborted legally—is becoming increasingly involved in all aspects of the pro-life movement. “With the notable exception of politicians,” who often exchange their principles for votes, “the flow of conversions goes from pro-abortion to pro-life.” Women who regret their abortions are speaking out publicly as medical, psychological, and sociological evidence accumulates for the physical and emotional harm that they have suffered. Over half of America’s freestanding abortion clinics have closed since 1993, while fewer and fewer doctors are willing to perform abortions and exposés of corruption turn public opinion against the industry. He concludes that the pro-life movement is winning.
When asked, “What, in your opinion, are the most effective things that a parish priest can do to hasten the day when abortion will again be unthinkable and illegal?” Father Pavone replied,

If our priests preach clearly about (a) the alternatives to abortion, inviting people to come to the Church when they need help in their pregnancy; (b) the forgiveness and healing after abortion, inviting those under its burden to likewise come to the Church; and (c) the reasons abortion is wrong, then the people will respond. The priest should give his people the opportunity to see abortion visually , to hear the testimonies of women and men of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, to pray at abortion mills (with him present leading them), and to carry out the dozens of other pro-life activities available to them.

When asked to reflect on the progress that the pro-life movement has made over the past eight years and the setbacks that it has experienced, Judie Brown, president of American Life League, noted that during that time ALL youth outreach programs quadrupled in size and the number of grassroots groups affiliated with ALL increased from less than 20 to 96. “Most importantly, we have crippled Planned Parenthood’s efforts in numerous states. American Life League, Stop Planned Parenthood International and Rock for Life have the honor of being listed on the abortion cartel’s ‘Top 10 Enemies’ list. We are encouraged beyond words as the growth continues.”
While more and more pro-life Americans are becoming effective activists, legislative progress at the national level has not kept pace, she says:

The movement as a whole has lost precious time politically, due to the movement’s identification with partisan politics, rather than demanding consistency from elected officials, regardless of party affiliation. In my opinion, the best evidence for that slippage is the fact that the entire pro-life political movement was distracted for nearly 12 years by a single political focus: obtaining a partial-birth abortion ban, rather than using those years to press for a total abortion ban. To barely hang on to a piece of legislation that will not, in fact, stop any abortion is not a good sign for the movement’s political involvement. Fortunately, American Life League is not a political organization.

Instead, ALL emphasizes education in pro-life principles. During the 2008 election campaigns, for example, several organizations associated with ALL, notably Pro-Life Wisconsin, “were deeply involved in raising awareness about voting responsibly and the dignity of the human person.”
Although the personhood referendum in Colorado failed, ALL “is extremely proud of the tireless efforts of Kristi Burton and all those [members of] Colorado for Equal Rights,” who put the question on the ballot and helped to publicize the initiative. “We see that effort as an incredible boost to personhood efforts nationwide…. [Victory] is achieved by persistently pursuing principle….”
In Mrs. Brown’s estimation, the greatest challenge presented by the results of the 2008 presidential and congressional elections is twofold:

The first is educating each member of Congress on the reasons why the Freedom of Choice Act is nothing more than a concerted effort to enshrine abortion into law as a civil right, which is preposterous. The second challenge is to use that educational opportunity to focus on the preborn child’s humanity and individual personhood, which removes the act of abortion from consideration as a political “issue” and puts it squarely where it should be considered—as an act of murder that must be outlawed once and for all.

ALL is already poised to begin that educational campaign, because for 30 years now it has been pursuing the legal recognition of the personhood of every single preborn child, without exception. They have developed a four-and-a-half-minute DVD entitled Baby Steps that uses live-action 4D ultrasound imagery to illustrate 16 stages of gestational development. The video can be viewed online, and crisis pregnancy counselors armed with notebook computers have already used the DVD to save at-risk preborn babies.
ALL also works to educate the public about the lethal effects of many pharmaceutical “answers” to the problem of unwanted pregnancy. “Abortion promoters are committed to advancing their cause by ‘chemicalizing’ abortion so that the actual ‘abortion clinic’ becomes a non-issue. This means we must expose the fact that certain chemicals can cause abortion, including those in hormonal contraceptives.” In the event that future plans for nationalized healthcare policies require doctors and pharmacists to prescribe and dispense abortifacient drugs, ALL “will work with Pharmacists for Life International’s leaders to make certain that those who are tempted to do away with freedom of conscience understand that such an action would be contrary to the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Mrs. Brown, a devout Catholic, is acutely aware that the pro-life movement is fighting a spiritual battle. For years ALL has been calling on the American Catholic bishops to teach more forcefully about the sacredness of human life and to refuse Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who publicly dissent from that Church teaching. In mid-November 2008 she said, “American Life League is deeply grateful to the more than 100 Catholic bishops who made it clear, during this past election cycle, that killing innocent people prior to birth is the most critical question facing our nation today and that supporting it should disqualify candidates from receiving your vote. We do believe, however, that the bishops need to be much more forceful in their defense of the Eucharist.”
Forty Days for Life is a relatively new form of pro-life demonstration, consisting of three components: 1) people of faith are invited to pray and fast for an end to abortion during a specified period of forty days; 2) volunteers are recruited to maintain a peaceful round-the-clock vigil outside the local abortion facility during that time-frame, to raise awareness about the injustice taking place there and as a sign of hope to those who may be seeking an abortion; 3) the pro-life message is spread in the local community at churches and schools, through the media and even door-to-door.
The movement started about four years ago in Texas; the third national 40 Days for Life campaign was conducted from September 24 to November 2, 2008, in more than 175 communities in 47 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa and two Canadian provinces, with tens of thousands of people participating.
David Bereit, national campaign director of 40 Days for Life, has traveled throughout the United States and witnessed the galvanizing effects that the program has on local pro-life activism. He admits that all three of the components have been part of pro-life activism in the past, “but by bringing it all together at one time, for a very focused period of 40 days, it seems to bring a dynamic into play that we have never seen before…. It gives people something that they can do locally to effect change; it is a focused project that has a beginning and an end, and over time it has had a proven track record.”
The statistics reported during the most recent 40 Days for Life campaign are impressive: 543 babies and their mothers were saved from abortion, a number of clinic employees quit their jobs, several abortion centers cut back hours, and one abortion facility closed down for good.
One lasting benefit of 40 Days for Life is that it focuses and unifies local pro-life activism, says Bereit. “We’ve had pregnancy centers involved, post-abortion healing ministries, educational and right-to-life groups, legislative and legal groups. This is something that has brought people together, even from diverse faith backgrounds. I’ve been blessed to see how people who may not see eye-to-eye theologically can stand arm in arm together in an effort like 40 Days for Life.” Whereas the program began in an Evangelical Christian community, it is estimated that as many as 70 percent of the participants in the fall 2008 campaign were Catholic.
Although it was generally ignored by the national media (with the exception of Christian TV, radio, and periodicals), Bereit reports that 40 Days for Life enjoyed a “huge surge of local media coverage.”

More than 100 local papers, radio, and TV stations covered it because it was a controversial story playing out in their communities…. Surprisingly, the local news coverage in the secular media has been overwhelmingly positive, probably because the approach that we’ve taken is peaceful, prayerful, and solution-oriented rather than confrontational. It does not fit the stereotype that the abortion industry has tried to paint for the pro-life movement.

The third national 40 Days for Life campaign created tremendous momentum to establish “ongoing pro-life efforts in the community or to build on existing pro-life efforts,” Bereit says. Several communities decided to continue maintaining a pro-life presence at the local abortion facility, for instance, during 40 hours of each week. Bereit says that the national coordinators have been deluged with requests for training in sidewalk counseling.  
Long-time pro-life strategist Michael Schwartz, in his talk during the November 5 teleseminar, recalled that only once during the past 80 years, in 1988, was a US president who had completed his term(s) of office succeeded by a new president from the same political party. In other words, the pendulum has swung. Democrats gained 20 seats in the House of Representatives, but the net loss of pro-life votes was considerably less, because many of the unseated Republicans were pro-abortion. Schwartz commented, “We can’t allow the pro-life movement to become a subset of the Republican Party.”
FOCA may be a ferocious law, but it is on a very short leash. The Family Research Council announced that its contacts in Congress say that House Democrats are reluctant to stir up the values voters at the beginning of the Obama administration and that proposal of that legislation has been postponed indefinitely. On the Friday after the elections, Christopher Smith (R-NJ), a veteran Congressional pro-life leader, estimated that in the new House of Representatives there will be 200 members in the pro-life caucus. Smith, Schwartz, and FRC agree that FOCA cannot be passed, and that pro-lifers will be able to stop many of the pro-abortion bills that are introduced in 2009-2010.
Those in office make momentous decisions, but whether or not Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, the pro-life movement can change the hearts and minds of individual human beings and reshape society starting with the local community. As David Bereit put it, “ This fall, a political battle was lost, but hundreds of lives were won. I am convinced that those victories will have far greater impact…. It was the result of people putting their faith into action right where they live.”

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.