The Pro-Life Movement Must Change Tactics or Die

Published November 10, 2022

America Magazine

The headline of the 2022 midterms was the red wave that fizzled. The results instead reflect a closely divided nation.

But in five states—California, Michigan, Montana, Kentucky and Vermont—the cause of protecting life was on the ballot, and in all five it failed. Combined with this summer’s loss in Kansas, it should be increasingly clear to the pro-life movement that the post-Dobbs landscape poses real, if not existential, threats to the cause of protecting unborn life in the womb. If nothing changes, we should expect abortion-related referenda in all but the deepest conservative states to produce results similar to what we saw Tuesday night.

The pro-life movement will metamorphosize, or it will die. The half-century battle to overturn the constitutional travesty that was Roe v. Wade required a certain set of rhetorical tools and political strategies. That goal, thank God, was accomplished last June.

But the institutions and networks that did so much to end Roe, and continue to be real sources of strength for pregnant women, have to shift gears. Fighting state-level battles at the ballot box requires a greater willingness to find compromise and credible commitment to supporting women and children, rather than the legal strategy that, by necessity, took center stage from 1973 until this year.

Pro-lifers should always expect to be outgunned by deep-pocketed opponents and a hostile media environment. But prioritizing the virtue of prudence—advancing a holistic agenda for being fully pro-life and pro-family, and picking battles that advance our goals incrementally even if they are not the uncompromising ideal some would like to see—must be the next stage of pro-life activism.

All is far from lost. Pro-life candidates can, and do, win elections by resounding margins. Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia who shepherded through and signed a law banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, convincingly won his re-election bid in a closely divided state. Greg Abbott, the Republican governor who has leaned full-bore into restricting abortion in Texas, did similarly well this week. Perhaps most notably, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, stomped his way to a victory after signing a 15-week ban on abortion in the state earlier this year. In fact, his 19-point win suggests he could have staked a little more political capital on moving Florida’s threshold earlier in pregnancy.

Crucially, none of these races centered around abortion, and each of the candidates made meaningful gestures to support pregnant women rather than just restricting access: All three of these states, as well as other Republican strongholds like Tennessee and South Carolina, have expanded postpartum benefits for mothers on Medicaid. Texas and Indiana have each put a large chunk of money into programs aimed at giving mothers alternatives to abortion. Savvy politicians will find ways of advancing pro-life bills through the legislative process as part of a broader commitment to improving families’ lives.

But when abortion is on the ballot, the side of life is behind the eight-ball. Even if, as many polls show, the majority of Americans have conflicted thoughts on the morality of abortion, an up-and-down vote on protecting life will face long odds. Faced with a choice between an abortion regime that is perceived as too permissive or one that is too restrictive, they will tend toward the former. The fear that too-strict laws will leave some pregnant women facing extraordinary circumstances at risk is enough to tip the kind of moderate swing voter who might describe themselves as “personally opposed to abortion, but hesitant to impose my morality.”

And the other side knows this. Buoyed by their success in politically competitive and conservative states like Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan, the constellation of abortion rights groups will doubtless be collecting signatures for referenda in a state near you.

Applying the virtue of prudence to the cause of protecting unborn life will look different in different states. Depending on the demographics and legal landscape at play, the best outcome may be a ban at eight, or 10, or 12 weeks with crystal-clear exceptions for heartbreaking cases like ectopic pregnancies and rape and incest.

Some pro-life groups might gather signatures for ballot questions of their own, seeking to get a 12-week ban with exceptions passed in states where the law is currently lacking. Sometimes it will mean giving up on the purest ideals in the name of getting something across the finish line, unlike when a group of hard-liners in South Carolina this fall shot down a six-week abortion ban for not going far enough.

In all states, but particularly in politically divided ones, the pro-life movement should be eager and willing to work across the aisle to advocate for laws against pregnancy discrimination and safety net benefits for low-income mothers. A fivefold increase in social spending probably wouldn’t have staved off the results in Michigan or Kentucky. But staking the pro-life movement’s credibility to a willingness to invest government resources, even at the risk of annoying some small-government allies, can refute charges of hypocrisy and chart an appealing political course.

At the end of the day, politics will always play second fiddle to the important, heroic work that so many pro-life organizations do every to accompany women in need, and to the quiet witness to friends, family and coworkers that so many who treasure unborn life live out everyday. But the political work matters too. Coming to terms with a strategy of the second-best—of prudentially advancing the ball forward, working within the realm of the possible—will be an important part of the pro-life movement moving forward if it wants to avoid more defeats like the ones on display this week.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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