Moving Toward a Culture of Life

by Cathleen A. Cleaver

Thirty years after Roe v. Wade, abortion may seem entrenched. A generation of young people has never known a world without it. This can easily lead to discouragement and doubt as to whether the Church and the pro-life movement are making a difference.

For decades, the Church has educated the public about the sanctity of life and the reality of abortion, provided care for pregnant women and their children, served those shattered by abortion, worked to adopt public policies that support and nurture life, and pounded the heavens with prayer. Has all this had an impact?


To understand how much we've accomplished, let's review our objectives and then step back to survey the landscape.

One obvious goal is to change abortion law–not simply to put another crime on the books, but because the innocent must be protected and because many people think what is legal is moral and acceptable.

We pray for an end to abortion in this country–for doctors to stop performing abortions, for mothers to stop seeking them, and for fathers, grandparents and friends to stop encouraging them. But even a change in behavior is not the primary goal. What's necessary is a radical change of mind, one that helps people see abortion as always the wrong solution no matter what problems arise in pregnancy. Yet even more is needed to build a culture of life.

Ultimately, the goal involves a radical change of heart and a transformation of souls. It's about the redemption of those involved in abortion, and about unselfish service to women, children and families. It aims to transform our society into one where people are radically, even heroically, generous to every human life, no matter the personal cost. It's about creating a nation where there is no pro-life "movement."

Is it possible to attain this goal, given the widespread disrespect for human life in our society? Are we even moving in the right direction? We are! Consider the following.

More Laws are Passed to Protect Life

In recent years states have passed far more laws restricting or regulating abortion than laws promoting or protecting abortion. This might seem a surprising statement, coming just a year after the tragic Stenberg v. Carhart decision. There a 5-to-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court gave constitutional protection to the practice of killing a partially-delivered child. Yet, as Justice Antonin Scalia suggested in his dissent, there is reason for hope. It is not naive or wrong to read our Constitution and Declaration of Independence as fully supporting the right to life of all Americans, including those waiting to be born. Nor is it naive or useless to disagree strenuously with court opinions, or to build on the groundswell of public sentiment that produced thirty new states laws against partial-birth abortion.

As a new Administration begins there is also hope. Presidential power is admittedly short-lived, but administrations in Washington can do much harm or much good. One of President Bush's first actions as President was to restore the Mexico City policy, ensuring that Americans' tax funds would not be given to organizations that provide or promote abortion as a method of family planning in foreign nations. This is one hopeful sign that President Bush may be willing to sign pro-life bills which cross his desk.

The Administration will also nominate federal judges and possibly one or more Supreme Court justices. Nominees will likely be individuals unwilling to rewrite the Constitution to serve a perceived social agenda. Perhaps they may even be willing to reverse past errors of constitutional interpretation, including Roe v. Wade and cases that rely on it.

It is at the state level, however, that one can see strong and clear movement toward protecting life. State legislatures have become increasingly pro-life over the last decade. According to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), more than 435 proposed laws to regulate or restrict abortion were considered by state legislators in 2000 alone. "Access to safe and legal abortion is getting more difficult in America, with many states imposing more restrictions," laments NARAL in its February 2001 report. Forty-three pro-life measures were adopted in 2000, far more than the twenty-seven state laws enacted to protect access to abortion that year. In the last six years, 262 pro-life measures have been implemented across the country.

One very promising state law survived a Supreme Court challenge in February 2001, when the Court rejected an appeal by several South Carolina abortion clinics. The clinics claimed that new health and safety regulations placed an undue burden on a woman's "constitutional right" to choose abortion. The regulations apply to all clinics performing at least five first-trimester abortions or one second-trimester abortion per month. They require inter alia that abortion facilities be properly equipped to handle complications, registered nurses assist in clinics, and airflow and temperature conditions meet specified standards. These were a legitimate response to real concerns over women's safety, even though improvements may be costly enough for some clinics to see reduced profits and thus reduce their incentive to stay in business. A spokesperson for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, the abortion advocacy group representing the clinics, said: "The Supreme Court has given a green light to states to regulate abortion out of existence." An exaggeration surely, but it is a positive development. One hopes that other states will move promptly to enact similar regulations.

Fewer Doctors are Practicing Abortion

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America boasts of being the world's largest abortion provider, with 127 affiliates that "serve" women in 875 clinics nationwide. At an average price of over $300 each, the profits derived from abortions throughout this empire are no small encouragement to Planned Parenthood's "public-spirited mission."

Despite the financial rewards, most doctors do not want to be associated with abortion practice. A few years ago Planned Parenthood spent many months searching unsuccessfully for an abortion provider for a Pennsylvania clinic. After a year, it resorted to flying in a doctor from Nebraska once a week. "Experienced doctors who know how to do abortions avoid performing them," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. "[The] medical profession has done more to erode access to abortion than the courts." This is by no means unique to Pennsylvania. The New York Times recently reported that 86% of counties in the United States have no abortion provider. Abortion clinics are clustered in large metropolitan areas where "competition is so fierce that each clinic owner is looking for an edge." (The New York Times, December 30, 2000). In addition, the number of hospitals willing to associate themselves with abortion dropped dramatically to only 7% in 1992, from 50% in 1973.

Increasingly, doctors will not perform abortions or even train for them. There has been a steady decline in the number of abortion providers since 1976. Fifty-three percent of doctors have declined to be trained in first trimester abortions since 1976, and 70% have declined to receive optional abortion training. (Family Planning Perspectives, June 1995)

Not all abortion providers who are turning away from the business leave on moral grounds; the practice is just not as lucrative as it used to be. "The fees are not set by the cost of the services but by the cost of the competition," lamented Colorado clinic owner Dr. Warren Hern to The New York Times (December 30, 2000). "[The] competition for patients is absolutely ruthless." But it is also true that many abortion providers sense the disdain of their colleagues in the medical profession and may feel like pariahs in their communities.

There are Far Fewer Abortions Today

Perhaps the clearest indication of success is the significant reduction in the number of abortions in recent years. For many years the number of abortions performed in this country hovered around 1.5 million annually, peaking at 1.6 million in 1990. The number of abortions in 1997, the latest year for which there are figures, was 1.328 million, representing a 17.4% decrease since 1990. There is a risk that those accustomed to citing abortion statistics in staggering numbers will file away this new statistic too quickly. The annual number of abortions is still appalling, and every abortion is one too many. But the fact that 300,000 fewer children will lose their lives each year is something to celebrate.

There is No Longer Serious Dispute About the Humanity of the Child or the Fatal Reality of Abortion

As recently as ten years ago, abortion advocates were still telling Americans that unborn children are not really human beings, or if human then not really yet alive. They did so despite the fact that scientists have long agreed that individual human life begins at fertilization. Today not a few abortion advocates have conceded that surgical abortion terminates a human life (although they much prefer the concept "pregnancy termination"). One notable concession came from feminist and abortion-rights advocate Naomi Wolf. In calling abortion "a necessary evil," Wolf urged the "pro-choice" community to be more honest in its rhetoric by acknowledging "the fetus, in its full humanity" (The New Republic, October 1995). Of course, one still hears nonsensical statements from abortion spokespersons, such as the recent comment about a high school student's discarded newborn: "If there had been an abortion clinic nearby, would that baby have been killed? I don't think so."

There is a major exception to this long-overdue candor. Advocates of abortion refuse to publicly admit that drug-induced abortions end a developing human life. They fail to inform consumers of the abortifacient effects of drugs such as "morning after" pills. Even "RU-486" abortions sometimes are described as a means of preventing pregnancy.

More People are Identifying Themselves as "Pro-Life"

As people's minds are opened and their hearts touched, more identify themselves as "pro-life." A September 1995 Gallup poll found that 33% of people identified themselves as "pro-life" while 56% described themselves as "pro-choice." Over the last five years, there has been a quiet but marked change in the way people describe their position on abortion. In October 2000, Gallup again asked people where they stood on abortion, and this time the response was quite different. People who identified themselves "pro-life" had climbed to 45%, while those who described themselves as "pro-choice" dropped to 47%. In other words, in the past five years 12% of the population moved toward a pro-life position, while the pro-choice movement lost 9% of the public. These are statistically meaningful changes. They are especially noteworthy given that none of America's influential institutions have left the "pro-choice" camp–academia and the media being two prominent examples. Marvin Olasky, author of Abortion Rites, a book chronicling the social history of abortion, observed: "Supporters of legal abortion offer women a quick change of channels (without mentioning the ghost that remains), while opponents of abortion offer the need to accept a certain amount of suffering. It is remarkable not that abortion has continued, but that opponents of abortion have pretty much held their own." And that was written before the shift mentioned above.

A final point about public opinion is worth noting. While Americans are now almost evenly split in the way they identify themselves, over two-thirds give pro-life answers to specific questions about support for a ban on late-term abortion or partial-birth abortion, parental consent laws, informed consent laws with waiting periods, and even mandatory spousal consent (which the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional).

More Young People are Becoming Pro-Life

Today, half of college freshmen oppose abortion, according to a recent U.C.L.A. survey of incoming freshmen. That is a dramatic change from years past when, in 1990 for example, 65% of college freshmen supported abortion. A 2000 Gallup poll revealed that 40% of 18-to-29 year olds support further restrictions on abortion, a higher percentage than for any other age group.

The web site ran an article in January entitled, "Has Choice Lost Support?" Noting the changing statistics, Salon said: "If these small changes bloom into a trend, it will be bad news for a movement that has traditionally relied on the energetic support of the young." Salon also reported that changes in the composition of pro-choice versus pro-life groups suggest a "generational shift in the abortion debate." While the median age of Planned Parenthood's members used to be in the 40s, it is now 50-something. The National Right to Life Committee has seen the opposite trend, with a drop in the median age of members from 50 in the 1980s to 45 in recent years.

Pro-Choice Groups are Struggling (and Spending) to Win People Back

The shift in public affinity for the pro-life cause is so great that even pro-choice groups cannot refrain from publicly acknowledging it. Faye Wattleton, a former president of Planned Parenthood, explained in a recent interview that "there is evidence of a growing acceptance of restrictions on women's choices and women's rights." Wattleton and other pro-choice leaders are not standing idly by. They are working to stop the defections from their ranks, and struggling, and spending, to win people back to a "pro-choice" position.

In March 2001, riders of the Boston subway were greeted by a series of ads from the Abortion Access Project. The ads were designed, a consultant explained, to "mobilize pro-choice Americans to get involved."

In 1999 a coalition called the Pro-choice Public Education Project ("PEP") hired a prize-winning New York agency to design a series of ads illustrating the American "value" of choice. "These campaigns," reports The Nation in a March 2000 article, "are one response to what could be described as the pro-choice movement's growing PR problem." NARAL alone spent $7.5 million last year. While the pro-life movement is gaining PR cachet with little paid media, according to The Nation, "PEP is approaching the problem from the other direction: trying to create a movement from ads, hoping to invigorate the couch potatoes."

Project Rachel Reaches Out to Women

While there is no personal gain for those who serve the needs of disadvantaged pregnant women and their children, more than 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers have been established around the country to provide a range of services to mothers, including clothing, baby supplies, medical care, and even a place to stay if necessary. This is selfless love in action.

Perhaps there is no better example of such love than the healing ministry of Project Rachel. About 140 diocesan offices around the country offer one-on-one spiritual and psychological care to those who are suffering from an abortion experience. Through Project Rachel and Rachel's Vineyard, a weekend retreat model, women and men can overcome their grief and despair, find healing for their deep spiritual wounds, and live again in the sure hope of God's forgiveness and of reunion one day with their child.

In 2000 the bishops' Pro-life Secretariat launched a Project Rachel Outreach Campaign. The campaign included professionally-designed materials based on the experiences and testimony of women who have suffered from abortion, special training for priests and counselors, and the establishment of referral phone lines. Billboards, transit placards and radio spots featured in the campaign resulted in an enormous surge in calls for help. In just three months, the number of people referred for Project Rachel counseling in the Archdiocese of Washington alone was twenty times higher than in an equivalent period before the outreach. The program is so successful in reaching those wounded by an abortion that states and dioceses across the country are now sponsoring similar outreach efforts.


Pope John Paul II has called the pro-life movement "one of the most positive aspects of American public life." Yet we still struggle to create a society where there is no need for a pro-life movement, where there is room in the hearts of all people to welcome every member of the human family.

When will we see the culture of life? Not soon enough. But there is evidence that we are moving in the right direction. We must never slacken our efforts, for it is in striving that we become our truest selves.

Ms. Cleaver is former director of information and planning, USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.