What we can learn from pro-life losses
This column was first published at First Things.
Ohio voters have enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution. On November 7, they endorsed the “Right to Make Reproductive Decisions Including Abortion Initiative,” known as Ohio Issue 1, by a wide margin. The vote created a state constitutional right to “make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to” abortion and contraception. This initiative also bars the state from passing any laws to protect pre-born human life until after viability. Even then, a proviso stating that abortion must be available when “necessary to protect the patient’s life or health” is deliberately vague enough to permit abortion until birth. Abortion activists already state that Ohio’s 24-hour waiting period is their next target.
The constitutional amendment is, unfortunately, as radical as pro-life campaigners claimed. It prevents virtually any laws restricting abortion and states explicitly that no law that “directly or indirectly” would “burden” or “interfere” with “reproductive decisions” is permitted, ensuring that pro-life legislators cannot pass laws targeting, for example, clinic safety. This likely means that taxpayer funding for abortion is next (after all, inability to pay for an abortion is a “burden” many women face). The amendment will also likely be used to eliminate restrictions on sex-change surgeries. Ohio’s “heartbeat law,” which Governor Mike DeWine signed in 2019, is now null.
The passage of Issue 1 has left pro-life leaders feeling grim. Democrats and the press have presented this and other November 7 votes in Virginia and Kentucky as part of a larger backlash to Dobbs. Pro-abortionists have now won seven state-level abortion referendums, most notably in Michigan and California. Despite a herculean canvassing effort by pro-life groups such as Created Equal, the Susan B. Anthony List, and others, pro-lifers were once again outspent by a margin of three to one, had their ads drowned on TV by abortion activist spots, and faced a hostile media that amplified the message of the pro-abortion side.
It is important to note that despite a string of losses, the pro-life movement is not in a worse position than it was the day before Dobbs. Some pessimists have begun to speculate that perhaps the overturn of Roe v. Wade was a pyrrhic victory that has given the abortion movement a permanent advantage. True, it has been a year of heartbreaking setbacks—but on June 23, 2022, the entire country was Ohio. Now, as Michael New pointed out recently, there are “laws protecting all preborn children in place in 14 states,” including heartbeat laws in Georgia and South Carolina and “strong pro-life laws protecting thousands of preborn children in 16 states.” Notably, nine of these sixteen do not have citizen’s initiatives, meaning that these laws cannot be overturned by direct democracy.
Pro-lifers must remember that the fall of Roe has saved tens of thousands of lives and made possible pro-life laws across the United States that will save thousands more in years to come. Those children live because Roe is dead.
It is also essential that we learn from the results of these direct democracy losses, as abortion activists are gearing up to continue their winning streak in other states. While some of the pro-life messaging was focused on the “ballot box issue’’—abortion—pro-life campaigners also focused on “parental rights,” following polling that indicated that parental rights was an important issue for Ohio voters. Exit polls, however, indicated that a mere 42 percent of parents with children under 18 voted against Issue 1. Campaigns are about narrative, and the somewhat vague issue of “parental rights” is not nearly robust enough to compete with narrative that abortion activists are presenting.
It is the latest example of the perennial pro-life temptation: to compete with the abortion activist narrative by putting the pro-life movement in a reactive position. For example, the abortion movement states that abortion laws hurt women, and the pro-life movement reacts by saying that abortion hurts women. While it is undoubtedly true that abortion hurts women, this narrative is not powerful enough to compete, since the “revealed preference” of many voters is that, given that choice, they’d like to have the option to decide for themselves whether or not abortion hurts women. (I write this as one of the co-authors of a “Post-Roe” statement signed by dozens of pro-life leaders calling for robust state support for mothers.) Throughout the entire debate, the central character in this great moral drama—the pre-born child—often gets forgotten. Indeed, some pro-life activists go to great lengths to insist that the real issue at stake is parental rights, or bad law, or something else—in Michigan, pro-life groups ran an entire campaign on the convoluted slogan “too confusing; too extreme.” The truth is that this is about abortion, and everybody knows it.
We know abortion is an act of violence that ends the life of a human being in the womb. Abortion activists claim abortion is healthcare. The central task of the pro-life movement is to confront the culture by proving our premises. For most voters, abortion is still about a what rather than a who. If pro-lifers spend entire campaigns on peripheral issues that essentially affirm this premise and imply that it is not abortion at any stage that is the issue but rather particular aspects of the proposed amendment or potential implications of the legislation, we lose the opportunity to make progress in rehumanizing the dehumanized. The only possible justification pro-lifers have for restricting abortion, after all, is that pre-born children are children—if they are not, pro-life laws are cruel.
For as Greg Koukl once observed: “If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate.”
Finally, as always, I’ve got plenty of other short, regular culture updates on The Bridgehead, and you can get a copy of Prairie Lion: The Life and Times of Ted Byfield here and here, and my other books here.