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Sidestepping the Culture War: The Future of the Pro-Life Movement


"We systematically vilified the Catholic Church and its 'socially backward ideas' and picked on the Catholic hierarchy as the villian in opposing abortion. This theme was played endlessly. . . . And the media drum-fired all this into the American people, persuading them that anyone opposing permissive abortion must be under the influence of the Catholic hierarchy . . . An inference of this tactic was that there were no non-Catholic groups opposing abortion. The fact that other Christian as well as non-Christian religions were (and still are) monolithically opposed to abortion was constantly suppressed, along with pro-life atheists' opinions."

Dr. Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011), former president and co-founder of the abortion lobbying group NARAL. [1]

For the past forty years, the battle over abortion has been situated within a broader culture war, pitting godless liberals against right-wing theocrats. [2] As the above quote by the late Dr. Nathanson illustrates, this understanding of the abortion issue has been deliberately encouraged by abortion advocates, who utilize religion as a distraction from the fundamental human rights claims at stake. Their approach has been remarkably successful. Pro-life victory depends upon the re-casting of abortion as more than a mere "religious issue." Today's pro-life students, who are more religiously diverse than previous generations, have a unique opportunity to challenge stereotypes, change the course of the debate, and make abortion unthinkable.

The Status Quo

Although over 75% of Americans are at least nominally Christian [3], the pro-life position is held only by a slim majority or plurality of Americans (depending on the poll used). [4] Since Dr. Nathanson's day as a NARAL activist, the face of the pro-life movement has expanded somewhat: the media now acknowledges evangelicals in addition to Catholics. Despite this improvement, discussion of abortion is repeatedly relegated to the realm of a "religious issue." To cite just one example of this phenomenon, during the national debate over abortion coverage in health care reform, media coverage consistently focused on opposition from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, even though surveys showed that a large majority of Americans were opposed to government funding of abortion. [5] Unsurprisingly, then, religion is a major influence on Americans' view of abortion. In an attempt to quantify this influence, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 26% of opinion on abortion is attributable to religion; education accounts for 23% and personal experience for 17%. [6] The influence of religion can be positive or negative, depending upon the teachings of a person's religious denomination, but tends to work in the pro-life direction. [7] Among atheists, who have been bombarded with the message that the pro-life position is only held by Catholics and evangelicals, no more than one in seven are pro-life. [8]

For the past forty years, it appears that the pro-life movement has been content to let the pro-abortion movement keep non-religious Americans. Many major pro-life organizations have a religious affiliation, and some require an affirmation of faith to join or to participate in volunteer activities. In addition, many pro-life organizations combine their pro-life stance with conservative religious positions on other "culture war" issues like gay marriage, even though those positions may not be shared by pro-life atheists and adherents of more liberal faiths. [9]

This would be a defensible strategy, if the pro-life movement were able to win a majority solely through appeal to conservative Christians. That is not the case. Instead, as a minority or plurality, we have struggled for decades to pass incremental legislation -- and those hard-won victories have been made possible in large part by support, or at least acquiescence, from lukewarm pro-choicers. [10] A strong pro-life majority is needed if we are to fully restore the fundamental right to life for unborn children. Pro-life leaders have recognized this need, and in recent years the pro-life movement has made considerable progress in changing public opinion. [11] These gains have come largely from an unexpected source: Americans under 30, possibly the least religious generation in American history.

Inevitable Change

The current generation of teens and young adults is the most pro-life generation since Roe v. Wade. Young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are "trending more anti-abortion" -- fewer than one in four supports the standard pro-abortion-choice view, held by organizations such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, that abortion should be legal "in any circumstance." [12] In the words of David Bereit, the director of the nationwide Christian prayer vigil organization 40 Days for Life, youth are not merely "the future of the pro-life movement -- they are the pro-life movement." [13]

This young pro-life generation presents striking religious demographics that will stop four decades of pro-abortion propaganda in its tracks. A quarter of American young adults claim no religious adherence at all! [14] As Weekly Standard commentator Fred Barnes put it, "Millennials haven't grown more religious, politically conservative, or queasy about gay rights. Nor do they go out of their way to vote for pro-life candidates. But they tend to see abortion as a human rights violation. Thus their resistance to abortion is gradually increasing." [15]

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This shift has already received some media attention. As these young people become the visible leaders of the pro-life movement, it will become impossible to ignore. The sooner that happens, the sooner we can put to rest the destructive myth that the struggle for right to life is solely the territory of conservative religious groups. This will allow the pro-life movement to make abortion unthinkable for everyone. [16]