The laws in the United States with regard to abortion are considerably better than before Dobbs v. Jackson was decided in June of 2022.
Not only did the Supreme Court’s decision demolish the claim that abortion is a constitutionally protected right, but it made possible state laws protecting our youngest brothers and sisters.
Since then, 14 states now have passed or revived laws banning most abortions, two states have banned abortions after six weeks, and six others have prohibitions in place that are presently not enforced because of legal challenges in state courts.
That’s a markedly improved situation than prior to Dobbs, where because of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, abortion was essentially legal in all 50 states, with very few restrictions, for any reason up to birth.
Despite these noteworthy victories and advances, there is a general pessimism and discouragement among many Pro-Lifers and a sense that the Pro-Life movement is “losing,” mainly because, in the seven ballot initiatives since Dobbs — in Kansas, Michigan, California, Vermont, Virginia, Montana and Ohio — citizens have either voted against abortion restrictions or in favor of enshrining abortion access in their state constitutions.
Those results have been used by abortion advocates to launch other ballot initiatives this year in Maryland and New York and likely in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota and Iowa as well. If abortion can win in deeply conservative states like Kansas and Ohio, both of which are full of Pro-Life citizens and public office holders, then abortion proponents are anticipating inexorable victories in the other contests this year.
The Pro-Life movement was caught somewhat flat-footed politically by the Dobbs decision. Whereas there was a great deal of unity among Pro-Lifers working for almost half a century to overturn Roe, elect Pro-Life candidates, and care for pregnant mothers and their unborn children, after Dobbs, there was a lack of consensus and political preparation as abortion returned to the states: whether to push for total bans, prohibitions after six or 15 weeks, and how to handle exceptions, like rape, incest or health of the mother.
The result was a chaotic situation that abortion advocates were able to exploit. Even though multiple polls have shown that the majority of citizens in most states have serious qualms about abortion and support restrictions, abortion proponents, despite their defense of partial-birth abortions, were able to campaign as if Pro-Lifers were the extremists, trying to take away all abortions.
Those pushing to protect or advance abortion used in-depth focus groups to identify a political strategy that has been working in various states, as a recent Wall Street Journal article detailed. They honed in on the value of “freedom” and tried to stretch its appeal beyond single women. They put “choice,” with its abortion baggage, on the back burner and began to emphasize the “freedom to decide,” asking, “Should personal decisions like abortion be up to women or the government?,” and striving to ensure that “families, not government, have the freedom to make their own personal decisions.”
Especially in conservative states where many are protective of personal freedom and suspicious of government overreach, the change in emphasis succeeded. Even though “freedom to choose” and “freedom to decide” are basically identical expressions, the fresh synonym and the specific anti-government focus have been, until now, persuasive.
Abortion proponents likewise tried to stoke a paranoia that unconcerned, distant bureaucrats and politicians would decide by stressing narratives of those in extreme circumstances, particularly women who have suffered the crimes of rape or incest. Even for voters who would never choose abortion and who in general support abortion restrictions, the last thing they would want for a girl who has suffered such an atrocity would be to endure heartless bureaucratic, medical and social indifference. Compassion, such advertisements suggested, could lead only to the outcome of abortion. And that worst-case-scenario, they implied, was the issue at stake.
Pro-Lifers must obviously learn from their defeats and respond with clearer, more effective messaging and more powerful narratives. If those trying to defend the lives of unborn children, and to love and help their mothers, allow themselves to be depicted as trying to restrict others’ freedom, then they will almost certainly not turn things around. Pro-Lifers, rather, seek to help others learn to use their freedom to love. Rather than allowing politicians or fellow citizens to be portrayed as the evil ogres making difficult decisions for them, Pro-Lifers must help citizens recognize that what’s really going on is that they are being played by those who would exploit the pain of rape and incest victims to make profits off their abortions.
It’s long overdue for Pro-Lifers to commit effectively to change the narrative by putting forward former teen moms who have endured rape, so that both mother and child can show how happy they are that the mom heroically chose life and how the response to evil is not evil but good. To have those with Downs Syndrome smile and say, “I love life! I deserved to live and am so grateful to my mom for loving me! Please help others like me to survive, too!” To have women who have suffered abortion describe how they were pressured to abort by their boyfriends or pimps and why they are, therefore, voting to help protect other vulnerable women and girls from similar exploitation. To have Pro-Life doctors, nurses, and crisis pregnancy center staff, together with the grateful moms and babies they serve, show how they help people to use their freedom, not for barbaric rugged individualism, but to love.
In response to the abortion advocates’ fear mongering based on a “freedom from government and others,” the Pro-Life movement needs to demonstrate effectively this “freedom for love” that is much more deeply rooted in women’s nature. This is not a slogan or a political strategy as it is the Pro-Life movement’s long-standing practice on the ground. People do not need to take others’ lives in order to be free.
For Catholics, the response to the post-Dobbs losses and the preparation for the ballot initiatives of 2024 must obviously involve prayer, which is always and everywhere the most important things Catholics do. Some evils, moreover, are only remedied by prayer and fasting. The Church needs to pray as if lives depend on it, because they do.
Prayer not only objectively changes things as God responds to our filial pleas, but prayer also changes the subjects who pray. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: how we pray impacts what we believe and the way we live. The more the Church together prays for life, the more Pro-Life Catholics are strengthened to live the Gospel of Life and the more those who are wavering are given the opportunity to grow in the consequences of the faith.
As we approach January 22, the annual Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children, Catholics are called to pray with greater insistence.
One great resource the Church in the United States has, not just for January 22 but throughout the year, are the two settings for “Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life” found in the Roman Missal. Priests are strongly encouraged to use them frequently at daily Mass.
In the opening prayers for the first of those Masses, we thank God who has breathed into us the breath of life as He formed us in our mother’s womb, and ask that we may “remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life.” In the second, we ask God, who has fashioned human lives in His image and likeness, might “awaken in every heart reverence for the work of Your hands and renew among Your people a readiness to nurture and sustain Your precious gift of human life.”
The Church and all her Pro-Life collaborators need that fidelity, trustworthiness, reverence, readiness and perseverance in the years ahead as we seek, in this Dobbs era, to form a culture, electorate, and civilization of life.