The Failed Personhood Agenda: My Message to the Pro-Life Movement
As we enter a new year, I want to offer some thoughts on both recent events pertaining to the struggle to roll back abortion and the Culture of Death, as well as the historical significance of these ongoing efforts. In a sense, I will be delivering first the somewhat bad news, but then the encouragingly good news.
The disappointment lies in the political defeats of the 2010 election season, though to be quite honest, I and many others fully anticipated these defeats. In Nevada, Missouri, California, Florida and Montana, and there may be other instances I’m not aware of, propositions that would establish that life begins at conception (known as “personhood” or “human life” initiatives/amendments) failed to even appear on the ballot. Activists could not obtain the required number of signatures in these states.
The one personhood/human life amendment that did make it to the ballot, Colorado’s Proposition 62, was rejected by 70% of the voters in that state. One bright spot was to be found in Alaska, where a parental notification measure was passed with 55% of the vote. These defeats echo a similar wave of defeats suffered in 2008 across several states. Though this strategy has obviously failed, in almost every instance pro-life activists are preparing for another round of personhood propositions in 2012.
Please understand that I have nothing but admiration and respect for the pro-life activists who engage in these campaigns. They give up time and money to participate in the greatest moral cause of our generation, and for that alone they are to be commended.
But it is now time for the leaders and activists in the pro-life movement to reject the “personhood” ballot initiative movement. These efforts have failed more than once, they have diverted scarce financial, political and human capital away from more realistic pursuits, and the continued defeats could easily lead to a chain-reaction of demoralization within and desertion from the pro-life ranks.
The pro-life movement is unique in all of politics in that it is one of the few movements I have ever come across in which disagreements do not lead to splits, rivalries, and bitter hatreds among the different groups participating in it. While human nature remains ever-flawed and tensions can and will arise in any movement, compared to what I have seen among socialists, libertarians, distributists and other ideological groupings, the pro-life movement has been able to maintain a much more coherent approach to politics and ideology.
This does not surprise me. For the pro-life movement is not divided between people who swear allegiance to one thinker, and others who worship another. There are few if any personality cults. This is because the pro-life ideology does not derive from any political or literary genius of the last 200 years. There are no Trotskys, Rands, or Chestertons that everyone’s thoughts need to be measured against to determine how ideologically pure or deviant they are. We are united on one simple principle: that human life, from conception to natural death, is sacred and endowed with inalienable rights, and therefore unborn human beings deserve the same basic protections under the law as born human beings. Whatever divisions over tactics and strategy do exist cannot detract from this basic principle in the way that divergent philosophical and personal views can cripple many other political movements.
But 40 years, while not particularly long in the big historical picture, can seem like 40 centuries when literally millions of lives are at stake and apparently little progress is made. Some of the same old tactical debates that have occupied other movements, such as the ones I mentioned above, do exist within the pro-life movement. The most frequently encountered is the old “incrementalism vs. insurrection” debate, for lack of a better term for the latter. Socialists would divide over the question: do we need a violent revolution, or should we try to influence policies over time? Revolution, or reform? Other ideological camps have similar disagreements.
In the pro-life movement, the prospect of violent revolution – no matter what Planned Parenthood hysterically puts out in its mass emails – has always been limited to a very small and mostly unheard from fringe. I shy away from declaring, as a good little boy in our modern society ought, that innocent human life is not worth using violence to defend. It is, and I won’t say otherwise. Certainly if liberty and taxes were worth it for the American founders, it isn’t crazy or deranged to say it would be in the case of innocent unborn children.
At the same time, the abortion situation is quite unique, and for many reasons I don’t think I need to spell out right here, I do not believe that a violent insurrection against the state is necessary, nor do I think it would result in anything good. So to be clear, I reject this strategy, and so does 99% of the pro-life movement. No need to report any of us to Big Sis Janet Napolitano, though anyone involved in the movement publicly is surely already on a list, given that the federal government views them as potential or already low-level terrorists.
So what could the great strategy debate possibly be about? To be honest, until this personhood agenda I didn’t think there was one. What alternative to “incrementalism” could there possibly be besides a revolution that no one wants? It appears that some folks think that they can do an end-run around Roe v. Wade with these personhood ballot measures, and not even a few years of overwhelming and repeated defeats will deter them. Though I don’t think they consciously see it this way, what many of these supporters want is a short-cut to the Culture of Life through the ballot box. It can’t happen that way, and it won’t happen that way.
It may be helpful, though, to distinguish between two kinds of “incrementalism.” The first kind is the kind that has frustrated the energetic and youthful pro-life base, those most likely to draft and support these personhood initiatives. It’s the old “continue to support the GOP with all your heart and soul” message. The rejoinder is that we’ve been waiting on the GOP to “do something” for 40 years and it hasn’t happened. Moreover a lot of GOP politicians talk the pro-life talk, but act very differently once they get elected or once the cameras are off, becoming indifferent or even stabbing the movement in the back.
Some of that is beginning to change, which is good news; the Tea Party sent a clear message about the pro-life values it expects GOP candidates who want its endorsement to hold. Some of the comments made by certain Tea Party leaders who claim to be pro-life have been perplexing and downright stupid in my opinion, but the grassroots appear to be solidly pro-life. This was inevitable, as I always knew, because it just isn’t possible to have a movement dedicated to something like fiscal responsibility (respectable but boring) remain energetic and relevant in any epoch.
The next kind of incrementalism is a much different kind, one that doesn’t depend upon politicians as much as it does the voters themselves. I am referring to a ballot measure approach – combined with the provenly effective approach of working to elect pro-life state legislators who can get things done – that aims at the weak points of the abortion industry instead of trying to win the grand prize with one easy vote on personhood (a topic I don’t think most voters really understand). There’s a reason why Alaska’s parental notification measure passed while every personhood initiative fails, and we have to understand a) what that reason is and b) why we shouldn’t pout because it doesn’t seem like enough.
The reason why it passed is the reason why similar measures pass or come close to passing in other states: it meets the skeptical, uninformed, and psychologically (as distinct from politically) conservative voting mass half-way. Radical changes frighten most people, and revolutions are not common, every-day occurrences. Even when they occur the majority is rarely with the revolutionaries, who rely on superior tactics and strategies to defeat larger, clumsier foes.
Roe was foisted upon the American public by an out-of-control judiciary based upon a dubious reading of the Constitution; no one voted on it, and no one but the radical feminists and communists wanted it (which is why they had to lie, cheat, and subvert in order to get it, all acceptable when done for the revolutionary cause). But it became the status quo and a significant, though I believe shrinking, segment of the electorate wishes to preserve it. Another significant segment sees it as something undesirable but nonetheless a “necessary evil”, or a “complex issue” that they can’t figure out because they don’t want to.
There are even plenty of self-identified pro-lifers, perhaps a majority, who don’t politically prioritize abortion, who believe that it is of somewhat lesser importance than the economy or national defense or some other issue. The percentage of the electorate that is not only pro-life, but considers abortion to be the most important issue of our time, is small. But that does not mean that it can have no influence over the political process, as it clearly does.
The ballot measure approach that focuses on things such as parental notification/consent, waiting periods, disclaimers, mandatory information, federal or state funding, and things of that nature is far more acceptable to most of these people for almost no other reason than that it is clearly understood and it is not radical.
And this brings me to the second point: these are not small victories. If a dozen of these types of amendments were to pass in an election year, the damage done to the abortion industry would be severe. It would cost it financially, but more important it would cost them in terms of reputation, influence and morale. The slightest move towards pro-life positions or policies by the public sends these butchers into a panic and a frenzy; the emails, blogs, editorials, all bemoan and bewail growing hostility to “choice.”
Anything that makes these people panic, which in turn makes them stupid and more prone to errors and blunders, is worth the effort. And you have the power to do it, my friends – is they, and not you, are who are showing signs of age and weariness, you and not they who are attracting more young people to their cause.
Combined with the ever-useful and necessary strategy of sidewalk counseling, public prayer, public protest, displays and events on campuses and at other venues, and so on, these ballot measures would keep the momentum flowing in the pro-life direction. And to be clear, it is going our way for the most part, if raw poll numbers and the influence of the Tea Party are considered. But this could end in short order if all we have to show for the bulk of our efforts are defeated initiatives. This sends the signal to everyone, from our dedicated enemies to our fair-weathered supporters, that we have lost the ability to make a difference and that our cause is becoming hopeless. On the other hand, every small victory indicates to the same people that we are capable of winning the long war of attrition and that it might even go more quickly if more people get off the fence and join the fight.
So as I hope my readers will see, this is not mere opportunism. Every victory counts because every victory will inspire and attract more people to the cause. That is the true victory, more so than what little may be done by a parental notification law. And every victory makes the enemy weaker, sloppier, and more desperate.
Perhaps one day we will be poised to strike with more far-reaching measures. For those who don’t like to hear “one day”, who want it now, I say to you that you cannot wish a Culture of Life into existence, you cannot legislate it into existence either. The people don’t sign your petitions or vote for your measures because they aren’t on your side. You’re at point Z, and they’re still at point A or B or M or Q. Now you can either give up on the people, in which case you’re pretty much out of options, or you can meet them where they are at with measures they can accept.
So to conclude: I agree with those who don’t want to wait for a GOP politician to fix this problem, who want to take the case directly to the voters. But I disagree with those who are pushing the human life amendments on tactical and strategic grounds, because they have so clearly and obviously failed for reasons that any student of the American political scene could have told them well in advance. It’s time to get smart and stay aggressive. There’s no reason we can’t be both.
Take comfort in this final thought: you, in the pro-life movement, are the most glaring and incomprehensible obstacle to the progressive agenda that the radical left has ever seen. They thought the sexual revolution, which celebrated divorce, fornication, homosexuality, and every other sexual sin, would sweep you into the ash heap of history. They thought that polite and now politically correct opinion would render you silent through shame and infest all of your children with their malicious doctrines – that at best you would be confined to old men and women nearing their final days and a few homeschooled rural fanatics. They thought that the youth of the future would unhesitatingly embrace and preserve with all of their might the gains of their glorious revolution against the family, Christianity, and “inconvenient” lives. That you’ve come this far has upset their paradigm, their implicit or explicit historical materialist (Marxist) view of history as steady “progression” towards their hedonistic and egalitarian utopia. Your existence frightens and confuses many of them. Your power is greater than you know. If you but wield it as rationally as you do aggressively, you will topple the entire structure.