Since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973 the media has focused mostly on the pro-life fringes—fire-and-brimstone preachers, or crazies who stalk and kill abortionists—while mainstream pro-lifers quietly began helping pregnant women in trouble by building a grassroots network of crisis pregnancy centers, homes for unwed moms and their babies, post-abortion counseling and retreat centers, and job training and life skills programs.
Despite the media’s Pravda-like censorship of positive pro-life news, these works of mercy have been able, over time, to shift public opinion noticeably to the pro-life side, so much that pro-choice forces felt the need to gather about 200,000 demonstrators in Washington D.C. this past Sunday for a “March for Women’s Lives.”
Of course, there’s another reason for the opinion shift to pro-life—for thirty years abortion has been hurting women, and the effects are showing. Dr. David Reardon, who heads the Elliot Institute, has been studying these effects since the mid-eighties. Along with others, he’s pushed the idea that pro-life, to win, has to be clearly pro-woman too. What’s best for women—that’s the battleground. The pro-choicers know this. Not for nothing did they emphasize “Women’s Lives” when they named their march. And no doubt they’ll continue to personalize the issue as they try to regain lost ground.
Dr. Reardon spoke to GODSPY about the personal side of the abortion issue, and what he believes is the necessary next step to reach pro-choice women with the pro-life message.
GODSPY: David, in your recent booklet Reversing the Gender Gap: Touch the Hearts, Earn the Trust, and Win the Votes of 30 Million Post-Abortive Women, you say that 25% of all women have had at least one abortion, and that most of these women perceive themselves as personally condemned or judged by politicians who take a pro-life position. Can you explain your recommendations for how pro-life candidates can overcome this perception?
DAVID REARDON: The pro-life politician’s sound bite response to the question “What’s your position on abortion” should essentially be: “I’m pro-life, and I’m also concerned about women who are being pushed into having unwanted abortions. I want to help women who are suffering from physical and psychological complications from abortion, and women who are suffering from a sense of loss, and those who feel they aren’t getting enough support for healing and emotional recovery after abortion.”
Our recommendation is to reaffirm your pro-life stand and then become very expansive in describing your concern for the women who are hurt by abortion, and what you’re going to do to help them. That’s because the first reaction from women who’ve had an abortion when they hear you are “pro-life” is fear of judgment. They’re listening for any indication that “you are judging me,” or that “you are condemning me.” To offset this fear, you have to affirm that you understand the pressures that make women have abortions, that you’re not throwing stones, that you want to help them, that you want to help those who have been in that situation find social support in the healing process. These would be the core messages. You have to say something to women other than just “I’m against abortion,” because to them that implies “you’re against those who have abortions, like me.”
How does “Reversing the Agenda Gap” differ from your prior work?
The theme is the same, the emphasis is a little different. I began talking about how abortion hurts women and how that should be the focus of pro-life efforts back in 1986. That’s when I published my first book: Aborted Women: Silent No More. The Elliot Institute started in 1988. In 1996, we published Making Abortion Rare: A Healing Strategy for a Divided Nation. We selected out parts of that book for Reversing the Agenda Gap. We included information that would be most useful for a pro-life candidate, and explained how and why you can talk about the abortion issue in a way that addresses the concerns and needs of post-abortive women. We also conducted a poll to gauge public reaction to this approach. So it’s all been the same general theme, just developed and presented in a different way.
It seems that the emphasis on the judgment issue is a new, innovative twist.
I’m not sure if it’s a new twist. What’s new is the emphasis on helping politicians understand that you can’t assume that people in general – and post-abortive women and men in particular – will assume that you have good or honorable intentions. They will assume, for a variety of reasons discussed in the booklet, that unless you say something that demonstrates that you really do care about them, that you don’t really care about them. They’re going to assume the worst rather than the best. I’m making broad generalizations, but it’s naïve to assume that if I say I’m pro-life, post-abortive women and men will understand that doesn’t mean I’m against them, personally. They don’t understand that. Instead, they need to be assured vocally and often that you are on the side of women as well as their unborn children.
...the first reaction from women who’ve had an abortion when they hear you are “pro-life” is fear of judgment.
Unfortunately, what you typically hear in a pro-life politician’s stump speech is just one line or two to let pro-lifers know that they’re on the pro-life side, and then they avoid the issue. The rule of thumb seems to be that unless you know you’re addressing a purely pro-life audience, don’t even talk about abortion because it’s divisive.
What I’m advising goes against that traditional “avoid the abortion issue” recommendation. I’m saying that your position on abortion – which side you’re on – is going to be known anyway. Every reporter reports it because it’s such a big issue. Since they know your position and it’s such a big issue, talk about it in a big way, in a new way, that people aren’t used to hearing: “I’m against abortion and I’m also going to do all this stuff to help women, those who’ve already had abortions.” That’s new and interesting, and it’s something, for the post-abortive women, where they can say “wow, somebody really cares about me.”
Moreover, the pro-life/pro-woman politician has the freedom of talking directly to the heart, pain, and concerns of women hurting by abortion. The pro-abortion politician can’t do this, because as soon as he admits that some women are having problems with their past abortions, he has already begun to undermine his own position in favor of abortion. So I think it’s a 100% win; it puts the “poor-choice” candidate in a very difficult political situation to handle, and the pro-life/pro-woman candidate is building bridges to voters who might not be otherwise comfortable with a “pro-life only” candidate. This is why I’m advising pro-life politicians that they should no longer follow the old advice and just touch on the abortion issue and move on to less controversial issues. Instead, learn the pro-woman, pro-life language and hit on it hard and often, and I think this approach will pay big dividends on election day. Our poll results show that it will.
Kerry's position is a winner with women only if Bush skirts the abortion issue and fails to show that he understands their pain and the pressures they face.
What’s been the reaction from pro-life politicians so far?
We have had a couple of positive comments from a small number of members of congress and staffers who have seen it, but no feedback yet from anyone who has put it into action. We expect printed copies to be delivered soon, and we'll be sending it out with additional support materials.
This would be a natural fit with President Bush’s compassionate conservative image. I had an article recommending it published in World magazine when he was running in 2000 and sent similar materials to his campaign people at that time, but nothing came from it. No doubt about it though, if Bush took up this message, it would reset the entire tone of the debate.
What does your polling say about women’s perception of abortion?
Of the women who identify themselves as pro-choice, only a minority of them even believe that abortion generally benefits women. It’s interesting that men who identify themselves as pro-choice are much more optimistic than women about how abortion affects women. This reveals that, in a certain sense, women are more realistic in realizing that abortion is an ugly experience – even when they believe it should be readily available. They know it’s not a good thing.
What do you think the impact of Sunday's pro-abortion march will be?
Near term, people see what they want to see. Those who want to take the turnout as evidence of a groundswell of support for abortion will interpret it that way.
How about the impact on pro-life politicians? Do you think it will motivate them to take up your recommendations?
I don’t see pro-life politicians using this as an opportunity to highlight their concern for women hurt by abortion.
John Kerry seems to be going all-out to identify himself with a radical pro-abortion position, more so even than Bill Clinton did. Can you comment on this, and what do you think the effects will be? Is he unknowingly committing political suicide? Or will he get away with it?
If Bush doesn't take an aggressive pro-woman/pro-life stand, Kerry may well get away with it and succeed at convincing women that "I don't judge you, but George Bush does!"
Kerry's position is a winner with women only if Bush skirts the abortion issue and fails to show that he understands their pain and the pressures they face. With the right response, Kerry's poor-choice position can rapidly be turned into a major handicap – the guy who cares more about making pro-abortion lobbyists happy than about protecting women from coerced abortions.
To what extent does external pressure lead women to have abortions?
It depends what you mean by external pressure. If you include situational factors like… “If I don’t have an abortion this guy, who I don’t want in my life, will still be in my life,” well that’s sort of an external, or circumstantial, pressure. If you include all those, I would say it’s 80-90%. But if you’re talking about explicit pressure from other people who are pushing for the abortion, our polls show that anywhere from 30-50% of abortions are primarily driven by other people recommending, or clearly harassing or forcing women to abort. There’s a continuum in most cases of lack of support for childbirth and plenty of signals to the woman: this is what you should do. This ranges from making her feel alone – it’s a very frightening thing to be told by your parents, boyfriend, or others, "If you do this you are on your own"— to, in the more extreme cases, coercion, threats, even beatings at the other end of the scale.
Mandatory counseling before and after an abortion seems like an obvious issue. Why haven’t pro-life politicians talked more about incremental measures to make abortion rare by making doctors liable for problems during or after abortions?
Part of it, I think, is Bill Clinton; that was his phrase – “making abortion rare.” He tapped into the public sentiment when he said he believed abortion should be safe, legal and rare. The implication was that making it legal makes it safe – my spin on it is that if you want to make it rare, try to make it safe by holding the abortionist accountable, because if he had to provide only safe abortions he wouldn’t do any because abortion is inherently dangerous. Our model legislation would require doctors to screen for risk factors and have a reasonable recommendation as to why they believe abortion is beneficial to the women, but there’s no evidence of benefit and there’s all kinds of evidence of harm.
For instance, we know that 70% of women going in to abortion clinics believe it’s morally wrong. They’re acting against their conscience because of the pressures they face. We know, based on established research, that these women are more likely to experience problems afterwards. The abortion clinics are getting away with not even screening for that, because they don’t want to know anything, they just want to do the abortion and say goodbye, good luck. If abortionists were held properly accountable for making good medical recommendations they wouldn’t be able to do abortions.
When it’s okay to admit having had a past abortion, just as it’s okay to admit being alcoholic and working on it, that’s the kind of social shift we’re working towards.
I think that after years of effort these ideas are percolating to the surface, starting to get more discussion. For instance, in South Dakota, where they tried to enact an abortion ban, the original language just defined that life begins at conception. Through our intervention we succeeded in getting them to add the finding of fact that abortion is also harmful to women, that it increases the risk of death, and physical and psychological problems. That was included as one of the findings of fact. Also, pro-life groups in Missouri last year succeeded in passing a law implementing our suggestion that requires abortionists to screen for risk factors. That law is being challenged in the courts right now, but we’re making some headway.
In general though, risk information and making doctors liable has not moved to the front burner of pro-life initiatives. I think the thing we’re struggling with most is inertia. People on the pro-life side, and especially pro-life politicians, already have established ways of thinking and talking about the abortion issue. And they have seen that the message they’ve been using works somewhat, because they got elected, so there’s a fear of experimenting with something new. That’s one reason we did the poll, to show that if you understand the woman’s psychology, and you look at the poll information, it’s possible to build up confidence that a new message will work better. But it’s easy for people to stick to an old message because they’re used to it.
With the Bush administration, from the beginning it was evident that his position was: state you’re pro-life and say no more. I think the political strategy was, let pro-lifers know that I’m the one to vote for, but we’re not going to dwell on this because we want to talk about things that are less divisive. But the very fact that they don’t want to talk about it implies an awareness that this is a deep emotional issue for people, so the way to deal with it isn’t to ignore the deep emotional issue but to tap into it and show people you’re on their side.
The Catholic Church has been pretty good at communicating the message “Neither do I condemn you” to women.
I think the Church has quite a way to go yet, but by comparison the Church is light years ahead of politicians in making those messages clear to women.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, the Pope directly addressed women who’ve had abortions.
We were very pleased when we saw what the Pope had written. He did it with some advice from people who’d been involved in post-abortion ministry, and he made clear that the Church was not standing opposed to women who’d had abortions, but that it was reaching out and drawing them in to reassure them of God’s willingness to heal and forgive. It was a finely crafted statement that does not in any way lessen the moral truth about abortion yet at the same time is a full expression of the mercy the Church is here to bring.
Keeping those things in balance is always important but we haven’t even attempted this in the political arena. I think that on all sides of the issue, people respect the pro-life position for its moral integrity. But many still reject this “moral idealism” because they think it’s not pragmatic, or they may think it ignores women, or whatever. But the other side is not going to arm wrestle over which side is protecting the baby – they’ve given us that. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t arm wrestle with them over which side is really the one that cares about women. We need to show the public that we’re the ones who are really going to offer women alternatives; we’re the ones who are really going to help women who’ve had abortions find healing, so we’re the pro-woman, pro-life party. It’s the poor-choice advocates who are the ones supporting population control at the expense of women, it’s the poor-choicers who are trying to suppress welfare roles by paying for public abortions even though these abortions are going to hurt women and cause low income women to have psychological problems, and higher death rates, and more reproductive problems. It’s the poor-choicers who pretend abortion is a good choice who are ignoring the real needs and concerns of women. Women deserve better than abortion, and we’re the side that is trying to help women avoid abortions and is trying to help women after they’ve had abortions. We need to lay out the case that we’re on the side of women and the pro-abortion, poor-choice side is only pretending to care about women because they want to use abortion as a tool of social engineering or just to line their pockets.
I think Germaine Greer and some other feminists are beginning to recognize that abortion is a two-edged sword that’s being used against women.
To those pro-choice politicians who say they really care about women, we’re going to challenge them – are you going to support laws to protect women from being pressured into unwanted abortions? And if they say yes – good. Let’s get some laws passed to do this. But if they’re not, let’s expose the fact that they care more about protecting the abortion industry than they care about protecting women. We need to raise the stakes about who’s going to protect women.
I’m sure the non-judgmental stance might seem soft to some people, but it’s obviously grounded in orthodox Christianity, because from a Christian perspective, God loved us first. He forgave us first, and that’s the paradox that elicits conversion…
Yes, it’s clear that God alone judges, and we need to lay the groundwork for repentance and conversion. And one way to lay that groundwork is to lower the fear of rejection and condemnation by making clear that we are not seeking to be prosecutors or accusers. While we reject the morality of abortion as an act, we will never cease offering our love and prayers to those who have been involved in this act.
One way to neutralize the fear of accusations is for the perceived accuser to instead offer an apology instead of an indictment. We can do this by admitting our own mistakes, similar to what the Church did at the start of the new millenium. For example, pro-life politicians could come out and say: “We’ve always been advocating to protect human life, and that’s the right thing to do, but we haven’t always conveyed this message of understanding of why women have abortions. We haven’t always conveyed our understanding of the belief that God forgives, and we don’t stand in judgment of these women, that we oppose the act and not the person.” That is a message that has never been clear to post-abortive women and men. And we do bear fault for failing to convey this distinction.
To the challenge “Are you abandoning your pro-life principles?” we answer no, but we’re trying to be more clear about our pro-woman principles. We recognize that we haven’t done enough to promote post-abortion healing, for example. That’s the kind of message that makes it easier for a post-abortive woman to listen to such an advocate. Obviously, we want everyone to be converted, and to come to know the Lord, and live in joy, but we don’t make that a precondition for showing mercy.
Some people say only after you convert, then you’re one of us. But we need to have an attitude of compassion and understanding before the conversion because that is itself often the key to conversion. You have to experience love before you can give love, before you can trust love. So the experience of seeing that the pro-life politician is on my side, and isn’t throwing stones at me, doesn’t mean that the woman has suddenly found healing, it just means that the stumbling block that she saw in this politician, who appeared to be judgmental, has been removed, or at least lowered, and that improves the chances that she can feel socially accepted.
I’ve been saying for 20 years that we'll know that we’ve achieved a necessary social shift, when it will be inevitable that abortion will come to an end, when a movie actress can sit down next to Jay Leno or David Letterman and say “I had an abortion; it’s the worst thing I ever did, the worst decision I ever made in my life. But I’ve been through a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat and now I’m healed and living in joy again,” and the audience automatically knows to clap and be supportive, just like they do when someone says I went to the Betty Ford clinic, where you can admit a flaw and people are supportive of the fact that you are trying to turn your life around. But right now, there would be no clapping from the audience because people would be thinking: “Huh? Post-abortion healing? How am I supposed to respond to that?”
The so-called empowerment of women through abortion is a shell game. It actually does much more to disempower women.
When it’s okay to admit having had a past abortion, just as it’s okay to admit being alcoholic and working on it, that’s the kind of social shift we’re working towards. We can’t get there until the politicians and pro-life spokespeople and others start laying out the social expectation that you can talk about your past abortion and we’re not going to throw stones; we understand.
A lot of positive trends are evident: the number of abortions is falling, legislative victories, public opinion moving pro-life... but are you seeing any problem situations, other areas that are getting worse, such as coerced abortions related to sexual trafficking, prostitution, porn, etc?
We continue to hear stories of high-pressure, coerced abortions out of Hollywood, for example. Back before abortion was legalized one of the studios had an abortionist on staff or retainer where they would send actresses. Jennifer O’Neil has talked about the problem of the pressure that exists in the entertainment industry to keep the product, so to speak, a sexy woman, still looking the part, because once she’s pregnant her sex appeal is, from her employer's perspective, reduced.
What about statutory rape and incest? NY Times reporter David Shipler, in his recent book on the working poor, cites sexual abuse of young girls as a huge but underpublicized problem. Is the abortion industry enabling these crimes, and are they vulnerable?
Life Dynamics has been pushing that angle, but many other pro-life groups want to push other approaches so are failing to reinforce this important issue. Also, some pregnancy center directors may be uncertain if they have been violating the law by failing to report cases where they are helping underage girls who are pregnant. They may be concerned that a big push to prosecute the abortion clinics may also include a push to go after pregnancy centers that fail to report possible cases of statutory rape or incest.
Our culture does seem to have a huge vested interest in abortion – I call it the sexual-commercial complex – a vested interest in the continual excitement of libidos, which requires abortion as a safety valve.
Molly Kelly said once that kids today see more temptation on billboards than my grandfather did on Friday night when he went into town looking for trouble. That was an age when it was hard to find titillation, and now it’s everywhere. It is just shoved down our throats right and left.
Despite the overall decrease in abortions, with the growth of internet porn and men’s magazines like Maxim and FHM, I’ve got to believe that pressures from men for women to have abortions has to be increasing?
The idea that sex is all about self-gratification is strongly reinforced by the 'Playboy' mentality. Despite every effort to suppress both the unitive and procreative aspects of sex, recreational sex causes problems and woman get hurt; men do too of course, but it does always seem like women get hurt more.
I think Germaine Greer and some other feminists are beginning to recognize that abortion is a two-edged sword that’s being used against women. There’s no doubt that’s happening. That’s one of the most interesting poll results – coerced abortions. It hasn’t been a public issue; politicians have failed to make it public; pro-life groups have failed to make it a public issue. But despite that there’s a sense among the public that this must be occurring fairly often when you bring it up, so why aren’t we making a case out of it?
For instance, a clinic security guard was once asked if pro-life protestors were a threat to the women going to the clinic. He said no, he thought the bigger threat were the women’s boyfriends, because sometimes these boyfriends will grab and push and shove the girl who doesn’t want to go in there. The number one cause of death for pregnant women is homicide – violent death, because unwanting men will abuse the woman who won’t have an abortion. So in how many other cases did the woman have to give in and have the abortion?
Have you seen any receptivity on the part of domestic violence groups to deal with coerced abortions?
Not yet. To the degree that these groups are dominated by feminist influences, they will likely dodge the issue by keeping quiet. I don't expect them to come forward and deny that there is a link, however, they know there is, and they wouldn't want to outrage their clients with a stupid denial.
Still, when you put all this together it’s clear that Pro-Life should be a feminist issue.
Yes, it should, and Feminists for Life have been preaching this since at least the early 80’s. The so-called empowerment of women through abortion is a shell game. It actually does much more to disempower women.
From the perspective of pure personal autonomy – aside from morality – for the more independent, wealthy, idealized feminist who is very self-assertive in what she wants and what she’s going to do, abortion can be an empowering thing. In the sense that she gets to make up her own mind what’s going to happen, in terms of being able to exercise her own will, yes, easy access to abortion helps her to exercise her own will.
People operating from that mindset imagine that’s the case for all women – unless they’re “oppressed.” But they forget that these “oppressed” women represent the majority of the world’s women and most of them want to have children; they want to have families. They’re less interested in careers than in family. Yet these women are the ones who are forced to have unwanted abortions because of the demands of husbands, boyfriends, families and others, and these women are often more dependent on relationships and cave in when the people close to them say we’re withdrawing all support from you if you don’t do this. Some feminists will sneer at these women for not being independent enough. But the reality is that there are a lot of women out there who are victims of intimidation, beatings, abuse, because they won’t have abortions or don’t have them fast enough.
The progressive case against abortion has to be made, it’s got to be more than just Nat Hentoff doing it.
Once you go down this path, you quickly get to population control and the eugenics theme: the strong vs. the weak.
Well, there was a pro-life activist who interviewed people outside an abortion clinic who were pro-choice, and asked them what they thought about forced abortions in China. He said the answers were about 50-50 – half said that was outrageous, because they really cared about women. The other half rationalized it, saying, well you know they have population control problems. And that’s very telling.
That’s part of the problem: there are people who have a social engineering mentality who say abortion is necessary control the quantity and quality of people born into the world. It’s a crude tool, but even if we break a few eggs in the process it is necessary to use it if we are ever to create a utopia here on earth. If the woman doesn’t want to have an abortion and people are pressuring her to have one, she may not be the kind of woman we (the social engineers) want to have a baby anyway. So, the fact that she’s going to suffer afterwards isn’t that important from a global perspective because at least her baby didn’t come into the world and become another dysfunctional woman like her.
The social engineering mindset is the real enemy of life. These utopians are not truly focused on expanding women’s choices. As one author has described them, these social engineers are “Olympians” who want to create a whole new society based on survival of the strongest and wisest, people like themselves, and they need abortion to do it.