Report: Roe V. Wade at 30
so entrenched in our culture that it will always exist? Christian
leaders don’t think so
John W. Kennedy
21-year-old Norma McCorvey, unmarried and pregnant for the third
time, didn’t want another baby. But, under Texas law, she
could only obtain an abortion if the pregnancy endangered her
life. Desperately seeking a solution, McCorvey claimed she had
been raped and agreed to become plaintiff Jane Roe in an abortion-rights
organization’s challenge to the Texas statute.
never had the abortion because the case slowly wound its way up
the legal ladder. But the fallout from her fabrication has been
staggering. Thirty years ago, on January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme
Court declared 7-2 in Roe v. Wade that women have a constitutional
“right” to abortion. The legacy of that decision is
42 million babies in this country legally killed during the past
the high court ruled that no state could forbid abortion any time
before birth if a physician determined it necessary to preserve
“the life or health” of the mother. Doe v. Bolton,
a companion case, expanded “health” to include a woman’s
emotional or psychological well-being. In 1973, only four states
allowed abortion on demand, while just 13 others provided for
a termination in cases of rape, incest or deformity of the child.
Roe v. Wade came down no one was really expecting it,
including the pro-abortion people,” says Wanda Franz, 59,
president of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington,
D.C., since 1991. “It came as a shock to find we suddenly
had abortion on demand for nine months. We really were not prepared
for something so sweeping.”
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30 years ago no national pro-life organizations existed and few
evangelical denominations had articulated a statement on abortion.
Overall public opinion on the issue has varied little. According
to the Gallup Organization, 22 percent of Americans believe abortion
should be illegal in all circumstances, 25 percent say it should
be lawful in all situations and 51 percent think it should be
legal under certain conditions. The figures are virtually identical
to when Gallup first polled about the issue in 1975.
paradox in America is that most people believe abortion is murder,
but they also believe that a woman must have a “right to
after more than a generation of relying on its legality, many
concede that abortion is so entrenched as a part of American culture
that it is impossible to imagine it not being an option.
abortion rights appear entrenched as well. Proposed federal and
state laws in recent years haven’t been designed to ban
abortion itself, but rather restrict it tangentially, such as
prohibiting parents from accompanying a teen across state lines
for the termination of pregnancy.
the stalemate can be disheartening, especially when activist courts
have stymied legislative action.
are weary of political battles and feeling like they’re
not seeing any change,” says Paige Comstock Cunningham,
46, a Chicago lawyer active in the national pro-life movement
since 1980. “Public opinion is generally pro-life. It’s
just not reflected in the law of the land and how the issue is
addressed in the public square.”
Congress passed a bill banning partial-birth abortion twice, but
President Clinton vetoed both of them. Subsequently, 30 state
legislatures enacted partial-birth abortion bans only to be invalidated
by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 5-4 Stenberg v. Carhart
ruling in 2000. The court declared that the Nebraska law on which
the case had its origin failed to allow an exemption to protect
the health of the mother.
In the early years, pro-lifers emphasized the rights of the unborn,
figuring that public opinion would sway once the populace understood
an abortion ended a baby’s life. But a woman’s “right
to choose” remains paramount in the minds of many. Subsequently,
the pro-life movement splintered over what is the most effective
means to fight abortion.
pro-lifers fall into three broad categories: hard-liners, negotiators
and alternative-service providers. Hard-liners, who include protesters
in front of clinics, say abortion is always wrong and there can
be no compromise. Negotiators, who encompass most pro-life political
groups, believe concessions must be made to achieve any legislative
progress. The third group, pregnancy care centers, are working
on a practical level to keep babies alive.
Flip Benham, 54, has been a leader in the national rescue movement
for 14 years. As a Free Methodist pastor in 1984, Benham started
a crisis pregnancy center at his Texas church. But Benham says
his approach to opposing abortion changed four years later when
he saw an 80-year-old woman being arrested by police and placed
in a paddy wagon. “She laid down in front of an abortion
mill and lived out her theology with action rather than in theory,”
believes right-to-life organizations have compromised too much,
welcoming non-Christians as members and conceding exceptions for
rape and incest.
Franz says pro-life organizations have the same goals as the rescue
movement — saving babies — but they are more realistic.
She says pro-lifers must work within the culture in order to change
laws incrementally. An emotional appeal outside an abortion facility
won’t change the law, save lives or prevent future abortions,
believes that showing pictures of aborted fetuses confronts the
truth and changes viewpoints. “Thousands of women outside
abortion mills have changed their mind because someone has stood
in the gap and given them a real choice,” Benham says. “If
a Christian is not there to help, no one is.”
in fact, was an influence in Norma McCorvey’s conversion
to both Christianity and the pro-life cause in 1995. McCorvey
quit working at an abortion facility in North Dallas after conversing
daily with Benham, who had an office next door.
days many Christians have determined that the only way to change
minds is to change hearts, and the best way to do that is to show
compassion to pregnant mothers contemplating abortion.
30, director of the Grace Elliott Center, a pregnancy care center
at Trinity Chapel Assembly of God in Compton, Calif., says pro-lifers
who display large posters of dismembered fetuses and shout at
women going into abortion facilities are counterproductive because
the message is condemnatory.
Just as the pro-life movement has been divided, so has the church.
Most mainline Protestant groups switched to a pro-abortion stance
in the early 1970s.
sad that people who claim to be Christians cannot see how abortion
deforms the very nature of our faith,” Franz says. “The
whole idea of destroying a human should be repelling.”
of God is one of only nine denominations to oppose abortion except
in cases when the mother’s life is in danger, joining such
groups as Catholics, Southern Baptists and the Lutheran Church-Missouri
Synod. The Fellowship in 1985 adopted a statement that declares,
“Even though abortion on demand has been legalized, it is
still immoral and sinful.”
contends that Satan fiercely opposes the topic of abortion being
preached. “The enemy will allow us to evangelize, feed the
poor, experience huge church growth and even win people to Christ,
as long as we don’t deal with an issue like this,”
he says. Benham says churches generally ignore abortion, unless
it is mentioned on Sanctity of Life Sunday. While many pro-lifers
lay the blame at the doorstep of abortion-rights groups, Benham
says an ineffective church is the real problem.
congregations don’t want to politicize the pulpit, but Hilliard
says another reason the topic is avoided in many churches is because
it hits close to home with members in the pews.
says pastors are apprehensive about addressing the topic because
many men and women in a typical Christian congregation have been
party to an abortion. But rather than arouse feelings of guilt
and shame, Hilliard says abortion sermons can point to the grace
offered by Christ. “If more pastors would preach a message
of forgiveness and reconciliation, many women who have had abortions
would share their testimonies with young girls,” Hilliard
where sin is judged by external appearances, some unmarried pregnant
girls have chosen abortion rather than carrying the baby to term.
And, girls may determine that a first trimester abortion is a
better alternative than an illegitimate birth. An estimated 18
percent of females who obtain an abortion, or 234,000 annually,
identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, in the latest
figures available from the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Another
19 percent are performed on women who call themselves Protestant.
— and defeats
The good news is that the number of abortions continues to decline,
especially among adolescents. According to the Alan Guttmacher
Institute, which is a Planned Parenthood affiliate, the abortion
rate fell 11 percent between 1994 and 2000, to 21 abortions for
every 1,000 women of childbearing age. The rate for girls 15 to
17 plummeted 39 percent, to 15 abortions per 1,000 girls. AGI
says the number of yearly abortions has dropped to 1.3 million
after reaching a high of 1.6 million in 1990.
Franz believes the reason for the drop is parental consent and
notification laws, which have been passed by 35 states, although
they are not in effect in 10 of those states because of legal
challenges. Pro-lifers also have been instrumental in convincing
18 state legislatures to pass 24-hour informed consent bills.
These laws ensure that a woman has the right to know the medical
risks associated with abortion, alternatives to the procedure
and facts about fetal development before making a decision.
believe the best opportunity since Roe to restrict abortion happened
in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Abortion became a galvanizing
issue in 1988 when police arrested 4,000 peaceful protesters in
Atlanta. Again in 1991, during a 47-day “summer of mercy”
in Wichita, Kan., police arrested 2,700 people blocking access
to abortion facilities.
the tide turned.
began threatening demonstrators with hefty fines and lengthy jail
terms. The media portrayed participants as violent bigots, even
though articulate and intelligent women such as Cunningham, Franz
and Hilliard belie that image.
believes the nation was on the cusp of limiting abortion when
Christians — and churches — abandoned the rescue movement
because they didn’t want to risk losing property and going
the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in Planned Parenthood v.
Casey. Three decades ago justices based Roe on a
“right” to privacy, even though no such freedom is
guaranteed in the Constitution. In an effort to devise a constitutional
basis for abortion, Casey declares the government has a liberty
interest in guaranteeing it. In a 5-4 opinion, the court decreed
that states couldn’t create an “undue burden”
limiting a woman’s access to abortion.
opinion is one of the most blatant examples of postmodern reasoning,”
of two abortionists by David Gunn and Paul Hill in 1993 only inflamed
abortion-rights groups in their quest for more protections. Congress
in 1994 obliged, passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances
Act (FACE), in which first-time offenders convicted of “interfering
with” or “intimidating” those entering a clinic
can be fined $10,000 or sentenced to six months in jail.
in the rescue movement distanced themselves from isolated cases
of loners bombing and shooting at clinics. “Jesus didn’t
come with a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a dagger between
His teeth ready to wipe out the Pharisees,” Benham says.
“In God’s economy, the end never justifies the means.”
FACE makes no distinction between a peaceful protester and a bomber.
The government seized Benham’s financial accounts, computers
and other equipment.
1994, a 6-3 Supreme Court decision upheld the legality of buffer
zones around abortion facilities, shutting down demonstrations
at clinics. Several cities passed more prohibitive ordinances
that, in effect, ended sidewalk counseling.
Supreme Court is reviewing NOW v. Scheidler this term,
a case that has been in the courts since 1986. Joseph Scheidler,
who heads a peaceful pro-life organization in Chicago, is accused
under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of
protest activities under a law usually invoked against mobsters
and extortionists. Scheidler could be forced to pay damages to
abortion facilities as a price for exercising free speech.
For many American churches, abortion has fallen off the radar
screen as an important issue. A Barna Research survey last March
indicated that less than one-half of one percent of Americans
considered abortion among the five most serious issues facing
the country. Barna reported that abortion is a hot-button issue
for a “relatively chosen few” and “most Americans
either yawn or cringe” when it’s discussed.
don’t understand what the courts have done, or if they do
they don’t see any personal connection of why they should
care,” Cunningham laments.
rights have become the litmus test in federal judicial nominations.
In the past two years, Democratic leadership has made certain
that only nominees vowing to uphold abortion rights emerge from
the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate leadership also prevented
a vote on a new Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act last year, even
though the House passed it decisively in July. The new makeup
of the Senate likely will end a logjam on such abortion legislation
and judicial appointments.
believes the partial-birth abortion debate has made a key impact
on swaying public opinion. During a partial-birth abortion, also
known as dilation and extraction, the abortionist stabs scissors
into the base of the baby’s skull after partial delivery,
then suctions out the brain. A Gallup poll in July indicated that
63 percent of Americans favored legislation banning the procedure.
In August, President Bush signed the Born-Alive Infants Protection
Act, which guarantees life to an infant born alive during an abortion.
rights groups clearly are concerned by the shrinking availability
of the procedure. In 1991, a woman or girl could obtain an abortion
at more than 2,000 locations in this country. Now there are less
New York public hospitals began ordering that abortion training
be a part of the required curriculum for obstetric and gynecology
residents in July, the number of schools teaching abortions has
dropped 57 percent in the past 15 years.
that Mifeprex, the abortion-inducing drug formerly called RU-486,
would reduce the number of surgical abortions. But since its legal
sale began in 2000, few women have tried the drug because of potential
complications and the requirement of three doctor visits in a
A decade ago, Trinity Chapel in Compton, Calif., opened a pregnancy
care center when Pastor Eddie Robinson realized that Planned Parenthood
had strategically placed clinics in the community, which is 90
percent Hispanic and black.
Elliott Center offers free pregnancy testing and counseling, pregnancy
classes, food and infant clothing. “Our goal is not only
to give a woman an option besides abortion, but to meet other
needs as well,” says Director Tera Hilliard. “We don’t
believe you can tell someone, ‘God said it’s wrong
for you to have an abortion,’ and leave it at that.”
Eight volunteers, all from Trinity, do the trained counseling.
have found that caring for the mother is the most effective means
of changing attitudes. More than 1 million women and girls receive
help annually at the nation’s 3,000 Christian-based care
centers. Today, most pregnancy centers have photos and plastic
models of the fetus at different stages rather than graphic videos
and pictures of an abortion.
as evangelicals look to the future after 30 years of unrestricted
abortion, strategies differ on how to turn it around.
Roe v. Wade remains the major obstacle. “It’s
a setback to know we have failed to save children who could have
been saved,” she says.
Franz believes, Americans will realize that the slippery slope
of abortion leads to killing the elderly and disabled. “We
want to reverse Roe v. Wade and return to a culture where
every person is respected,” she says. She believes the key
is electing pro-life presidents who appoint pro-life judicial
nominees. In the short term, the National Right to Life Committee
is hoping for partial-birth abortion restrictions that will pass
both congressional and judicial muster.
is working to pass right-to-conscience legislation so that Christian
medical students won’t be forced to participate in abortion
training in schools.
says Christians need to pay more than lip service to their pro-life
views. “The battle will be won in the streets; it’s
not being won in the legislative venues,” he declares. “We’re
in a period of wandering in the desert. Abortion would come to
an end in America in six months if the church makes up her mind
to bring it to an end. We can’t expect the president, the
Congress or the Supreme Court to solve the problem.”
realizes, too, that sin will always be with us and that laws by
themselves won’t eradicate immoral behavior. She anticipates
that the fight may be a lengthy one. “Although we may be
tired, we will not grow weary in doing good,” Cunningham
says. With a Supreme Court that won’t even declare partial-birth
abortion illegal, Cunningham believes a constitutional amendment
may be the only way to eventually reverse Roe.
case, abortion rights lawmakers in California aren’t taking
any chances. In September the state legislature passed measures
ensuring that abortions will be legal even if Roe is overturned.
Since Roe only prohibits states from passing anti-abortion legislation,
California would be free to continue passing abortion rights laws
should Roe be overturned. Lawmakers in the state also
reaffirmed that all medical residency programs in the state must
teach abortion procedures.
despite its legality and longevity, there is much ignorance about
lot of people feel like abortion isn’t an issue for them,”
Hilliard says. “They don’t know where they stand until
those making a difference is Irene Kemp, an eight-hour-a-day volunteer
at Grace Elliott. The retired nurse has been at the center since
it opened, and she agrees that there still is much that needs
to be taught.
of the time young folks don’t know they’re destroying
a life,” Kemp says. “We get a lot of letters from
girls who say they didn’t know what they would have done
if we weren’t here.”
from experience. Before Roe, she tried to induce an abortion
at home in her eighth month of pregnancy. It didn’t work.
Her son, now 45, is a minister.
we try to get rid of these babies we don’t know what God
has planned for them,” Kemp says. “You become a mother
at conception, not when the baby is born.”
W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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