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Special Report: Roe V. Wade at 30

Is abortion so entrenched in our culture that it will always exist? Christian leaders don’t think so

By John W. Kennedy

In 1971, 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.

McCorvey 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 three decades.

In Roe, 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.

“When 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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Thus, 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.

The great paradox in America is that most people believe abortion is murder, but they also believe that a woman must have a “right to choose.”

Increasingly, 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.

Legislatively, 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.

For pro-lifers, the stalemate can be disheartening, especially when activist courts have stymied legislative action.

“People 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.”

For instance, 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.

Different strategies
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.

Today, 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.

Hard-liner 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,” he says.

Benham believes right-to-life organizations have compromised too much, welcoming non-Christians as members and conceding exceptions for rape and incest.

NRLC’s 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, she maintains.

Benham 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.”

Benham, 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.

Yet these 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.

Tera Hilliard, 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.

Church reaction
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.

“It’s 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.”

The Assemblies 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.”

Benham 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.

Certainly 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.

Hilliard 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 says.

In churches 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.

Victories — 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.

NRLC’s 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.

Some pro-lifers 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.

But then the tide turned.

Judges 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.

Benham 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 to jail.

In 1992, 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.

“The opinion is one of the most blatant examples of postmodern reasoning,” Cunningham says.

The murders 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.

Those 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.”

However, FACE makes no distinction between a peaceful protester and a bomber. The government seized Benham’s financial accounts, computers and other equipment.

Also in 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.

The U.S. 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.

The present state
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.

“Americans 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.

Abortion 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.

Franz 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.

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 than 800.

Although 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.

Some predicted 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 12-day span.

The future hope
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.

Grace 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.

Such Christians 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.

Nevertheless, as evangelicals look to the future after 30 years of unrestricted abortion, strategies differ on how to turn it around.

For Franz, 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.

Ultimately, 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.

Cunningham is working to pass right-to-conscience legislation so that Christian medical students won’t be forced to participate in abortion training in schools.

Benham 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.”

Cunningham 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.

Just in 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.

Meanwhile, despite its legality and longevity, there is much ignorance about abortion.

“A lot of people feel like abortion isn’t an issue for them,” Hilliard says. “They don’t know where they stand until confronted.”

One of 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.

“Most 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.”

Kemp knows 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.

“When 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.”


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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