May the Wilberforce Be With You

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Why hasn't the pro-life movement been more successful? Polls routinely show that only 10 to 15% of Americans support our current abortion-on-demand laws. Yet these laws stand. Oh, pro-lifers have won some victories. But the law is not only a long long way from what the dedicated pro-lifers would like to see, but it is almost as far away from what the majority of Americans would like to see.

I'm sure we could discuss many reasons, but one contributing factor may be that we have never had a prominent political leader who made abortion his top priority.

We've had many politicians who said they were pro-life. While some of them may have taken such a position purely because they believed it gave them some political advantage, I don't question the sincerity of most of them. But when it came down to the wire, time after time they put abortion on the back burner.

George Bush number two is pro-life. He was willing to take a stand against embryonic stem cell research, and he has tried to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who are likely to vote pro-life (whether from pro-life convictions themselves or for technical judicial reasons). But most of his time has been spent on tax policy and fighting terrorism. These are important issues, of course, but my point is that, for whatever reason, he has spent very little time on abortion.

George Bush number one said he was pro-life, but I am hard-pressed to think of anything he did to fight abortion. Maybe I'm being unfair, but the only abortion-related action of Bush I that I remember is his condemning Operation Rescue for using civil disobedience tactics. Abortionists kill innocent babies; pro-life protestors trespass on someone else's lawn; and all his condemnation was for the pro-lifers.

The most outspokenly pro-life president the U.S. has had to date was Ronald Reagan. And he did accomplish some important things, like the Mexico City Policy that barred using U.S. taxpayer money to promote abortion overseas. He tried to nominate Supreme Court justices who would reverse Roe v Wade. But in the end, fighting abortion was not where he devoted his greatest efforts. His real commitment was to defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War and cutting taxes and inflation. Those were certainly worthy goals, but the net effect was that he made only modest progress on abortion. I once read a magazine article that said that Reagan's advisors convinced him that he should devote his efforts and political capital to economic issues so that Republicans would get re-elected, and put "divisive social issues" aside until later. I don't know if that's true, I can't even find that article now, but it certainly sounds plausible.

I don't want to denigrate the efforts of people who have been a friend to the pro-life movement. Some have certainly made real efforts. Like Senator Mike DeWine in his early days. Representative Henry Hyde fought consistently throughout his career. A few other examples come to mind of people who worked hard. But just a few.

Compare that to some great causes of the past.

The ancient Roman senator Cato was convinced that Carthage was a dire threat to Rome. He ended every speech he gave, no matter what the subject, by saying, "And Carthage must be destroyed". He once introduced a bill to replace the tiles on a certain government building. He explained how the existing tiles were worn and broken and the building was looking shoddy. "And", he concluded, "Carthage must be destroyed". We could certainly debate whether it was necessary or right to destroy Carthage. But it is beyond debate that his twenty years of continual harping on the subject were a major factor it making it happen.

Pro-lifers often compare our struggle against abortion with the struggle against slavery. Perhaps you have seen the movie Amazing Grace, about the efforts of William Wilberforce to fight slavery in Britain. Wilberforce introduced anti-slavery bills in Parliament year after year for almost 20 years. A particularly poignant point in the movie for me is when he is talking to a young woman whom he soon marries (in real life Wilberforce proposed to Barbara two weeks after they met and they were married four weeks later) and she tells him that she has signed his petitions, marched in protests, organized anti-slavery lectures, etc. And Wilberforce replies in frustration (not an exact quote, I don’t have the script), "Yes, and after all the marches and all the petitions, the slaves are still slaves." But finally in 1807 he saw a bill passed to ban the import of new slaves. In the movie this was the end of the story, his moment of triumph. His hard work, prudent use of political connections -- he was a personal friend of Prime Minister William Pitt -- and most of all, perseverance in the face of defeat after defeat, had finally paid off. But in fact this was not the end of the story, because it did nothing for those who were already slaves. Wilberforce worked for another 15 years to free the existing slaves, before he was finally forced to retire by failing health. By then others were ready to carry on, and they finally ended slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 – just one month after Wilberforce’s death.

We have no one like Cato or Wilberforce in American abortion politics today. No one who makes abortion his top priority, who fights against it day after day after day, and who has sufficient political power and connections to really win. There is always some other issue that is more important or more urgent, and abortion is always put aside for some more convenient day.

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Posted 19 Apr 2007

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