Answering President Trump’s call to unite the pro-life movement
By Gualberto Garcia Jones, Esq.,— Last weekend, President Trump tweeted out his personal position on abortion. Many in the pro-life movement, including the Personhood Alliance, were disappointed that the president endorsed the continued killing of innocent children conceived in rape and incest. However, the president also called for unity among pro-lifers. I believe that unity can be achieved by actually allowing the moral vs. political conflict to continue. Allow me to explain…
President Trump’s tweets were likely a response to the media’s hysteria over the lack of a rape exception in the Alabama law. Clearly, the president sought to distance himself from this law, while at the same time, he called for unity.
As a relative newcomer to the pro-life movement, President Trump unsuspectingly stumbled upon the chief obstacle that has prevented the pro-life movement from substantially advancing the cause of life over the last 50 years: Lack of unity and fratricide within the movement itself.
It should be stated that, ideologically, the movement is united in its core belief that all human beings deserve the right to life and therefore, that children conceived in rape have the same right to life as children conceived in consent.
However, when it comes to strategy, pro-lifers are divided into two camps and have been since the late 1960s and early 70s. In one camp, the politically pragmatic pro-lifers seek to make incremental gains by sacrificing the overarching principle of the sanctity of life. According to his string of tweets, this is President Trump’s position. In the other camp are the morally consistent pro-lifers who understand that abortion will not end overnight, but in their political pursuits, cannot accept the intentional killing of some children in order to make incremental gains. Sadly, both camps live in a culture that overwhelmingly supports the continued legal killing of children conceived in rape and incest.
I am unapologetically a partisan of the second, moral camp. In my 15 years of pro-life activism, I have spent more time defending the moral pro-life position from the attacks of political pro-lifers than the attacks of pro-abortion advocates. I doubt that anyone is more eager to stop wasting his time on internal conflicts than I am. However, wishing and hoping for unity has not and will not make unity happen. Why?
Because politically pragmatic pro-lifers are not going to convince morally consistent pro-lifers to compromise the movement’s foundational principles for the sake of politics, just as morally consistent pro-lifers are not going to convince politically pragmatic pro-lifers to give up their political power in order to be morally consistent.
In effect, calling for unity by asking one side to abandon its core is futile.
Still, I do not believe that the pro-life movement is doomed to perish in a never-ending conflict. There must be a strategy to achieve the unity President Trump is calling for. Let’s begin by looking at our common enemy.
The common enemy
The straightest path to unity is focusing on a common enemy. President Trump explicitly calls for this focus in his tweet by referencing the “radical left,” with their long-standing support of late-term abortion, as well as their new-found fondness for infanticide.
Without a doubt, the pro-abortion laws being pushed by the radical left are directly responsible for creating the unity that was necessary to pass the recent flurry of relatively strict pro-life laws.
So why did President Trump get in the middle of this decades-long tug of war? The simple answer is reelection. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the unity part.
Having staked out his position as a pro-life champion, the president is likely concerned that if he joins pro-lifers in adopting morally consistent positions (like opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest), this might affect his reelection. President Trump is certainly more willing to say and do things that other presidents wouldn’t even contemplate, but at the end of the day, no political officeholder is immune to the gravitational pull of reelection.
This universal law of politics, along with the fact that President Trump is a relatively new pro-lifer, helps explain his support of abortion in cases of rape and incest. So should the movement follow him?
- Should the sponsors of pro-life bills introduce rape and incest exceptions in order to appear more reasonable to the average voter?
- Should pro-life organizations stop fighting over the morality of exceptions and start to compromise in order to benefit the president, help him achieve a second term, and keep advancing incremental gains?
Morally, the answer is clear: NO, we will not dilute our position! As stated before, we cannot hope to achieve unity, within the pro-life movement or behind a pro-life president, by asking a moral organization to dilute its core principles.
More interestingly, though, there is also a strategic (not just moral) reason that morally consistent pro-lifers should not compromise their principles for politics.
The Overton Window
The Overton Window is a political concept that describes how certain policies can become acceptable to politicians depending on how they are viewed within a spectrum of public perception. The vast majority of politicians will only enact public policies that appear to have enough public support to allow them to win reelection. Therefore, as a theory of political change, the Overton Window concludes that public opinion determines what is politically possible.
The Overton Window theory itself is amoral. It can be used to morally improve a society or to morally corrupt it. Public policy issues that begin as unthinkable can become indispensable with the proper change in public opinion. Of course, once the unthinkable is proposed, it can shift to becoming dangerous or radical. As successive standards of deviance are advocated for (those things that are socially unacceptable at any given time), public policies that were previously considered unthinkable become acceptable, and even viewed as necessary.
The sexual revolution is a perfect example of how previously criminal acts as abhorrent as abortion and infanticide can become socially acceptable by the continual introduction and advocacy of increasingly deviant behavior.
What if pro-life organizations, which agree on the principle of the sanctity of life, accepted their role within the Overton Window theory of change?
Pro-life unity and the Overton Window
I experienced this phenomenon in North Dakota in 2013 when the state legislature had a broad range of pro-life bills to consider. One bill was viewed quite acceptably, as it simply required abortion facilities to adhere to certain health and safety standards. Another bill, which sought to criminalize abortion as murder, without exception, was seen as completely outside the mainstream. A third bill was a Personhood Amendment to the state constitution, which simply stated that life and therefore, the legal status of personhood, begins at conception.
What I noticed during those cold winter sessions in Bismarck was that the acceptable, relatively weak health standards bill passed as expected, while the abortion criminalization bill attracted all the attention and firepower from the abortion lobby. The Personhood Amendment benefited from the attacks levied on the abortion criminalization bill because the amendment approach was seen as a relatively acceptable bill, capable of being supported.
The political lesson for all of us here is that the extremes of a public policy continuum are actually connected and can help. Therefore, from a purely strategic standpoint, all the different approaches actually benefited each other. The health standards bill required almost no effort to pass. The previously unacceptable Personhood Amendment passed for the first time through two chambers of a state legislature, and the previously unthinkable abortion criminalization bill actually got introduced. Strategically, it was a win-win for all.
I believe that the same could be the case at a national level. If pro-lifers can accept the position that each organization has within the pro-life movement, we could all undoubtedly benefit. But I want to be very clear here. I am not seeking a self-censoring of pro-life organizations for “the greater good” of the movement, nor am I suggesting that pro-life organizations should compromise on principle or accept that the sacrificing of human life in any circumstance is ok. On the contrary, the Overton Window strategy provides us with a framework that allows all pro-life groups to pursue their work vigorously, to strongly disagree on whether to compromise principles, and to provide legislative options that reflect real moral and strategic differences. This framework allows the necessary change to come—both to public opinion and to politicians.
This framework also provides a way for us to combat the great enemy of every pro-life activist—a sense of hopelessness and a feeling of betrayal by the organizations with access to political power.
A call for unity
Any call for unity in the pro-life movement must always focus on the principle that every innocent human being, at every stage of development, and in every circumstance, deserves equal protection under the law. And it must put our focus on a common enemy. Beyond that, though, it is the Overton Window strategy that offers us real opportunities to shift the political winds away from moral compromise and toward moral clarity.
Gualberto Garcia Jones, Esq., is the president of the Personhood Alliance and a licensed attorney in the commonwealth of Virginia. He is a human rights advisor to the Holy See Mission to the Organization of American States and works in Washington DC to stop the expansion of abortion in Latin America.