Posted January 27, 2003
Roe v. Wade, the U.S. and 3 Decades of Legal Abortion
Bishops' Spokeswoman Cathy Cleaver Views the Landscape
What are the prospects for the pro-life movement in the United States, 30 years after the Roe v. Wade abortion decision?
Cathy Cleaver, the director of planning and information for the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, surveyed the scene in this interview with ZENIT.
Q: There are fewer abortions in the United States, and a more-or-less pro-life political party controls the White House and Congress. Where is the U.S. going on the pro-life issue?
Cleaver: The pro-life movement is a movement that is ever hopeful, ever energetic. The 2002 elections confirmed the strength of the pro-life movement, as a full two-thirds of the new members of the House of Representatives hold pro-life views, and these new members did not hide their views -- they ran on them.
There are greater opportunities now to move pro-life legislation through Congress, and we have a president who will sign pro-life legislation that reaches his desk. But because of the Senate's rules allowing the filibustering of bills, and therefore requiring 60 votes to pass pro-life legislation, we still have an uphill climb in the Senate.
A ban on partial-birth abortion has the best chance for passage, as it has passed the Senate before with over 60 votes in the past, always ending with a veto of President Clinton.
President Bush has vowed to sign a ban, and therefore it is likely that we will see a federal ban on partial-birth abortions before too long. The ban will likely be challenged very quickly after it becomes law, and legal proceedings will then ensue.
There are other pro-life bills that will likely be considered in this Congress, such as a bill to ban all human cloning. Last term, the cloning ban passed the House of Representatives with a healthy margin but was stalled in the Senate. This term the fight for a ban in the Senate will be vigorous, and success is a possibility.
Other measures that will probably be considered are the Abortion Nondiscrimination Act, the Child Custody Protection Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
There are many signs that the culture is beginning to turn away from abortion. Certainly the drop in the number of abortions is one sign. The number has been declining since its peak in 1990 at about 1.6 million, and is now approximately 1.3 million annually.
Public opinion about abortion has changed dramatically in the last several years. The Gallup Organization from time to time asks people to describe themselves as either pro-choice or pro-life. In 1995, the results were 56% pro-choice to 33% pro-life. This 20-odd point margin in favor of pro-choice was customary.
But things have changed dramatically. In 2001 the results of the Gallup question were 46% to 46%. If this trend continues -- and there is no reason to believe that it won't -- we will soon see the day when more Americans call themselves pro-life than pro-choice.
There are other trends worthy of note. Fewer doctors do abortions today, and nurses have changed their opinion about abortion. In 1999, RN Magazine surveyed hospital-based registered nurses and found that 61% would not be willing to work in an OB-GYN unit where abortions were performed; a decade ago, 52% said they would be willing.
All in all, pro-lifers are very hopeful that the country is moving our way.
Q: Have the clergy sex-abuse scandals hurt the Church's ability to speak out forcefully on pro-life issues?
Cleaver: The Church's prophetic voice on the dignity and inviolability of life has always been strong and even in these difficult times has not been slowed or silenced.
Certainly there are always some who attempt to silence the Church, and the present difficulties are no different. But the Church is strong on the life issues, has never been stronger.
Q: U.S. Catholics in 2000 favored a pro partial-birth-abortion candidate in the presidential election. Have U.S. Catholics on average grown comfortable with the idea of abortion-on-demand?
Cleaver: The problem with polling Catholics about their views or their votes is the question of what it means to be Catholic for the purposes of polling.
As we know, some people call themselves Catholic who have no other connection with the Church than that their parents were Catholic. This is bound to produce results that do not measure Catholic views authentically.
By contrast, when Protestants are polled on their views or their votes, the category is often broken down into evangelical Protestants and mainstream Protestants or even a separate listing of Protestant denominations.
When Catholics are broken down into categories of those who attend Mass at least once a week or not, the answers come out quite differently.
In the 2000 presidential election, a majority of Catholics who did not attend Mass at least once a week, favored the pro-abortion candidate. And a majority of those who did attend at least once a week favored the pro-life president. Still, the margin of Catholics whose views do not reflect the significance of defending all life cannot be ignored.
Just last week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Doctrinal Note calling Catholic politicians and voters to a closer adherence to the culture of life.
There is a profound misunderstanding from which the public in general suffers about the extent to which abortion is legal and the reasons for abortion today. Most people don't realize that Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton made abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy for virtually any reason. U.S. abortion law is extreme, but most people don't know it.
People also misunderstand the reality of abortion practice today. The fact that almost half of all abortions today are repeat abortions is inconceivable to most people; abortions for health reasons or rape -- themes that appear so often in the public debate -- account for only a small fraction of abortions today.
Moreover, the false assumption that abortion is good for women has not been sufficiently challenged. The reality of abortion in our culture today is that women choose abortion as a last resort, not a free choice.
Women turn to abortion because they feel alone and helpless, or abandoned, or pressured by boyfriends or family members. Abortion is not the act of empowerment it was promised to be.
Even the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood's research affiliate, reports that the primary reasons women have abortions are a lack of financial resources and emotional support. These are problems that can and should be solved by all of us, in solidarity with the woman in need, so that abortion is not seen as the only solution.
The Catholic Church has done much to provide practical solutions for women with untimely pregnancies. Thousands of ministries have been developed around the country to provide practical assistance of every kind, and Project Rachel, the Church's post-abortion ministry, has for over two decades helped women and men find hope and healing after abortion.
Q: How has the pro-life movement affected ecumenical relations?
Cleaver: The pro-life movement has not only affected ecumenical relations but also interreligious dialogue.
There is a great commonality of interest among true believers of all faiths that certain true things are under attack these days, chief among them the dignity and sanctity of the lives of the unborn.
It is wonderfully heartening to see Catholics stand side by side with evangelical Protestants, Jews and even Muslims to defend the unborn. Defenders of the culture of death are rightly startled at the close ties that have been established among believing and practicing Christians and those of other faiths.
We can point to the Holy Father and thank him for forging this trail that will eventually bring victory in our efforts to protect the unborn.