Pro-life advocates increase, but abortion remains complicated and divisive

Published: Wednesday, June 6 2012 6:26 a.m. MDT

Because of such overlapping views, talking about abortion is best done one-on-one, says John Jansen, project coordinator for Pro-Life Action League, a pro-life activist group in Chicago. "I've always said you can't change someone's mind about abortion if you can't sit down and have a conversation with them and respect them as a person," he says.

Right now, the most productive conversations may be happening among young adults. Mary Spaulding Balch has attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., for almost 40 years. When she started, the marchers had gray hair. Now many of them are wearing skinny jeans and talking about homework.

Spaulding Balch, state legislation director for National Right to Life, believes young people have been listening to the abortion debate while growing up in a world where it has always been legal and many of them conclude that Roe v. Wade was wrong.

"There is definitely a growing pro-life sentiment," says Jansen, who does youth outreach to teens. "Just about every kid in the country has seen a picture of their brother, sister, or cousin on ultrasound and you can't convince a kid that a baby in the womb is just tissue, a clump of cells."

So armed with young, energetic blood that often eschews labels, Jansen says pro-lifers are in it "for the long haul."

"We've been in it since 1973 and we show no signs of slowing down," he says. "We're not going to rest until abortion becomes not just illegal but unthinkable."

Legal motivations

During the 2010 elections, a wave of conservative and tea party candidates ran on promises that they would get the fiscal house in order and balance budgets.

Yet once in office, they almost immediately began working on social issues like abortion, says Nash, and in 2011, got 92 abortion-restricting laws enacted in dozens of states. (Laws may contain multiple provisions).

"In 2011, anti-choice lawmakers failed to live up to the promise they made to voters to focus on the economy," says NARAL Pro-Choice America's spokesman Ted Miller. "Instead, they attacked women's freedom and privacy at near-record levels. It's clear that this agenda is out of touch with our nation's values and priorities."

He pointed specifically to Virginia legislators, who passed a forced-ultrasound law opposed by nearly half of Virginians.

Normally, during a major election year like 2012, the abortion topic would have already faded as "state legislatures take a step back from social issues and focus instead on budgetary or transportation or education issues — what you might consider the bread-and-butter of state government," Nash says. "This year, there's been somewhat of a decrease in activity around abortion, but not the (normal) drop-off."

A combination of the increased number of conservative governors and state lawmakers and abortion restrictions already proposed has created "a more welcome environment for restrictions that push the edge of the envelope," Nash says.

In 2000, 13 states were considered by Guttmacher "hostile" to abortion rights. By 2011, that number was 26.

And Nash fears it may stay that way. "Once a law is enacted, it's difficult to repeal; liberalizing it is difficult," she says. "Once there are abortion restrictions, they tend to stay in place."

And there are more than just ideological reasons to keep proposing restrictions, says Ted Jelen, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-author of the book "Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion."

Today's politicians are more likely to face a primary election against a member of their own party, so they must paint themselves as a stronger party player by proposing increasingly intense bills. That incentivizes "both challengers and incumbents in Republican districts to keep this (abortion) issue alive, even if it doesn't pass or it's ultimately ruled unconstitutional," Jelen says. "It's an electional advantage. The Republican side certainly has an interest in exaggerating this, in keeping it fairly simple and fairly polarized."

Hall believes some legislators propose bills they hope will actually reduce the abortion rate in the U.S., while others just put forth "symbolic legislation."

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