The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Where the pro-life movement goes from here

A woman holds a sign before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at a rally in Clearwater, Fla., on Nov. 5. (Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post)

Last week’s election results were a massive disappointment to those of us who supported the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet it’s crucial that the pro-life movement absorb the message voters have sent on abortion and refocus its efforts if it wants to ultimately prevail.

The sad fact is that a strong majority of Americans favor abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Polls have long shown that, and the results from every abortion-related ballot measure this year reiterate it. The fact that states long viewed as opposing abortion, such as Kansas and Kentucky, refused to explicitly eliminate or exclude a constitutional right to an abortion from their state constitutions speaks volumes.

That’s not to say everything is gloomy. The fact that voters and their representatives have a say at all in abortion law is progress. That’s why Roe needed to go. The successful reelection of governors such as Brian Kemp in Georgia and Greg Abbott in Texas, both of whom signed bills outlawing abortion after a heartbeat is detected, also shows that voters can support pro-life politicians. Abortion is less available in the United States than it was six months ago, and that’s a win for the pro-life cause.

What’s clear, however, is that further gains will be slow to arrive and could come at great cost. Abortion rights advocates are mobilized and well funded. They have the active or tacit support of many of the nation’s leading institutions, including many large businesses. They will surely seek to press these advantages and try to nationalize abortion law in the near future, trying to do through statute what they can no longer do through courts.

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Fighting back against this onslaught requires a refocusing of pro-life attention and priorities. To begin with, there should be no substantial effort to introduce any national bans on abortion, no matter how limited those are. Proposals such as the bill offered by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that would ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy might sound good, and might even garner majority support in polls. But Democrats will never permit this, and simply raising the issue in a national forum gives abortion rights advocates the ability to claim that a nationwide total ban is in the offing. That is a canard, but the midterm results show it is one that is widely believed.

Pro-lifers should therefore make it clear that they approve state — not federal — action. Abortion law was determined at the state level before Roe, and it is appropriate that it be determined by the states now that Roe is gone. Letting California be California will not sit well with activists, but if that is the price of letting Texas be Texas, it is the best outcome that can be reasonably hoped for right now.

More effort must also be put into educating legislators how to think and talk about abortion. Abortion rights advocates eagerly seize on every misspoken utterance or extreme statement and use them to tarnish all abortion opponents. Pro-life politicians must talk about abortion with sensitivity to both the mother and the unborn child.

Most importantly, activists and movement leaders need to engage in the patient, long-term work of talking about human biology. People instinctively want to protect human life, which is one reason polls show support for abortion drops precipitously the longer a pregnancy continues. The fact is that heart activity can be detected by the fourth week of pregnancy, and the neural tube that includes the brain is formed in the second month. Ending a pregnancy at these points stops a human heart and silences a human brain, yet virtually no prominent pro-life legislators speak about this when explaining their position.

This failure gives a rhetorical leg up to abortion rights advocates. They can point to a living woman, and who doesn’t empathize with her plight? Pro-life advocates, however, could point to a living — if still tiny — child, even at early stages of pregnancy. Surely people could empathize with that child’s plight as well, if only they heard about it.

This is the field on which the abortion battle must be fought and won. Americans will agree to ban abortion in the early stages of pregnancy only when they are convinced that a tiny fetus with an evolving heart and brain has the same right to life as do you and I. Everything must be directed at winning this contest; all else is a distraction.

Every movement for social change takes decades to triumph. Overturning Roe took nearly 50 years, and it was only the necessary first step. It would be easy to be discouraged after this year’s reversals. Instead, now is the time for patience, prudence and perseverance.

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