Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 78 (November 1998): 32-36.
Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars. By Cynthia Gorney. Simon & Shuster. 575 pp. $27.50.
Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. By James Risen and Judy Thomas. Basic Books. 402 pp. $25.
Cynthia Gorney’s prodigiously researched Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars stands as a tribute to perseverance and intellectual integrity, a welcome reminder that evenhandedness can carry the day even when the subject matter is as multifaceted, controversial, and inflammatory as abortion. There are, to be sure, explicit and implicit conclusions with which many readers, including this one, will strongly disagree. In addition, because the book was originally intended to culminate with the events of 1989, an otherwise gracefully written effort concludes with an awkward ten- page epilogue that carries the story up to 1997. Notwithstanding these objections, Articles of Faith is to abortion what Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground was to school desegregation, as many reviewers have observed. Its luster shines even brighter when compared with James Risen and Judy Thomas’ Wrath of Angels.
Gorney, a former reporter for the Washington Post, was instructed in early l989 to write a Sunday magazine piece about a case coming out of Missouri known as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services which the Supreme Court had agreed to hear. Nine years later it’s very difficult to appreciate the reaction on both sides to the Court’s decision to hear the case, but at the time the conventional wisdom was that the Supreme Court might well use Webster to dismantle Roe v. Wade. (It was not until he voted in the 1992 Casey decision that the greening of Justice Anthony Kennedy became unmistakable.) It seemed a potentially historic shift was in the offing. Boning up for her trip to Missouri, Gorney expected to find a rich assortment of background materials that would explain why Americans react they way they do to abortion, who the partisans were, and how and why their personal stories led them to understand the significance of abortion in such profoundly different ways. However, nothing of a nonpartisan stripe existed. Two years later she left the Post to write the book that would largely fill the void.
Whether the medium be news reports or full- blown books, abortion advocates typically get all the good lines and the flattering profiles. Not here. The beauty of Articles of Faith is that it really is nonjudgmental. After six years and a staggering five hundred interviews, Gorney became a self- taught polyglot, able to "speak" each side’s "language" like a native. Indeed, she has so immersed herself in her respective protagonists’ worldviews, become so familiar with their idioms, that she not only presents each side’s best arguments, she often argues their case better than they do.
Missouri serves as the prism through which Gorney interprets and explains "the abortion wars." Consequently, she does not address those aspects of the pro-life movement not present in Missouri. Gorney’s narrative focus turns on the intersecting fortunes of two fascinating characters: Judith Widdicombe, a brusque, hardcharging obstetrics nurse turned abortion clinic operator, and Sam Lee, who seemed destined to become a priest but instead became first a leader of the abortion clinic sit- in movement and later a highly respected pro- life lobbyist. (Although there are no saints in Articles of Faith, Gorney’s descriptions of Lee suggest he at least made the first cut.) For most of the book Gorney tells her protagonists’ stories in alternating chapters, with an artist’s eye for revealing detail and a novelist’s ear for telltale remarks.
In Gorney’s rendering, there is little in Judith Widdicombe’s background that would foreshadow her emergence as one of the principal pro- choice leaders in Missouri, the founder of St. Louis’ first abortion clinic and the first to do second- trimester abortions. In 1968 Widdicombe was a thirty- year- old middle-class Methodist woman, who along with her unassuming husband led a quiet and conventional life. Her self- image was of a "caretaker." An obstetrical nurse, one night a week she volunteered to counsel on a suicide- prevention hotline. She began to receive calls from women who were not suicidal but who were seeking abortions. She was quickly drawn into a secret abortion- referral service run largely by mainline Protestant ministers.
During that time, Widdicombe led the ultimate schizophrenic life, "working labor and delivery in a Catholic obstetrical ward while shuttling women to and from abortionists." Some women would even come to her home to complete their abortions. Widdicombe anesthetized her conscience by repeating the word "potential" to herself. As Gorney writes, "What landed in the plastic basin in the Widdicombes’ back toilet was a potential human being, the premonition of a human being, the first rough arrangement of eyelids and fingerprints and human skin." The "actual" human being was the woman.
To its enormous credit, Articles of Faith includes unblinkingly straightforward, euphemism-free descriptions of gruesome abortions. Widdicombe brought her chief abortion doctor to Washington, D.C., to learn how to perform a new technique, "D&E." As he observed the abortionist’s technique and listened to his matter-of-fact explanation of what he was doing, "a small arm with a hand on it dropped into the surgical pan. A hand." He "felt momentarily short of air, as though someone had punched him hard in the stomach. . . . What was wrong with him? Why was he suddenly thinking about Nazi Germany?" The truth was that while over six years "he had observed his share of bloodied parts," never before had his work "required him to consider so plainly the mechanics of dismemberment. "
Lee’s story is even more compelling. Introspective to a fault, Lee, who was twenty in 1968, was a man who "wanted to understand spiritual commitment, and in particular the kind of commitment that makes tangible, dramatic changes in individual human lives." After learning about St. Francis of Assisi and coming to admire the Franciscans’ unity of life and moral commitment, Lee’s spiritual pilgrimage brought him to the Franciscan House of Studies near St. Louis University in 1978. A group of young, idealistic Catholics had gathered and were discussing a sit- in at a St. Louis county abortion clinic, a conversation that included fiercely earnest discussions about civil disobedience, fasting and prayer, and a peaceful presence in the face of an unjust law. Intrigued by what was then an approach in its infancy, Lee devoured all he could read for and against abortion and quickly emerged as a leader of the group.
Gorney shows that Lee and physician Matt Backer (who functions as the representative pro- lifer in the book’s early chapters) were convinced by the same arguments that swayed many of the early opponents of abortion. At the very core was the knowledge that there are universal moral principles that apply across all faiths and every philosophy. To defend defenseless unborn life is not a principle unique to or exclusively derived from Catholicism, or any other organized religion, any more than opposition to racism is. Safeguarding human life is rather an ethical principle that an unbiased reading of medical science and common sense affirm independent of religion altogether. Respect for life is, as Backer saw it, "written on the heart."
Gorney’s two protagonists finally clashed at Widdicombe’s abortion clinic. By the nature of the book’s narrative structure, then, a great deal of attention is paid to the "Direct Action" movement, whose principal activities were to protest at abortion clinics, try to persuade women not to abort, and engage in civil disobedience leading to arrest. Unlike James Risen and Judy Thomas in their Wrath of Angels, Gorney does not caricature the rest of the pro- life movement as bit players whose only role is to obstruct.
While the movement was never a monolith, the absolute commitment to nonviolence was the sine qua non of all the early leaders of the sit- in, Gorney explains. Their whole point was to show that the violence was inside the clinic. Borrowing from the civil rights movement, of which they considered themselves heirs, they held, as an early classic pamphlet put it, "With Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must come to believe that ‘unearned suffering is somehow redemptive.’" That "capacity to endure," it was argued, "is greater than the abortionist’s capacity to destroy."
Not unexpectedly, however, there were disagreements, both externally and internally. Most of the mainstream right to life movement, religious and nondenominational alike, was deeply skeptical of what it saw as largely a diversion of limited energies and resources from more productive activities—education, legislation, electoral politics. Moreover, as Gorney demonstrates, it also worried about the potential for violence—either out of frustration or as a response to provocation—and pondered what would happen if ever there were an excuse to unleash the awesome legislative and legal resources of the federal government against the pro- life movement collectively.
Internally, according to Gorney, these early leaders saw sit- ins partly as symbolic actions but primarily as interventions that could actually save individual babies on a given day. In that light there were passionate debates over just how "passive" passive resistance was, or ought, to be. As Articles of Faith ends, far more militant "rescues" are replacing "sit- ins." Ominously, in complete opposition to the behavior of the ordinary rescuer and the mainstream right to life movement, there emerged a small circle of people who were "ambivalent" about how clinic bombings should be regarded. Attending a national convention of Direct Action people, Lee "could see that in the moral climate the Direct Action people were creating for themselves, clinic bombers were assuming the role of the frontline hero pushed just a little too far." Later, Lee began an apprenticeship at the state capitol, eventually becoming a full- time pro- life lobbyist, having been won over by the idea that well- crafted legislation can be a "serious tool."
Meanwhile Widdicombe had burnt out. She quit her abortion clinic, got a divorce, went through extensive therapy, and headed to Washington. She opposed what turned out to be a huge public relations bonanza for abortion advocates, the l989 Washington, D.C., "March for Women’s Equality/Women’s Lives." A few months later, when the Justices in the Webster decision appeared to invite further protective abortion statutes, Widdicombe, the veteran, sensed the call to return home to rouse the complacent. Back in Missouri, however, her political strategy was ultimately crushed by the strong opposition of younger, less experienced pro- abortion feminists. Lee likewise had differences over strategy with fellow pro- lifers. Gorney’s dramatic closing scene is of Widdicombe and Lee meeting in a hallway at the state house and hugging, the implication being that both are the victims of the "zealots" of their respective movements.
Along with the stories leading up to the Webster decision, Gorney includes a several- chapter-long survey of the beginnings of the illegal abortion "underground," the origins of the abortion "reform" (later repeal) movement, the cases moving through the legal pipeline challenging abortion statutes, the story of Widdicombe’s own abortion, and her decision after Roe to open an abortion clinic. Despite the breadth and complexity of the sources she examines, Gorney writes in prose so lucid that the reader is effortlessly pulled along page after page, making the book an indispensable tool for future historians of abortion.
As noted, the narrative in Articles of Faith ends in 1989. The epilogue added to bring events up through 1997 makes for a gloomy compendium, the choice and interpretation of events telling us where Gorney believes the battle is today. Lethal violence by murderers prompted Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Justice Department to lower the hammer, drastically limiting the right of pro- lifers to demonstrate peacefully outside abortion clinics. The Supreme Court’s 1992 Casey decision solidified the constitutional "right" to abortion, with several Justices explicitly buying into the abortion- as- gender- equity argument. A few months later Bill Clinton was elected and went on to appoint two pro-Roe justices. The recent (and continuing) debate over partial- birth abortion, which pro- lifers see as a major force in reorienting the entire abortion debate, warrants only a few sentences. The closing paragraph examines the very modest accomplishments of the "common ground" project, which has brought some pro- lifers and pro- choicers together to seek proposals they personally can agree are acceptable.
All in all—the impression is left—pro-lifers gave it their best and pro-choicers fended them off. Combine this uncharacteristically one-dimensional synopsis with the fact that the focus of Gorney’s "frontline history" is the intertwining stories of an abortion clinic owner and a pro-life protestor who worries that a later generation of Direct Action people operates "principally from the gut," and certain conclusions are implied. One with which I strongly disagree is that because, in their different ways, both the "peaceful presence" approach of the early people who sat-in and the political/legislative/educational strategy of the mainstream pro-life organizations "failed," it shouldn’t surprise anyone that some loose cannons began bombing clinics and shooting abortionists.
This is the explicit thesis of Risen and Thomas’ Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion Wars. In 1994 Risen, a Los Angeles Times reporter, and Thomas, a reporter who now works for the Kansas City Star, met in Wichita where both were covering the trial of the woman accused of attempting to kill Kansas abortionist George Tiller.
This is a book about ever- escalating violence, which the dust jacket misleadingly calls the "rise and fall of the American anti- abortion movement." The authors’ thesis is that the pro- life movement split in two, sparked by the failure of the "polite incrementalists" to enact a constitutional amendment or change the Supreme Court’s composition sufficiently to reverse Roe. This "frustration and despair" opened the door to Direct Action, initially led by young, quasi- pacifistic leftist Catholics who were eventually superseded by far more aggressive conservative fundamentalist Protestants.
The book offers heavy- handed psychological explanations: talk of "innermost demons," "pent- up religious zeal," and "fear of commitment" abounds. One of the "liberal Catholics" that Risen and Thomas write about supposedly needed to risk arrest at clinic sit- ins "as penance" for outliving an older brother who died in Vietnam (the younger son had subsequently secured conscientious objector status).
Risen and Thomas do their best work in chronicling the ratcheting up of the tactics of confrontation, harassment, and violence. In the search for larger numbers, peaceful organizers became less careful in their screening practices. Thus, at the time planning for peaceful sit- ins in Maryland was commencing, one new recruit was using that information to conspire with another man to blow up abortion clinics. In retrospect, the reader sees that at each juncture, as the ante was raised, no one sufficiently prominent in the Direct Action movement stood up to loudly say, "Stop!" Indeed, Risen and Thomas write, privately some were in support and/or agreed not to oppose violence publicly.
The authors show how Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry attracted people by building on the foundation established by the likes of theologian Francis Schaeffer and pediatric surgeon (and later Surgeon General) C. Everett Koop, who had chastised conservative Protestants for sitting on the sidelines. (It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of their book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and the twenty- city film and lecture tour they undertook to awaken the evangelical community.) Terry won people over by portraying rescues as a kind of "atonement" for the earlier silence of most churches on abortion. According to Risen and Thomas, Terry "shamed" pastors into mobilizing their flocks by charging that "church leaders who ignored abortions had blood on their hands." They could wash away this "blood guiltiness" by "doing everything possible to stop abortion." Risen and Thomas, otherwise sloppy in their discussions of evangelicals, do note the one great irony of the Roe decision: "These [Protestant evangelicals] set out to transform the law, but in the process they transformed themselves, transformed their theological beliefs, and ended generations of isolation. Now, thanks to Harry Blackmun and Roe, they are in the political arena to stay."
Wrath of Angels, however, would have been a far better book had Risen and Thomas been more able to empathize with the convictions that compelled millions of conservative Protestants to act upon their opposition to abortion. For most, their motivation was not a response to some fire- and- brimstone pronouncement from the pulpit but a deep shame that their churches had failed (as Koop descried in his autobiography) "to do something to reverse the perilous realignment of American values on these life- and- death issues."
Once Operation Rescue began routinely to disregard injunctions to stay away from abortion clinics, the die was cast. As the protests grew larger and less disciplined, local authorities, police, and judges took an increasingly hard, even brutal, line. A devastating series of lawsuits, trials, judicial rulings, and finally federal legislation spelled the end of Operation Rescue as a prominent national organization. When Terry lost the leadership of the organization, Risen and Thomas argue, it opened the door to increasingly unstable characters. One woman, engaging in a series of ever- more- violent actions, wrote in a computer file that she considered the arson of an abortion clinic "a birthday present to Jesus."
Risen and Thomas, and Gorney as well, interviewed some of the early protest leaders, who expressed a sadness that they did not explicitly and forcefully oppose the escalation of attacks against the "machinery" of abortion. The early focus of sit-ins emphasized attempting peacefully to persuade pregnant women not to abort. Increasingly, that switched to trying to keep the abortionist away from his instruments; the latter efforts sometimes included glue- in- locks, stink bombs, stalking, and worse. However, what the authors do not examine is how profoundly dangerous was the attempted distinction between acts of aggression and violence against "property," and acts against people.
Today, Risen and Thomas see a spent "anti- abortion movement." It could not be otherwise, because while they talk of the "two pro- life movements," for them Direct Action is the pro- life movement. Read closely and it is easy to see that they have internalized the disregard, even contempt, that Direct Action activists so often felt for other pro- lifers. The attitude of one of the very first peaceful sit- in activists was, alas, all too typical. He believed that the early right- to- lifers lacked commitment. "Most seemed to treat anti- abortion activity like a hobby rather than a matter of life and death," the activist decided. According to Risen and Thomas’ account, his impatience with those he initially derided as "just a bunch of right- wing nuts" led him to the insulting conclusion that they did not respect the unborn.
Because of this sense of superiority, the activists proudly did not take into account the political ramifications of their actions. In weighing the legacy of violence against abortion clinics and clinic personnel, two items are worth noting. Around the time of the twenty- fifth anniversary of Roe, the Associated Press sent out a twelve- item summary of major abortion events that have taken place since 1973. Half of these concerned instances of violence. In another poll, commissioned by CBS News/New York Times and reported last January, 44 percent of the respondents said they considered "anti- abortion activists" in their states "extremists." By contrast, 66 percent considered "abortion rights advocates" in their states "reasonable."
For many reasons, it is neither hype nor hope to disagree with such bleak prognoses for the pro- life movement. In a polite way, Gorney dismisses the bedrock pro- life assumption that the American public will turn against abortion if it understands the truth about what abortion does and to whom. She also neglects another key ingredient in the pro- life program: helping people to understand the obsessive abortion mentality of the pro- choice movement. Yet on these and related fronts, the pro- life movement has made substatial breakthroughs in the last two years, while the pro- choicers have met setbacks that indicate deep problems for their defense of abortion.
Plunging surgical scissors into the heads of babies inches away from delivery and then vacuuming out their brains is, understandably, extremely difficult to defend even for many pro-choicers. What made matters worse is that the pro-choice establishment simply did not tell the truth. This all came out when Ron Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers bluntly admitted that when he parroted the company line—that these grotesque abortions are rarely performed and virtually always on babies with severe fetal abnormalities—he "lied through [his] teeth." As Fitzsimmons well knew, there are thousands of partial- birth abortions performed annually, most on healthy babies.
Paralyzed by the fear that the whole foundation will tumble if a single brick is removed, pro- choicers have gotten themselves in another bind by opposing the Child Custody Protection Act. This law would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across a state line to obtain an abortion if this was to circumvent a state law that requires parental or judicial involvement. Beyond exhibiting an in- your- face contempt for parental rights, such behavior (acknowledged to take place thousands of times each year) affords the statutory rapist the opportunity to destroy the evidence of his crime.
All of this is altering public opinion. Polling data reveal a hefty upward surge in the number of people who, when asked, identify themselves as pro- life and a slow, steady increase in the percentage of people who oppose the reasons for which most abortions are performed. The percentage of respondents in a l998 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll who said they considered themselves pro- life was 48 percent, up from only 33 percent three years before. In like fashion, a careful reading of the cross tabulations of a separate Gallup poll revealed that a total of 63 percent believe that abortion should either never be legal (l5 percent) or legal only in a "few circumstances" (48 percent).
Moreover, the percentage of Americans who say abortion should be legal "under any circumstances" has shrunk from one-third to one-quarter. Why? Lydia Saad, the Gallup Poll’s managing editor, writes that this drop was "coincident with the emergence of a loud national debate over partial-birth abortion." If opposition is confined to partial-birth abortions "then perhaps not very much will have changed," she writes. "If, however, opposition to abortion in the cases of the partial-birth procedure makes the public more receptive to other limits on abortion or if the issue forces a fundamental reconsideration by Americans of whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice, then the observed change in Gallup’s abortion trend will clearly be more profound."
However, pro- choicers would not be the able defenders of the status quo that they are if they weren’t acutely sensitive to the need to co-opt and deflect public anxieties and discomfort with abortion. Without denying that some are sincere, one must look with great skepticism at the recent stream of articles calling on abortion advocates to admit that there is an inescapable moral dimension of some considerable gravity to abortion. Taking these at face value is made even more difficult when such "concessions" rarely even hint at preventing any abortion. Ironically, this softer approach has prompted some pro-choice veterans to an unexpectedly brutal candor. "Any pretense that abortion is not killing," argued former Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton in Ms. last year, "is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus, but it is the woman’s body, and therefore ultimately her choice." Very revealing in a different way was an article earlier this year in the Washington Monthly bemoaning the fact that post- abortion counseling is the almost exclusive provenance of pro- lifers. Headlines in the New York Times announcing that the pro- choice movement can no longer count on the younger generation of women is still more evidence that the momentum has shifted.
Far from failing, as the Gorney and Risen/Thomas books suggest, the pro- life movement has kept the abortion debate very much alive. Externally, the abortion issue is now an ingredient in everything from campaign finance reform to the role of HMOs. Internally, fewer and fewer within the movement brush aside the necessity of attempting to secure legislative and legal protection for the unborn, which necessarily requires serious, long- term involvement in electoral politics. This near- consensus did not exist even five years ago. Further evidence of this newfound sophistication is that it has become almost a cliché that peaceful, legal, cultural transformation and legislative/political initiatives are not competing but rather complementary approaches.
The strength of the pro- life house has always been that it has many rooms. There is space in one wing for those who place their primary emphasis on education, legislation, and politics, for crisis pregnancy centers in another, for working with post- abortion women in another, and for peacefully, legally "changing the culture" in still another. The true genius of the pro- life movement is that in whichever of these ways people choose to use their energies, it contributes to winning the day for mothers and their unborn children.
Pro- choicers have always been snared in a trap: they see the mother in isolation not only from her child but from everyone else. Mother and child are, of course, interdependent, in two obvious senses. First, the child’s fate ultimately hinges on convincing her mother not to abort. Second, abortion is uniquely evil in that it destroys the child and maims the mother. Moreover, no one must ever underestimate the importance of those who surround the woman experiencing a crisis pregnancy. Husband or boyfriend, parents, and friends must function as her natural support system, for it is their yea or nay that so often tips the "choice" in one direction or the other.
At the core of the conclusion that the "abortion wars" will go on indefinitely without much change is the assumption that the two sides speak different languages: one invokes the woman, the other the unborn child. In truth, pro- lifers are bilingual, lifting up both mother and child. And because they are fluent in both languages, they can lead American women by the most natural route imaginable out of that morbid solipsism which is at the center of Justice Blackmun’s world.
Dave Andrusko is Editor of the National Right to Life News, based in Washington, D.C.