The huge crowd of abortion opponents that gathered on the Mall in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life had good reason to be celebrating on the 37th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
Recent polls have shown broad declines
in public support for abortion, to the point that the country is almost evenly divided between supporters of abortion rights (47 percent) and opponents (44 percent). Moreover, the election of a pro-choice president after two terms of George W. Bush has galvanized rather than discouraged the pro-life movement, to the point that abortion rights groups are facing more challenges than they ever expected.
To top it off, just a few days earlier Republican Scott Brown won the reliably Democratic Senate seat in the special election in Massachusetts, a stunning rejection of the legacy of pro-choice nemesis Ted Kennedy and an apparent stake in the heart of health care reform, Obama's chief domestic priority.
"What faithful Catholic did not ponder late Tuesday night that the election of Scott Brown to the 'Kennedy seat' was God's judgment on Kennedyism," Austin Ruse, head of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, wrote
in a celebratory, if not exactly kind-hearted, column. "After all, Brown's election is the precursor to the final deathblow to Kennedy's lifetime project to nationalize health care. And though Brown did not run as a pro-lifer, he ran to kill that monstrous bill, which would have been the largest expansion of baby killing in our post-Roe history." In a similar vein, the Susan B. Anthony List trumpeted
Brown's victory as "a WIN for women" and for the pro-life cause.
"Thank you, Massachusetts," Iowa Republican, Rep. Steve King, told the cheering abortion protesters on the Mall on Friday. "Thank you for helping us kill the anti-life bill."
Yet even as the high-fives continued, some were questioning whether abortion opponents, whose appeal lies in the crystal clarity of their position on behalf of life in the womb and their refusal to compromise their principles, had not only erred in supporting Brown but also revealed themselves to be driven by partisan politics as much as moral imperatives.
As Ruse noted, almost as an aside, Scott Brown (who is Protestant) is also a firm supporter of Roe, which Brown has said is "the law of the land, and I don't plan on overturning it." Indeed, his language
on the issue sounds much like that of Barack Obama. Brown's Web site highlights the "need to reduce the number of abortions in America" and his belief that "there are people of good will on both sides of the issue and we ought to work together to support and promote adoption as an alternative to abortion."
But such nuanced positions did not stop hardline anti-abortion groups from pulling out the stops to get Brown elected. Massachusetts Citizens for Life
, the largest anti-abortion group in the state, hailed Brown as a "pro-life vote in the Senate" and put its muscle behind Brown's candidacy. The influential conservative group CatholicVoteAction.org recorded a phone message on Brown's behalf to target independent voters, and Brown received supportive coverage in anti-abortion media and from prominent pro-life leaders.
Hadley Arkes, a political science professor at Amherst College and a vocal religious activist on behalf of Republican causes, wrote
on the eve of the vote that Brown is "a powerful instrument for resisting the surge, and the threatened reach, of the pro-death party in America." (That would be a reference to Democrats.)
And Phil Lawler, a Boston native and editor of the conservative outlet Catholic World News, cited Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- in an essay
explaining why pro-lifers could and should vote for Brown. The pope's argument, that it is legitimate to vote for a pro-choice candidate for "other reasons" as long as one does not support their pro-choice views, was often cited by backers of Barack Obama and other Democrats -- and it was just as often blasted by many conservative Catholics and others as indefensible and deserving of punishment at the altar rail as well as the ballot box.
The irony of this sudden embrace of prudential reasoning and casuistry
by pro-life groups was not overlooked by critics.
At the Catholic blog Vox Nova, Henry Karlson generated
a heated discussion when he wrote that pro-life supporters of Brown could now be considered "fake pro-lifers."
"It is one thing to suggest people can make prudential decisions, it is another for groups founded on the issue of life to give direct support to candidates whose policies are completely contrary to the pro-life cause. Any advocacy group which supports a candidate directly in contradiction to their advocacy has been compromised. What happened? When and how did many of the pro-life movement become compromised? Can those pro-life groups which, as a group, promoted and supported Brown be taken seriously again?"
Added another Vox Nova poster
, "I'm not saying pro-lifers had no good reasons to support Brown over Coakley, but their victory today could undermine their cause down the road."
So could it be that, ahem, partisan politics trumped such moral concerns?
Some justified their support for Brown as simply making the best of a bad situation.
Yes, Brown supports abortion rights, the argument went, but not as strongly (or as ham-handedly) as Coakley. And he favors restrictions on so-called late-term abortions (which are already barred) and he backs some parental notifications. He would also oppose any taxpayer funding of abortion if such a thing made its way into a health care reform package.
At the theo-con journal "First Things," Joe Carter argued
for grading Brown on a curve, noting that Brown was more liberal than most of his Republican colleagues in the fairly liberal Republican party of Massachusetts -- and Brown is even more liberal than Dede Scozzafava, who Tea Party Republicans tossed overboard in New York's 23rd District last November in favor of the more conservative Doug Hoffman, a move that wound up giving the seat to a Democrat for the first time in a century.
Pro-lifers weren't going to see a repeat of N.Y.-23. As Carter wrote, in an act of general absolution, "in electoral politics you generally have to make the best of bad choices." He also held out the possibility that Brown, like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney before him, could see the light (or the political advantage) of a late-life conversion to the pro-life cause.
Still, such calculations sounded like an awful lot of wishful thinking and self-conscious rationalizing from a crowd who also really wanted Brown to win because a Republican victory in Massachusetts would be seen as a repudiation of all that Kennedy and Obama and liberals stood for. Brown vowed to be the 41st vote against health care reform and to oppose Obama's agenda on a variety of other issues that have nothing to do with abortion.
For many pro-lifers and Christian conservatives, that was moral justification enough to throw their support behind a man whose positions would otherwise be anathema to them had he been a Democrat -- and some of them they made no bones about it.
A "very astute, very political" calculation, Tom Minnery, senior vice president Focus on the Family Action, said of the conservative Christian support for Brown. A "pragmatic choice for conservatives," as Tobin Grant put it in his roundup
at Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine.
"Social conservatives held back criticism of Brown's social views -- and, in some cases, openly supported him -- because they believe a Brown win fulfills a short term goal of blocking President Obama's abominable health bill," wrote
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council as he hailed Brown's win as another American Revolution" to preserve "our values" against a Democratic onslaught. Chuck Colson said support for Brown underlined the fact that government spending and the deficit are "a paramount moral issue"-- which is a new approach for Colson, who did not exactly make curbing spending such a moral priority when Bush was president.
The political flexibility of religious conservatives in backing the pro-choice Brown certainly worked, and indeed may have put Brown over the top. But it also revealed two other realities of modern American politics.
The first is that there are Christian conservatives and there are Christian conservatives. The largely evangelical and conservative Catholic support for Brown and against health care reform contrasts sharply with the position of progressive evangelicals and the influential Catholic bishops of the United States, who have declared universal health care a "pro-life issue" and who were ready to throw their support behind Obamacare if, as was possible, it included sufficient bars on abortion funding. That is a gap wide enough to drive a health care bill through, though Democrats have never figured out how to exploit it.
The second is that the same powerful forces that carried Brown to victory -- and that many religious conservatives embraced in their zeal to block Obama -- often pay little heed to moral issues like abortion and gay marriage and stem cell research. Tea Party conservatism is at its core about unemployment and economic anxiety and anger and throwing out the rascals, whoever they are, or even if they are on the side of the angels. That could come back to haunt social conservatives.
As the saints have always counseled, be careful what you pray for -- you just might get it.