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The Best Way Forward for Pro-Lifers: Legislation, Protest, or a Culture of Life?

My favorite childhood movie, The Great Escape (1963), portrays an escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German POW camp. The prisoners work on three tunnels simultaneously, calling them Tom, Dick, and Harry: when guards discover Tom, the tunnel furthest along, the prisoners intensify their alternative efforts.

From the pro-life perspective, pro-life Americans have been in a prison camp ever since 1973, when a Supreme Court majority overrode state laws and legalized abortion throughout the United States. Since then, the Court has killed attempts by state legislatures to tear down the prison walls and fences. Once in a while, the Court has allowed removal of a watchtower.

Three Tunnels for Pro-Lifers

Abortion opponents have responded with three tunnels. Tom: elect pro-life legislators, pass laws, appoint the right judges. Dick: a spectrum of direct action ranging from peaceful to violent. Harry: help women surprised by pregnancy, show them what the creatures in their wombs look like, create “a culture of life.”

Each of those three tunnels has had faithful diggers, and I don’t want to disparage any nonviolent protesters. To be effective, though, we need to know which tunnels are partly blocked, and which offer the greatest hope of saving the most lives. Prisoners in The Great Escape are desperate to break out. So is just about everyone in the long-standing abortion wars and the individual battles that comprise it.

We need to know which tunnels are partly blocked, and which offer the greatest hope of saving the most lives.

My new book, Abortion at the Crossroads, examines the history of each tunnel and the opportunities each allows. My elevator summary would be that Dick, the direct action tunnel, has experienced lots of cave-ins, while Harry, the compassion tunnel, offers the best access regardless of what happens in Washington. But the story is complicated, and an assessment of Tom, the legislative/judicial tunnel, may depend in part on what the U.S. Supreme Court does with the numerous state heartbeat laws heading its way.

Those laws would protect unborn children at six weeks, and the Supreme Court in considering them will be at a crossroads, as it was in 1992. Then, three justices—David Souter, Anthony Kennedy, and Sandra Day O’Connor—showed they knew how sick Roe v. Wade was and is, but they joined two abortion enthusiasts in putting the deadly decision on life support. Will Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett do the same this time, staring at Roe and then mumbling the Latin phrase for letting decisions stand, stare decisis?

That’s a good practice in general but not in the face of egregious error. But whatever the Supreme Court decides, Republican Party leaders and voters will face a crossroads too. If the Court affirms Roe, politicians who have issued promissory notes at no charge to themselves—Law x or judge y will fix the problem—will no longer be able to check a box or suck up money, only to dash hopes and leave supporters disillusioned. On the other hand, if Roe falls, then real change is possible and symbolic victories will give way to trumpets and cymbals, but hard choices as well.

Facing a Crossroads

Whatever happens politically and judicially, pro-lifers are at a crossroads. Many have focused on abortion centers—praying and counseling outside them, or harassing them in various ways. But the number of chemical abortions will soon surpass surgical abortions.

COVID-19 has sped the move to telemedicine and direct distribution of “abortion pills,” with a resultant rise in do-it-yourself abortions. Pro-lifers celebrating the closing of abortion centers may be like anti-pornography crusaders who shut down video stores, only to see much more porn streamed directly to computers.

My fellow journalists will play a crucial role in all this, and so far most are failing to lay out the facts. They should explain clearly how abortionists face only minor constraints right up to the moment of birth. They shouldn’t hide what unborn children face as they are ripped apart or poisoned. They shouldn’t sugarcoat the psychological consequences to many troubled women.

Culture of Life

It’s easy for many Christians to complain about the press, but some pastors haven’t done much better. Pastors have opportunities to create a culture of life by drawing out the implications of passages like Isaiah 44:2, addressed to all God’s people: “Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb.” John Piper has said he was reluctant to preach about abortion, but he thanks God for “mercifully taking away some blind spots, showing me in the Scriptures all kinds of reasons for standing up and defending these little ones.”

Pastors have opportunities to create a culture of life.

Piper preached more than 20 sermons about abortion at his Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and pro-life ministries became part of the church culture. Furthermore, the Pipers adopted a child in 1995, so Piper can speak both from biblical urgency and personal experience of how pastors should be “exemplars of a way to engage abortion, both on the ground at the clinics, at counseling and intervention situations, and in the pulpit.”

Many pastors who are exemplars and preach a gospel of grace find post-abortive women thanking them. Pastors need not and should not push for a particular tunnel project. Members can contribute in different ways, and we don’t need to argue about who is the greatest, as the disciples in Mark 9:33–37 did. At that debate, Jesus “took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.’”

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Marvin Olasky’s Abortion at the Crossroads: Three Paths Forward in the Struggle to Protect the Unborn (Bombardier Books, 2021).

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