What is the future of the pro-life movement in the post-Republican political world?
With a U.S. president who strongly opposes any restrictions on abortion, how will the next generation of pro-life conservatives respond? Change is the one constant in politics, so we should not assume that the election of a pro-abortion president is the death knell for the pro-life agenda.
The political dynamic for the pro-life movement seems to be changing. Anti-abortion ballot measures in California and Colorado failed at the polls. And even with its strong pro-life population, South Dakota failed to pass an abortion ban for the second time in two years. Is the conservative pro-life movement wavering? Did these measures lose simply because of technicalities? Is the pro-life movement simply not as powerful as it used to be? None of these questions have been answered definitively. One thing is certain, however: the waters surrounding the abortion controversy are cloudy. Change is in the offing, but no one knows what kind of change is coming.
Abortion: An Inherent Good or a Necessary Evil?
As President, Barack Obama will have no small impact on the abortion debate. He is a gifted communicator and unswervingly supportive of abortion on demand. Notwithstanding his support for abortion, however, he reluctantly concedes, "[N]obody is pro-abortion, abortion is never a good thing." These sentiments match those of a host of abortion advocates who increasingly are ceding ground on the desirability of abortion. These advocates once promoted the procedure as a weightless, consequence-free option to any woman who does not want to be "burdened" by a child. Now, it seems, many in the "pro-choice" movement are at least willing to admit that abortion isn't a "preferred" choice.
This attitude shift is confirmed by recent abortion data. The rate of abortions per-thousand women is at its lowest point since the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. While the total number of abortions is still depressingly high (1.2 million in 2005), the declining percentage of women having abortions is encouraging.
Young Evangelicals Support Life, But Conflict with Parents over Approach
If polling of young evangelicals is any indication, the decline in abortion rates is likely to continue. A Pew Forum poll in 2007 showed that young evangelicals are actually slightly more likely to oppose abortion than their parents: "70% of younger white evangelicals favor 'making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion,' compared with 55% of older white evangelicals and 39% of young Americans overall who share this view." Moreover, Pew found that 66% of the 29-and-under bracket said "ending abortion was very important," compared to 63.9% of those over age 60. Clearly, opposition to abortion among young evangelicals remains strong.
But if young evangelicals are just as opposed to abortion as their parents and grandparents (or even more so), then why is there all this talk about the changing face of evangelical conservatism? The answer is to be found in the political arena. Conservative evangelicals have aligned themselves with Republicans since the birth of the modern "Religious-Right" in the late-'80s, but the new generation of evangelicals appears to be tired of the alliance. The Pew poll mentioned above traced a surprising trend among young evangelicals: From 2005 to 2007 the number of young white evangelicals identifying themselves as Republicans dropped 15 percentage points (from 55% to 40%). In that same period, party identification among older evangelicals dropped just five percentage points. Additionally, support for President Bush dropped dramatically among young evangelicals in that same time frame, from 70% to 45%. Young evangelicals are pulling away from the Republican Party.
Why has this political shift occurred? Perhaps the younger generation is frustrated by the means and methods of the Religious-Right/Republican alliance over the past two decades. All too often, this relationship has been characterized by empty rhetoric, scandal, broken promises, and a failure to deliver results. Young evangelicals are signaling that they want a different political approach.
Pro-Life Methods are Just as Important as the Message
One does not have to be a Yellow Dog Democrat to be frustrated with the current state of conservative politics. Numerous articles have pointed to the frustration that young people have with the current state of conservative evangelical politics. Young evangelicals want a broader agenda, encompassing care for the poor, needy, and abused, in addition to relief for the unborn and support for traditional families. They want a more careful, thoughtful public presentation of their beliefs. They are tired of the red meat rhetoric and judgmental spirit that has all too often characterized the activism of the Religious Right.
Is the pro-life movement destined to splinter? Possibly—unless some significant steps are taken soon to reconcile the approaches of older and younger evangelicals. The core beliefs of these two groups are not that different—young evangelicals are still concerned about most of the issues that concern their predecessors. The difference lies primarily in their rhetoric and their vision of the scope of the pro-life agenda. Young evangelicals want a change in the tone and tenor of the debate and they want a more full orbed application of the principles that undergird the pro-life movement. They care about issues like racism, poverty, elder care, and protecting the environment, in addition to protecting the unborn and encouraging family values. Their additional concerns should be embraced by the older generation of evangelicals that at times neglected important issues involving human dignity and the sanctity of life.
Charles Colson recently expressed fear about the commitment of young evangelicals: "Younger evangelicals remain pro-life, but I don't think they have the same fire in the belly about the issue that older evangelicals have had." Colson is right to worry about the younger generation's commitment to the cause in the current cultural and political atmosphere. Young evangelicals must be equipped to confront the dangers of moral and cultural relativism. Here, the experience and wisdom of the older generation can be of great benefit to them.
The strong pro-life commitment of young evangelicals should give us encouragement for the future. Hopefully, the pro-life movement can expand to include a multi-pronged approach to protecting life and preserving human dignity. The decline in the rate of abortions and the increasing acceptance of pro-life messages among young people and the media points to the possibility that this great tragedy might be resolved on the cultural front long before the battle is won on the legal or political fronts.
The protection of human life and dignity is the most important cause for which we can work in the civil sphere. We should continue, and expand, our efforts on all levels: working to outlaw abortion, supporting the adoption movement, helping needy mothers care for their new children, and advocating a consistent life ethic that embraces help and support for the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly.
The defenseless souls we seek to protect deserve nothing less than our full and unwavering support.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty. He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to http://centerforajustsociety.org This article originally appeared on Christianity.com on
January 21, 2009.