03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will the Real Pro-Lifer Please Stand Up?

Today is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and yet another day to observe the pro-life movement's riveting mid-life crisis. Next month offers perhaps the ideal opportunity to view the crisis up close. That's when former president George W. Bush will receive the "prestigious" Cardinal John J. O'Connor Pro-Life Award and not ironically. By most measurable standards, George Bush was possibly the most pro-abortion president we've ever had. During his two terms in office, he waged an attack on access to contraception so dogged it upstaged the Pope. He also, not coincidentally, slowed the free-fall in abortion rates set in motion under Clinton. Bush's legacy of financial ruin coupled with widespread hopelessness has led to a spike in abortion rates, yet another economic indicator that tracks a gloomy public's pessimistic view of the future.

And so the O'Connor nominating committee's decision to honor Bush as a hero of its cause tells us a lot about the crisis now facing the pro-life movement. According to the committee, Bush's roll back of funding for contraception worldwide and his attempts to redefine contraception as abortion made him their man. And yet, this wasn't exactly the playbook for making abortion less prevalent.

This brings us to some larger questions that it seems many pro-life Americans have on their minds these days. What does it mean to be pro-life? What measurement should be used to gauge success?

Clearly, the traditional pro-life establishment bases its goals on a set of unchangeable "values" rather than quantifiable results.

It's this decision to stick to rhetoric rather than results that has opened a chasm between the extreme pro-life establishment and the pro-life American public, which has long favored pragmatism. This relentless allegiance to "ideals" has created an opportunity for new voices to be heard, and particular those of a newly emergent, progressive pro-lifer, a far more threatening development to the traditional pro-life establishment than anything NARAL or Planned Parenthood could have dreamed up. The establishment has for years thought all it need do is hold up big graphic, gory protest signs to win the argument. The rise of the pro-life progressive, with their interest in attainable and measurable goals, has not only captivated a growing segment of the public, but shined a spotlight on the contradictions of the establishment, and also, just as important, at its overriding allegiance. It has long been a wing of the Republican party, at times more allegiant to partisan politics than pro-life goals.

The pro-life establishment clearly understands the threat of this emerging new voice within the movement it supposedly leads. And so traditional right wing pro-life groups have spent much of last year slandering their moderate brethren.

Let's take the 2009 experience of Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH). Like most pro-life Americans, he's pro-contraception. For the pro-life establishment, that's a disqualifier. As thanks for drafting a bill, the Ryan DeLauro Act, intended to reduce the need for abortion through greater access to contraception, strengthened supports for struggling families with wanted pregnancies, improved access to adoption, and sex education programs that are effective at reducing teen pregnancy rates, the pro-life movement booted Ryan from their ranks, branding him a "pro-life impersonator," and labeling his legislation "a fake pro-life abortion bill." As Rep. Ryan explained, "The new fault line is not between pro-life and pro-choice people. It's within the pro-life community. The question now is: 'are you pro-life and pro-contraception, therefore trying to reduce the need for abortions, or are you pro-life and against contraception and you hope that people's lives improve just by hoping it, wishing it so.'" Making Ryan out to be a fraud is essential for the right wing establishment. As Ryan explains, "We have an opportunity here to solve this problem and give pro-life members of Congress a common sense approach to reducing abortion and boy does it marginalize those people who have really beat the drum on the pro-life issue and have not provided any solution to it."

The pro-life drumbeaters continued their increasingly shrill campaign in Indiana last spring. In May, they popped their circus tent outside The University of Notre Dame to protest President Obama's commencement address and later launched a campaign to unseat Notre Dame's president,, simply for giving the President the setting to air his proposals on common ground and on reducing the need for abortion before an eager pro-life audience. The message was clear to all pro-life figures, stray from the right-wing Republican pro-life platform at your peril. When Notre Dame president Jenkins announced he would attend the March for Life, held today in D.C., right wing pro-lifers issued warnings. Jill Stanek, a popular pro-life blogger, wrote, "We'll join him alright, complete with cameras, microphones, and plenty of questions for the good reverend. First question: Why are you even here?"

Why should the pro-life establishment have a problem with pro-lifers who opt to try a different approach in pursuit of the same "pro-life" goal which is, theoretically, lowering the rate of abortion? This only makes sense if lowering the rate of abortion isn't the actual goal. The campaigns against progressive pro-lifers is not so much about "protecting the unborn" as it is about protecting their political co-conspirators, the GOP. And so, little threatens more than the rise of a pragmatic pro-life voice to champion strategies proven to reduce the need for abortion, like access to contraception and supports for struggling families with wanted pregnancies; traditionally Democratic policies. This is, after all, the approach that worked. During the Clinton years it resulted in the most dramatic decline in abortion rates in the history of our country.

And so, as the pro-life movement enters middle age, a threatening development looms: the discussion within its ranks of prevention and measurable pro-life results. When that's the focus, the gory sign, the shouted insistence on age-old rhetoric over real life accomplishments is their only reply, and one increasingly seen as hollow by a newly vocal pro-life majority.

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