Pro-life Americans suffered a serious defeat with the approval of the RU-486 pill by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pill, which has been used for several years in Europe, allows a woman, under a doctor’s supervision, to abort a fetus up to 49 days after the beginning of her last menstrual period. This will permit many abortions to occur without surgery or the use of an abortion clinic. Many women will decide quickly in favor of an abortion using the pill rather than delay their decision until surgery would be required. There is also the danger that the RU-486 pill will be perceived as comparable to a birth control pill, a position that pro-choice advocates are already espousing.
While there is some hope that Congress may reverse the F.D.A.’s decision, American society has become so tolerant of abortions that it is unlikely that the RU-486 pill can be kept off the market for long. American abortion policy is being determined by public opinion polls, not by moral principles. The approval of RU-486 requires that Catholics and other pro-life activists rethink our strategy in response to the great abortion tragedy.
Violence against abortionistsseverely condemned by the bishops and mainstream pro-lifershas hurt the pro-life cause. Shrill demonstrations and rhetoricimitating the worst of the anti-Vietnam demonstrationshave garnered brief seconds on television news but have failed to convince many. On the other hand, silent, prayerful candlelight vigils have countered the media stereotype of pro-life crazies. Non-violent demonstrators willing to be arrested for their beliefs have also gained respect from the public.
But RU-486 will relocate many if not most abortions away from the scores of publicly identifiable abortion clinics to the anonymity of thousands of doctors’ offices. There is a danger that demonstrators will lose heart when much of the evil is out of sight.
Nor have politicians proven to be much help. Most Democrats have followed President Clinton like lemmings over the abortion cliff. Republicans are proving to be pro-life in name only as their pollsters carefully plot the views of middle-class soccer moms. While Mr. Clinton has compromised most of his principles during his presidency, the one principle to which he has held firm is his pro-choice stance, even in the face of polls showing overwhelming opposition to partial-birth abortion. Mr. Gore, who in Congress sometimes voted pro-life, has followed the same course as Mr. Clinton in his quest for the presidency. While we can hope that as president he might change his mind again, this is unlikely. Meanwhile Mr. Bush promises to be against abortion, but so did his father and President Reagan, who always placed their economic and military programs higher on the agenda than abortion. Will George W. be any different?
Pro-lifers need to devise a new strategy in the face of current American political and cultural realities. We must continue, as we have repeatedly said in these pages, 1) to oppose partial-birth abortion, 2) to oppose government funding of abortion and 3) to support the right of parents to know if their pregnant child is trying to arrange for an abortion. The last two become even more important with the approval of RU-486. The pro-abortion lobby will push for public funding and distribution of the RU-486 pill both nationally and internationally. This must be opposed. Likewise, the thought of minors popping RU-486 pills without their parents’ knowledge is frightening. These three goals are both morally correct and politically possible.
But if the goal of the pro-life strategy is the reduction in the number of abortions, then the strategy must be expanded to make it easier for women to have their babies rather than abort them. This means following the bishops’ lead in supporting universal health care for children, beginning in the womb. It means support for child care and a living wage for poor and working-class parents. As long as poor parents feel threatened economically by an unborn child, abortions will continue. Pro-lifers need to recognize that more children would be saved by such policies than would be saved by banning partial-birth abortion.
Finally, the RU-486 pill provides an additional challenge to the Catholic hierarchy. The bishops need to make clear that their opposition to the RU-486 pill and abortion is quite different from their opposition to birth control pills and other contraceptive measures. It may even be time for them to ask whetherbecause abortion has become so pervasive and because it is an evil so much greater than the evil of birth controla person who would terminate a pregnancy should be counseled to avoid becoming pregnant, even if this means practicing contraception. Such a stance would belie the accusation that the bishops are interested only in sex. It would make clear that abortion is not a sexual issue but a human rights issue.