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Life Support

In 2007, Barack Obama promised Planned Parenthood that "the first thing I would do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act" (FOCA), which would overturn federal and state restrictions on abortion, including the ban on partial-birth abortion. But not a single member of Congress has introduced the bill yet. Its original sponsor in previous sessions of Congress, Jerold Nadler of New York, said "it won't be [introduced] anytime soon," a spokesman told Time, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has indicated she has no plan to raise the issue. Even pro-choice organizations are not aggressively pushing for it: A new report prepared by abortion-rights groups that outlines the steps the Obama administration should take in its first 100 days makes clear that passing FOCA is not a top "priority."

It may seem surprising that pro-choice advocates are not pushing FOCA, especially now that Democrats control the White House and both branches of Congress. The simplest explanation is that they feel abortion rights are safe under the current administration. But their inaction also illustrates one of the little-noted ironies of abortion politics: Outlawing partial-birth abortion was actually a big blow to the pro-life movement, and keeping it illegal is a small price to pay for winning the hearts and minds of American citizens.

The controversy over partial-birth abortion was a tremendous boon to the pro-life movement, as shown by Berkeley professor Cynthia Gorney in her extensive study of the issue. While the movement never succeeded in getting actual images of aborted embryos in mainstream media outlets, it did manage to get them to publish "the cartoonish line drawings" of the partial-birth abortion procedure. Such renderings, according to Gorney, were "gruesome, but not gory, which proved to be a critical distinction."

These images not only sensitized the public to the resemblance of aborted fetuses to newborns after the first trimester, they also exposed the scope of Roe v. Wade and its companion decisions. Americans have long imagined that our abortion laws are relatively restrictive and therefore in step with their ambivalent sentiments. Yet the pictures of well-developed fetuses with their skulls pierced with scissors made it hard to entertain the notion that Roe places tight limits on access to abortion. Abortion-rights activists, meanwhile, confronted the almost-impossible task of defending something that appeared shockingly like infanticide. This is why James Wagoner, the executive vice-president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, described the partial-birth abortion conflict as "a disaster" for the pro-choice movement.

Though it is difficult to empirically prove a direct causal relationship between the debate over partial-birth abortions and changes in public opinion, many political scientists contend that the controversy had an affect. "The effort by pro-lifers to ban partial-birth abortion during the 1990s resulted in some small, but resilient, changes in public opinion,” said Michael New, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “In particular, noticeably fewer Americans support abortion on demand." Though the change is slight, it is nonetheless significant given the fact that abortion attitudes have been remarkably stable (pdf) since the early 1970s, and should have been trending in a pro-choice direction given the growing secularity of American culture.

Other survey evidence corroborates New's conclusions. Political scientists Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr find that 18-29 year olds are suddenly "less pro-choice than any age group," despite the fact that they are both less religious and socially conservative than older Americans. Wilcox and Carr conclude that young people's newfound pro-life sentiment may be because political controversy during their formative years “focused largely on popular restrictions on abortion, such as a ban on partial-birth abortion.”

Now that the ban on partial-birth abortion is the law of the land, the controversy that was most effective in stirring pro-life sentiment has died--to the great relief of pro-choice advocates. But isn't the ban itself a victory for the pro-life movement? Not really. As staffers inside the National Right to Life Committee would have to concede, the ban does not significantly influence the abortion rate, since it only inhibits a particular procedure. The partial-birth procedure was only invented in the early 1990s; as such, abortion-rights activists have long lived without the procedure. What is more, pro-life groups do not even regard alternatives to partial-birth abortions as more humane, since some involve fetal dismemberment in the womb.

Thanks to the successful ban on partial-birth abortion, the pro-life movement has been deprived of one of the few campaigns that moved the national conscience. The potential of giving the movement new life may be a key factor in explaining why Obama and his pro-choices allies have been so slow to make it an issue.

Jon A. Shields is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009).

By Jon A. Shields