Tuesday, January 22, marked the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion anywhere in the nation, even though only four states allowed abortion on demand beforehand.
The 1973 ruling caught many evangelical Christians off guard. Unlike Catholics of the era, few Protestants had formulated a right-to-life theology. While pro-abortion groups groups touted the Roe decision as a victory for "freedom of choice" from the onset, many evangelicals floundered at how to respond.
By the early 1980s, conservative Christians fully understood that every life is precious and made in the image of God. Many figured the way to halt abortion required convincing women not to kill the life inside them.
Only in recent years has a more effective formula been implemented: reaching out with compassionate holistic care to the pregnant woman after administering a pregnancy test.
"In the past decade, pregnancy care center ministries have grown more than we could have imagined," says Cindi Boston, 50, founding executive director of the Springfield (Missouri) Pregnancy Care Center, a Heartbeat International affiliate. "Christians have found a practical way to respond to women in crisis pregnancy."
Boston notes that PCCs are the perfect outlet for pro-life activists uncomfortable with picketing outside an abortion facility.
The expansion of Springfield Pregnancy Care Center in the past decade is illustrative of how the anti-abortion mindset has changed throughout the United States. When it opened in 2000, the care center merely offered pregnancy testing, nutrition education and mentoring classes. Additional services today include one-on-one mentoring for fathers and mothers, fatherhood classes, healthy pregnancy instruction, birthing classes, a marriage enrichment program, and financial courses - all for free.
"A comprehensive set of services allows us to make a long-term impact on the life of the mother and father, to help them grow into stronger people as they prepare for parenthood or adoption," Boston says. "We want to go beyond just saving the baby's life."
Outreaches such as abstinence education, adoption agencies and maternity homes have shown that pro-lifers aren't solely interested in keeping the mother from aborting. Such approaches are making a difference in how Americans view abortion. In 2009, for the first time since Gallup had asked the question in 15 years of polling, a majority of Americans self-identified as pro-life. In a 2012 survey, a record low 41 percent of respondents called themselves pro-choice.
"Relationships in pregnancy centers not only establish what the needs of individual women are, but also really minister to them in a way that maximizes the woman's ability to think through all her pregnancy options," Boston says. "It's not about one choice, which is not a choice at all."
John C. Cissel II, 51, board chairman of the world's largest network of pregnancy help ministries, Heartbeat International, commends Boston for operating a model center.
"It is a great example of how the local church, through hundreds of volunteers, can make a great impact," says Cissel, of Yorba Linda, California.
In the immediate post-Roe period, some anti-abortion protesters engaged in civil disobedience, supposing that would spur a moral consensus to end abortion. Yet graphic posters of dismembered fetuses and harsh-sounding messages such as "Don't Kill Your Baby" often didn't change hearts. As demonstrations grew more confrontational and, in rare cases, violent, the abortion industry convinced Congress to outlaw protests outside clinics.
More recent pro-life rallies from new organizations such as Bound4Life and 40 Days for Life emphasize prayer and fasting as solutions to curb abortion.
Spreading the word about the grim realities of abortion and its aftermath remain important, according to Laura Zavala Allred, who started the organization Standard Bearers International and Captured in 2004.
"I'm part of a generation that has only known legalized abortion," says Allred, 38. "Raising awareness is important, because many young people have a hard time seeing how Roe could actually be overturned."
Allred, a Mexican-American, is one of a growing number of Hispanic and African-American women who have become pro-life activists. She notes that abortionists target those two largest minority groups disproportionately.
Last year, Allred organized 39 women representing the 39 years of legalized abortion to trek 250 miles across Texas for the inaugural Back to Life walk. The event provided a platform for women to share their abortion stories and provided a venue for other women to grieve their abortions.
Forgiveness and healing
"There is a plethora of women in the church who are silently carrying this cloak of grief and shame, and they don't feel they can talk about it," says Allred, who attends Trinity Church of the Assemblies of God in Cedar Hill, Texas. "When women keep this a secret, it's like a cancer that eats at our souls. It keeps us from walking in freedom."
Sheila Harper, founder of SaveOne, which is part of the growing abortion recovery movement, concurs.
"As women and men get into abortion recovery classes and they become healed, whole and healthy, they can't help but go tell other people they have been set free," says Harper, 47. There are 150 SaveOne chapters active in 25 states and 12 foreign countries. In a 12-week span, participants use a Scripture-based 146-page curriculum authored by Harper, based on her own post-abortion trauma and healing. Other prominent abortion-recovery groups include Forgiven and Set Free, Surrendering the Secret, and Rachel's Vineyard.
"The other side was ingenious when they made this a political issue," says Harper, whose husband, Jack, is pastor of CrossRoads Church of Antioch (AG) in Antioch, Tennessee. "That effectively closed the mouths of pastors."
Harper says pastors need to view abortion as a spiritual rather than political issue so that congregants realize healing is available. In a typical church, 1 in every 3 adults has been involved in an abortion, Harper says.
"When a pastor says there is hope for those who have committed this sin, it conveys that it's OK to talk about it rather than cover it up," Harper says. "Although there will always be regret, through Jesus Christ the pain can be dissolved."
Turning the tide
Although abortion remains legal across the United States, Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for the Washington-based Americans United for Life, the nation's oldest national pro-life legal organization, says more state legislation has passed in the last four years restricting abortion than in the previous 35 years combined.
"Against overwhelming odds, we've seen great progress against significant political, financial, legal and judicial obstacles," says Forsythe, 54.
Nationally, the most impressive gain came as a result of the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Gonzales v. Carhart. Most notably, the decision banned "partial-birth" abortion, a late-term procedure also called dilation and extraction in which a fetus is extracted from the womb and its skull crushed.
But just as significantly, the ruling opened the door for states to pass meaningful regulations to protect the life of the unborn child as well as the pregnant mother. In 2011, state legislatures passed a record 92 laws restricting abortion or increasing regulations on providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Forsythe points out that 38 states now protect unborn children with fetal homicide laws, 26 states require a waiting period before a pregnant woman undergoes abortion, and 32 states have informed consent laws, in which the expectant mother, typically at least 24 hours before the operation, must receive a written explanation of abortion and information on fetal development.
"This has provided a stronger foundation and platform to make continued progress in the years ahead," Forsythe says. Publicity surrounding deaths and injuries to women in botched abortions likewise makes people question whether abortion really is a safe procedure. An abundance of medical data - such as women who undergo abortions later have an increased risk of pre-term birth and increased risk of suicide - also have helped change attitudes, Forsythe says.
"In many ways, Roe is weaker because the Supreme Court has given states more flexibility," says Forsythe, author of a forthcoming book on the behind-the-scenes deliberations in the Supreme Court that led to Roe v. Wade. "It's also weakened because of progress in public opinion and progress in state legal protections for the unborn child."
However, technology, namely ultrasound images, may be the catalyst in transforming individual viewpoints. The ultrasound scans provide an in-depth view that leaves no doubt the picture is that of a developing baby.
"When a woman who is absolutely determined to end her pregnancy because she believes it is an inconvenience sees the viability of the pregnancy that only a picture can reveal to her, it brings a new dimension," Boston says. She notes that before the ultrasound technology, 60 percent of abortion-minded women opted to carry their babies to term at Springfield PCC. Now the rate exceeds 90 percent.
The "abortion pill," originally called RU-486, hasn't been the panacea abortion advocates expected. The procedure involves a pregnant woman initially swallowing mifepristone in a doctor's office to cause the embryo to detach from her uterine wall. One or two days later, a second pill, misoprostol, is taken to cause later contractions that force the embryo out of the uterus. Activists believed this would be more popular than a surgical suction abortion because it takes place in the privacy of a home.
"It has not become dominant in part because it is an arduous, uncomfortable process for women," Forsythe says. "The woman may see the aborted child pass in the toilet alone at home. Women are much more physically and psychologically involved in the process."
Heartbeat International, through its web- and phones-based hotline, receives more than 200,000 calls a year from women seeking assistance with their unplanned pregnancies. Heartbeat International also has prompted people to reconsider their abortion viewpoints via its Babies Go to Congress Initiative. The program has involved 86 women from around the country who contemplated abortion subsequently visiting congressional representatives in Washington - with the baby they opted to keep.
"Representatives who are adamantly pro-choice no longer believe the rhetoric that we tricked these girls into keeping their baby," Cissel says. "We have become more holistic in medical focus and practice, caring for the whole woman beyond pregnancy and delivery."
The net result of all these factors is that the number of abortionists and abortion facilities has dwindled. Three states - Mississippi, South Dakota and North Dakota - each has just one location to obtain an abortion. The number of abortions, which peaked in 1990 at more than 1.6 million, has fallen gradually. The latest figures, for 2009, show slightly more than 1 million abortions occurred during the year.
For all the progress, abortion remains an entrenched reality in U.S. society. According to the National Right to Life Committee, there have been 54,559,615 legal abortions in the United States since 1973. Forsythe notes the United States is one of only four countries (with China, North Korea and Canada) that permits abortion for any reason after viability.
Planned Parenthood, by far the nation's largest abortion provider, receives nearly $1 million a day in federal funding. The Affordable Care Act, set to go into effect in July, will be the largest expansion of federal government support for abortion ever.
"The Supreme Court is still the major obstacle," Forsythe says. "The Supreme Court still won't return the issue to the states, and still determines whether new laws - including basic health and safety regulations - can go into effect."
Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned in the future, abortion won't disappear. Rather, it would revert to individual states determining its legality. The two largest abortion states, New York and California, would maintain its legality.
Formidable opposition remains in the powerful abortion lobby.
"If we want to change the culture in the United States, we must do a multi-pronged approach," says Boston, who attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield. "We do need legislative impact. Education is important. And when a single woman has an unplanned pregnancy, the church can care for the woman with unconditional love and provide her with a better future."
Every Christian can do something for the cause, Boston maintains.
"We should do what we can, whether that's writing a letter to the editor, helping at a pregnancy center, volunteering at an adoption agency, meeting with state legislators, or lobbying in Washington," Boston says.
Harper contends that changing hearts and minds about abortion is the responsibility of individual Christians.
"Our only hope is through the local church," Harper says. "We can't wait on politicians to do this for us."
Cissel believes as the pro-life movement continues to mature, divergent methods to end abortion ultimately will prevail, just as abolitionists attempted various strategies to bring an end to slavery in the 19th century. Public demonstrations, PCCs and abortion-recovery groups are all part of the answer, Cissel says. Because of their reach, Cissel thinks the more than 71,000 volunteers in 2,000 PCCs across the country have the opportunity to make the most impact.
Boston and Harper are enthused that millions of informed teenagers and 20-somethings have concluded abortion is a horrid monstrosity.
"We're going to make abortion unthinkable before it's illegal," Harper says.
Cissel likewise is optimistic about the future.
"Many youth are incredibly pro-life because they are into the idea of justice and mercy," Cissel says. "They grew up with ultrasound. They know it's not OK to kill a baby, because the baby isn't a blob of tissue."
Author: John W. Kennedy, Pentecostal Evangel