Why The ‘Pro-Life’ Cause Was Winning (While ‘Traditional Marriage’ Was Losing)


Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A few weeks ago, I journeyed out to Baltimore’s Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play the Nationals. The one thing that struck me more than anything was Bryce Harper’s body language. At the risk of sounding like one of those old scouts in Moneyball, he, more than anyone — and there are great hitters on both ball clubs — stood at the plate like a man on a mission — as if he had something against the ball.

I was reminded of this when reading Ross Douthat’s excellent post, taking down Planned Parenthood. This is not the work of a man afraid of being brushed back from the plate — this is the work of a man ready to hit the ball all the way to the B&O warehouse. And this, it strikes me, is rather telling. Generally speaking, when it comes to the other big social issue (gay marriage), conservatives are tentative and defensive. You can tell it in their body language. Not so in the case of defending the right to life, as evidenced by Douthat’s post. But why? I have some thoughts…

For one thing, winning a public policy battle in today’s environment generally requires a victim. In the gay marriage debate, the obvious victim is the gay man or woman who cannot marry the person they love. Nobody buys the argument that gay marriage will harm my marriage, so we’re left with somewhat abstract arguments about the long-term impact of undermining the institution. But in the case of abortion, there is an obvious victim — the baby. What is more, technology such as ultrasounds (which can now be posted on Facebook) only serve to buttress the argument that a fetus is, in fact, something called a baby. And once we accept that it’s a baby, her right to live trumps a mother’s right to choose to abort her (so long as the focus remains on the baby, and not on subjects like “legitimate rape” or transvaginal ultrasounds).

Another point: When it comes to activists and opinion leaders, it’s important to have a heroic role model. And because their is a sympathetic victim, conservatives are able to use abolitionism as a frame. Now, most Americans might not see pro-lifers in this light, but it’s important to know that many pro-life activists see themselves as modern-day abolitionists, in the mold of William Wilberforce.

Conservatives opposing gay marriage have no such examples to cling to. Their opponents (I would argue, unfairly) cast them as modern-day segregationists. It’s hard to build a movement full of passionate young people in this milieu. Passionate young people want to fight for something noble — want to defend someone who is being victimized by someone who is more powerful. We all want to do something heroic and noble.

And that’s why these Planned Parenthood videos really work. The unseemly business of harvesting and selling organs makes it clear that we are talking about a baby (and her parts). As someone who has been ambivalent about the proliferation of hidden camera and ambush videos and “gotcha” journalism, I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most effective examples of activism I’ve witnessed in a long time. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this may qualify as journalism, as well.

But think of this: Would it be possible for conservatives to make an anti-gay marriage version of this video? I suppose it’s possible that you could infiltrate some meeting of a radical gay rights group, and catch them revealing their sinister plans of taking down preachers and wedding cake bakers. But it’s hard to imagine you could capture the sort of evil that comes from watching someone sip chardonnay and pick at a salad, while cavalierly discussing the killing of a baby…

There are some other reasons why the wind is at the pro-life cause’s back. For one thing, let’s take the very framing of the names. While conservatives may generally scoff at how we have suddenly invented all these new “rights,” two things are true: First, the “right to life” is actually in the Declaration of Independence (unlike the “right to choose” or the “right to privacy”). And second, like it or not, Americans are now obsessed with rights. In the past, our society was more interested in things like tradition and family values and communitarian responsibilities. Today, we are a nation of rugged individualists who are obsessed with “rights.”

The traditional conservative may lament this, while the libertarian might love it. But there’s nothing we can do about this inexorable fact. All the trends (from people leaving their villages and moving to cities — to the rise of new media) point to the worship of individual rights at the expense of community standards, values, etc.

Now, you might think this is an argument for the right to choose. And clearly, our selfish desire for immediate gratification — and our desire to put ourselves ahead of others and our responsibilities — is part of what drives the abortion-on-demand market. But I think that’s precisely why the right to life movement was shrewd to frame itself as the Right to Life.

Obviously, being right to life is preferable to being “anti-abortion,” and definitely better than anti-choice. That’s part of why the name works. But it also works because it incorporates the word “right” — which is potentially the most important political word of our time. (Kudos also belong to the smart folks who coined “Right to Work” as a slogan.)

Now, compare the “right to life” name with the term “traditional marriage.” Traditional marriage might sound positive, but think about it for a second. Shouldn’t the term simply be marriage?  Once you qualify the word, it suggests that traditional marriage is just one option available to us.

Aside from the fact that our political culture is inherently more kind to the right to life cause than the traditional marriage cause (primarily because you have to have a sympathetic victim) — and aside from the fact that the pro-life activists were smarter about framing the issue — I don’t want to take anything away from the way these pro-life activists have brilliantly rolled out these videos.

Morton Blackwell, my former boss at The Leadership Institute, has, for years, preached that you should “Never fire all your ammunition at once.” To illustrate this principle, he uses an interesting metaphor. Getting negative information out is like cutting off a puppy dog’s tail. If you’re the dog (if the negative information is about you), then you want to lop the tail off in one fell swoop. But if the dog is your opponent, you don’t want to cut it off all at once. Instead, you want to cut it off one inch at a time. And that’s exactly what’s happening to Planned Parenthood. It’s been a painful howl.