Barack Obama may turn out to be a better president than the pro-life movement could have hoped for -- though not at all in the way activists may have anticipated.
Like Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama made it one of the first acts of his presidency to sign an executive order that reinstates taxpayer funding for groups that provide and promote abortion overseas.
Unlike Bill Clinton, who signed a similar order with an in-your-face flourish the day before the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the savvier Mr. Obama waited until the day after the annual March for Life to overturn the perennial Republican funding ban. It was just a quiet Friday's work, the news of it largely lost on citizens moving into weekend mode.
This marks the first time that Mr. Obama has handled the abortion issue successfully; during the campaign it proved to be the only issue on which he regularly stumbled. When pro-life groups brought attention to his Illinois Senate votes against providing medical assistance to infants who survive abortion, the candidate accused them of "lying," only to have groups such as factcheck.org prove their claims accurate. When the Rev. Rick Warren -- the noted evangelical leader who conducted what was hands-down the campaign's best forum at his Saddleback Church -- asked him at what point a baby is entitled to human rights, the candidate stunned his friendly audience by flippantly saying the matter was "above my pay grade."
In more carefree times, pro-lifers might have expected an antagonistic president to galvanize support for their cause. They could have highlighted (since the media did not) the stark contrast between Mr. Obama's soothing words and his extremist position, between his rhetoric and his record, giving them the means to break through the cultural clutter and into voters' attention span. But these days, that may not be enough.
If Mr. Obama's popularity continues to blunt criticism of his policies, and if economic turbulence and national security issues continue to consume most of the average American's brain bandwidth, anti-abortion advocates may need to find a new approach.
One Catholic group already has. Fidelis, which runs the catholicvote.org Web site, just launched an ad depicting an unborn child, destined to be abandoned by his father and raised by a single mother, who grows up to become the first African-American president of the United States.
Their slogan? "Abortion is the enemy of hope." Using the president's image and rhetoric to stir support for something he stands against is true audacity.
And an audacious, farsighted strategy will be necessary, since Mr. Obama has repeatedly promised to sign the aggressive Freedom of Choice Act. This legislation, which proponents claim will merely "codify Roe," actually aims to negate the Supreme Court's upholding of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and, indeed, any laws that regulate the practice of abortion.
Polls continue to show Americans deeply conflicted. When questioned about general attitudes (for or against abortion, in all cases, in most cases), a slight majority continues to favor abortion rights, but according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage has fallen overall from 59 to 54 percent since 1995. That was the year the term "partial-birth abortion" was coined.
In August 2007, five months after the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortions, Pew found that 75 percent of Americans believe this abortion method should be illegal. Almost as many (73 percent) favor parental notification laws.
Though we're divided on whether abortion should be legal, overwhelmingly numbers of us approve measures to discourage it. We recoil from methods of performing it when confronted with their barbarism. Turning public opinion away from partial-birth abortion was a significant victory for pro-life activists, and it happened as Mr. Clinton, a Democratic pro-choice president, repeatedly vetoed the bipartisan legislation. Such victories should point the way forward.
With a president now in office whose votes on "born alive" legislation put him to the left of the entire U.S. Senate, perhaps pro-lifers' next step should focus on the controversial area of fetal pain. Rather than just defending current pro-life measures against threatened repeal, pro-lifers should ask compassionate Americans to extend to sentient fetuses (those at the midpoint of gestation, and possibly earlier) the same protections we extend to newborns -- even to newborns of non-human species.
And pro-life organizations should publicly invite Americans of every mindset in this debate to celebrate the fact that the number of abortions performed in this country has reached a 30-year low. Administrations come and go, and chilly political winds blow, but Americans' actions speak louder than Washington words.
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.