Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where she oversees research on issues ranging from marriage, life, and religious liberty to health, education, and welfare to the application of America’s founding principles to today’s challenges.
Ask a group of students today how many of them have seen an ultrasound picture of themselves in utero and chances are most will raise their hands. New facts of life like these are shaping the disposition that a rising generation brings to the topic of abortion. It is personal in a whole new way.
Youth presence is strongly felt at the annual March for Life on the Mall in Washington, D.C., where black-and-white signs reading “I am the pro-life generation” are ubiquitous. The march is a massive gathering impressive for its youth and diversity, and for how it has achieved articulation of the pro-life message in a way that communicates both the gravity and optimism of the cause. Perhaps nothing captures this better than the solidarity of young people—many not old enough to vote—marching on behalf of their unborn peers. As another sign held by young women at the march proclaimed, “I came that they might have life”—echoing Jesus’ words in the gospel of John.
This optimistic empathy is frequently obscured by caricatures of pro-life advocates as negatively fixated on opposing abortion while being inattentive to the needs of mothers facing unplanned pregnancies and to their children once born. The rise of post-abortion counseling, maternity homes, and adoption ministries, among other efforts often motivated by religious faith, refutes that characterization of the pro-life movement.
Pregnancy resource centers are the most extensive component of this pro-life network of services. Numbering nearly 2,000 across the country, these centers empower pregnant women—and, increasingly, the fathers of their unborn children—through information, counseling, and material support. A growing number of centers are able to offer ultrasound technology for expectant mothers.
Despite the critics’ clamor for the pro-life movement to offer more support for women and children, these expanded activities have not been welcomed by all. Indeed, liberal challenges to such civil society efforts and to the personal convictions of individuals and groups in their private lives have created policy and legal disputes that have taken center stage in recent months and years. Even pro-life efforts in culture have not been immune from political challenge.
Later this spring the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a California law that requires pregnancy resource centers to promote abortion, which is being challenged on First Amendment grounds. The law directs medically licensed pro-life centers to tell women how to get free or low-cost abortions through a state-run health program. Failure to do so would result in catastrophic fines for the centers. The case, NIFLA v. Becerra, is a critical test for free speech.
Furthermore, California’s Department of Managed Health Care has mandated that all insurance plans under its jurisdiction, even those sponsored by churches, must cover elective abortions. This represents an even more extreme version of the policy that forced the Little Sisters of the Poor all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to resist a coercive federal policy demanding the nuns’ health plan provide access to abortion-inducing drugs and contraception.
Meanwhile, lack of consistent protection for medical professionals and health care entities whose convictions prohibit them from participating in or providing coverage for abortion has prompted members of Congress to advance the Conscience Protection Act, which would strengthen enforcement of federal conscience protection statutes. The bill passed the House but awaits consideration in the Senate.
Conscience issues have also emerged in the field of child welfare, where religious adoption and foster care agencies are seeking to serve birth mothers and children in need. As sexual orientation policies have evolved in several jurisdictions, including Boston, Washington, D.C., and Illinois, religious agencies committed to placing children with a married mother and father—including at the request of the birth mother—have been forced out of service. A bill introduced in Congress, the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, seeks to protect the religious liberty of these agencies. The urgency of such protection is heightened as the opioid crisis is creating greater demands on the foster care system.
As the pro-life movement has expanded its witness and service to mothers and children, so have the challenges to it expanded. These pose threats to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the free exercise of religion—raising questions as to why our most fundamental constitutional rights ought to be sacrificed to a court-created right to abortion on demand. As a rising generation confronts these issues more personally—because of expanded access to prenatal technology and because of encounters with the growing personal outreach of the pro-life movement—it will become increasingly clear that the freedom to have a pro-life culture requires the protection of sound law.