Pro-Life Naïfs in the Big City

It’s a story older than literature. Young naïfs come from the provinces only to have their pockets picked by big city denizens. This is at least part of the story of the “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Fair Minded Words” conference on abortion that took place a few weekends ago at Princeton.

Abortion advocates came with a great deal of confidence and a clear agenda. Many of the pro-lifers came with little more than good will, not a little embarrassment, and in many cases an incomplete ability to articulate the pro-life position.

The problem started with the organizing committee. On the pro-abortion side sat abortion battleship Frances Kissling, onetime director of the misnamed Catholics for a Free Choice, along with Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who famously believes born children may be killed. On the other side sat newly minted assistant professor Charles Camosy of Fordham and Jennifer Miller, who runs a one-woman bioethics group that has an annual budget of $25,000. Imagine these two holding up the pro-life side opposite two grizzled veterans of the pubic-policy wars. It was a little like your local high school playing the New York Yankees.

The good guys did manage to get a few excellent pro-life advocates: John Finnis of Oxford, Helen Alvare of George Mason University, Christian Brugger of St. John Vianney Seminary, and William Hurlbut of Stanford. But for the most part the pro-lifers were out-numbered and outclassed. Every single panel was weighted in favor of the pro-abortion side, some embarrassingly so. The panel on preventing unintended pregnancies consisted of four abortion advocates pushing contraception and one priest ineptly explaining Catholic teaching. Pro-lifers who knew what they were doing would never have allowed these kinds of odds. It was worse than what happens on the leftwing MSNBC.

On the opening panel – which set the tone for the day – Jennifer Miller could not have been more embarrassed by the position she was supposed to defend. Another panelist, a former staff member of Planned Parenthood, suggested that Miller would answer a question from the pro-life perspective. Miller nervously refused to answer saying “we had a teleconference on this subject and decided we would not reveal our positions,” even though most of the speakers on the opening panel had already revealed themselves to be pro-abortion. Miller actually referred to abortion clinic escorts as “patient advocates.” It seems Miller got at least a touch of the Stockholm Syndrome during the conference planning.

Charles Camosy, the other organizer on the pro-life side, says he was inspired to do the conference while listening to Barack Obama’s Notre Dame speech, wherein Obama called for a dialogue on abortion that would include “open hearts and open minds.” There is an old saying in Washington, D.C., that where you stand is determined by where you sit (in the House and Senate chambers). Note that Camosy sat right in front of the president at Notre Dame rather than standing with those protesting his honorary degree at a Catholic university. At the conference, Camosy said the controversy around Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame demonstrated all that was wrong with the abortion debate in America. Most of us would say it was a high-water mark for the Church in America, especially that so many bishops publically protested. Not Camosy.

       Pro-lifers at Princeton: Stockholm Syndrome?

Besides the speakers who were outmatched or embarrassed or both, many of the others seem to be of the progressive persuasion, which meant the conference was at least in part the Left speaking to the farther Left. Any conference where Notre Dame’s Cathy Kaveny is on the pro-life side means the conference is in trouble from the start. Kaveny is known for siding with Barack Obama, and taking every opportunity to scold pro-lifers, including bishops, who dare to take a strong public position. Another of these was an Evangelical pastor who described himself as a progressive and who could not bring himself to say anything much stronger than abortion should be resisted.

One big puzzle is where were all the big pro-life guns of either academia or activism? I am told that many of them turned Miller and Camosy down, though I have not heard why. Did they lack confidence in the organizers? Or just not want to validate someone like Frances Kissling?

Not surprisingly, organizers claimed victory. How could they not when so many speakers congratulated the conference as “historical”? Camosy wrote there were areas of common interest such as protecting the consciences of health-care workers, though this was confused at best. Panelists said doctors may personally be able to refuse, but not institutions.

Writing in the leftwing website Commonweal, law professor Robert Vischer claimed a breakthrough on the humanity of the unborn child, though this is hardly news. Naomi Wolf first broached the subject fifteen years ago. He admitted there was no agreement on selective abortions, that is, abortions of girl-babies and the disabled even though two of the panelists have disabled children. Another panel could not agree on fetal pain.

Veteran pro-life academic/activist Helen Alvare found the conference helpful in one regard. It reminded her that the arguments of the other side have not really changed in the almost forty years of the Roe regime. The pro-abortion side, she said, is convinced that pro-lifers don’t really care about the unborn child but care more deeply about punishing sexual practices of which we disapprove. This echoes even the words of President Obama who famously said he would support his daughter’s abortion since she should not be “punished” with an unwanted baby.

In the end, what does it matter if there is common ground between Jennifer Miller and Frances Kissling? Such an agreement would change exactly nothing in the abortion debate. And let’s face it, Kissling and her crew have no intention of giving an inch. They’re having too much fun picking the pockets of the rubes.

NOTE: For those who wish to watch the panels mentioned in this column, the link below connects to the conference website. Beneath the title is a list of links, including one marked “event videos”:

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.