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The rise and fall of Georgia's pro-life movement

A pro-life advocate on the changing battlefield of abortion rights

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Recently, Georgia Right to Life urged congressional Republicans to oppose legislation that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

It was a quizzical position for arguably the state's leading anti-abortion organization, but expected nonetheless. And it's an example of how the pro-life movement is a large part of the reason we are losing in the battle for hearts and minds. I say "we" because I'm a pro-life conservative. I am also, in full disclosure, in ongoing conversations with people who are seeking alternate platforms for those who want to get back to winning said hearts and minds.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the majority of Georgia's political body was made up of socially conservative Democrats. Republicans were viewed as country club liberals from Atlanta. And nothing good came from Atlanta.

One of the major forces that changed this fact were the "Pat Robertson Republicans" who actively worked the GOP convention system to put a distinctly social conservative mark on Georgia's Republican establishment. They brought with them a pro-life litmus test that became virtually required to become a GOP nominee. It's one that I completed in 2000 when I ran for state Senate to be certified as "pro-life," according to the definition used at that time.

The standard requirement to be pro-life in those days was to be willing to agree to end abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother's life was in danger. That was the standard into this millennium as documented on the questionnaires distributed by GRTL. The key, as we always said, was to "win the hearts and minds."

Around the time that socially conservative Republicans gained majorities under the Gold Dome, GRTL made the curious decision to make its definition of pro-life narrower. Gone from the candidate questionnaires are references to rape and incest. "Life of the mother" is only begrudgingly given direct acknowledgement, while legislative initiatives have sought to narrow this exception to the tightest boundaries possible — occasionally leaving open the possibility that a woman, who is the victim of a miscarriage, could be the subject of a criminal investigation.

The significance of this push can't be underestimated in regards to the direction of Georgia's pro-life movement. Instead of using the majority that had signed on to support triple exception pro-life legislation to advance the cause, the organization moved the goal posts. Instead of working to eliminate the majority of abortions due to unplanned pregnancy, it chose to change the rules. Instead of continuing the battle to win hearts and minds, it chose to make the battle an internal one, where only the "pure" could hold the pro-life mantle.

GRTL has now moved the battle past exceptions. It is working feverishly to eliminate in vitro fertilization as an option for conception and attempting to ban "human-animal hybrid embryo" research. The organization once known for "trying to end abortion" seems bizarrely preoccupied with these tangents. Because of that, its current efforts are largely unrecognizable to the proposals pushed by traditional pro-life advocates.

What most probably view as a pro-life activist is someone waving signs outside an abortion clinic, condemning its customers to hell. Amazingly, this is usually done in the name of Christ. Yes, the one that Christians believed came to Earth to forgive sins. The one that spent his time here with sinners and rejected the self-importance of the Pharisees. The one whose only documented time of showing anger was when he had to cast out the money changers in the temple — people who set up shop to profit off the veiled trappings of religion rather than contributing to spreading the message. The irony of these images is tragically palpable.

A better image of a pro-life activist is that of a friend of mine who occasionally, quietly sits in front of these clinics, usually taking a slow puff or two from a cigarette as she looks for someone who might be looking for someone to talk to. She often does this in some of the worst parts of town, and as someone who is probably all of 90 pounds soaking wet, has had to deal with some folks that didn't appreciate her meddling and who were many times her size. She neither lectures nor threatens. She just asks if they need help or if there are other factors that would help them change their mind. Sometimes on her own and sometimes with the help of others, she tries to see if she can find them that help.

This has meant that she's had to — at least temporarily — become part of these women's lives. She's had to teach new mothers to cook. She's had to find money, jobs, and other resources for them. She does so without threats or condemnation. She listens and she helps. In the process, she wins hearts and minds, and, more importantly, saves lives.

GRTL's opposition to the congressional bill has brought it additional scrutiny both at home and within national right-to-life circles, as the legislation was the centerpiece of those other organization's efforts. They have drawn the public ire of many who once worked with the organization, including powerful Gold Dome leaders.

GRTL appears to have badly miscalculated, as the GOP which once coveted their endorsement finally appears willing to say "enough" to its politics of purity. And that's OK, because this is becoming a battle that is harder and harder to win in a legislative or even legal arena. It's time those of us who claim to be pro-life get back to winning hearts and minds — one at a time if necessary.

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