Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., urged NARAL Pro-Choice America to withdraw an attack ad against Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, who is seen as the penultimate threat to abortion rights. Specter called the ad "blatantly untrue and unfair."
Given that he is pro-choice, Specter's protest surprised those who no longer expect truth to be valued above ideology.
On the surface, this incident is remarkable enough but its underlying message is even more significant. I think it signals the defeat and decline of the pro-choice movement in the foreseeable future.
Senators will continue to debate; legislative battles will be waged on the state level; protesters will still scream at each other in the streets. But the very fact that NARAL -- America's leading advocate for abortion rights -- thought blatant dishonesty was the strongest card to play reveals a shocking depth of intellectual bankruptcy that is too common in the overall movement.
NARAL's pro-choice friends from both Left and Right have both openly opposed the anti-Roberts ad on the that it makes pro-choice advocates look like liars.
Walter Dellinger, a Solicitor General under Clinton, stated, "In order to prevent a downward spiral of our [pro-choice] politics, it is incumbent upon those who share a position to object when unfair statements are made to advance that cause." Dellinger echoed Specter who stated, " When NARAL puts on such an advertisement, in my opinion it undercuts its credibility and injures the pro-choice cause."
Why did the ad stir such protest from friends?
It opens with the image of the 1998 abortion clinic bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Emily Lyons, an employee, speaks of being injured in the blast. A narrator states, "Supreme Court nominee John Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber." An excerpt from a court brief is imposed on the screen.
Enter Factcheck.org, a self-declared "nonpartisan, nonprofit, 'consumer advocate' for voters" which monitors "the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players."
Its monitoring revealed that the quoted Roberts' brief was from a 1991 civil court case, Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic case. The case was argued seven years before the bombing occurred. Roberts did not defend violence; he argued that a 1870s law designed to protect ex-slaves from the Ku Klux Klan should not be interpreted and expanded to ban pro-life protesters from blocking abortion clinics.
Roberts' views on anti-abortion violence were clearly spelled out in a 1986 memo to President Reagan under whom he served as an Associate Counsel.
Roberts stated that clinic bombers should be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No matter how lofty or sincerely held the goal, those who resort to violence to achieve it are criminals."
Nevertheless, NARAL's ad ended by admonishing viewers, "Call your Senators….America can't afford a Justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence…" In short, the ad portrays Roberts as both morally and legally defending the bombing of abortion clinics. And it is difficult to believe that a highly-sculpted falsehood that had a $500,000 broadcast budget was just an error and not deliberate. If so, it was outright lie meant to destroy a man's reputation.
NARAL's response to 'friendly' critics also reveals moral bankruptcy. The President Nancy Keenan responded to Specter by regretting that "many people have misconstrued our recent advertisement."
Without backing down one whit, Keenan informed Specter that the ads would be pulled because "the debate over the advertisement has become a distraction from the serious discussion we hoped to have with the American public." Lies do tend to distract from the truth.
Even the subsequent resignation of NARAL's communications director David E. Seldin was accompanied by a defense of the ad as "100 percent accurate."
As a pro-choice advocate, I am ashamed of NARAL, an organization with which I never associated. I am ashamed of the anti-Roberts ad that typifies much of pro-choice rhetoric: a scorched-earth policy in which goodwill and truth are the first two items incinerated.
To regain credibility, the pro-choice movement must debate fairly-- an admonition that bears with equal force on pro-life advocates.
The first few steps should be easy ones:
--Pro-choice advocates must deal with arguments and avoid ad hominem or 'guilt by association' attacks. For example, stop using the likes of Eric Rudolph -- the Birmingham, Ala., clinic bomber who killed a police officer and critically injured Lyons -- to deflect criticism by implying all pro-lifers are pro-murder.
--The pro-choice side must acknowledge the legitimate arguments pro-life advocates have brought to the debate. For example, although I argue for legalized abortion, from listening to pro-life positions I now have profound moral doubts about abortion and strenuously encourage alternate solutions, like adoption.
--Instead of viewing slander as a 'hard-edged attack', pro-choice advocates should focus on the hard-edged social questions that accompany pro-life proposals. They should challenge pro-life advocates to explain how -- short of a totalitarian state that monitors every pregnancy -- do they intend to eliminate abortion and other 'fetus abuse'? Would they really let a woman die in agony from a life-threatening pregnancy, thus placing greater value upon a potential life than an actual one?
But dialogue on abortion won't work if only one side extends fairness. Pro-life advocates must come out cleanly and clearly against all forms of violence, especially the bombing of clinics. They should be more insulted and outraged by Rudolph than I am by NARAL. While the slander of Roberts is a form of verbal violence, the murder of a police officer in the Birmingham clinic bombing is true violence. So far, however, there has been a paucity of apology from the pro-life movement and not much commentary condemning Rudolph.
Whatever the pro-life side does, a good first step toward civil discussion would be for NARAL to apologize for its reprehensible ad…not just to Roberts and the pro-life movement but to the pro-choice advocates who have been equally smeared by its actions.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.