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Changing Hearts, Changing Laws


Columbia staff

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), one of the nation’s most vocal pro-life lawmakers, works in her office on Capitol Hill. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Ann Wagner’s office)

Since abortion was decriminalized 41 years ago throughout the United States and 45 years ago in Canada, North Americans have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the legacy of abortion on demand. The legal landscape, particularly in the United States, suggests that abortion restrictions on the state level will continue to grow, while recent polling data confirms that even those who identify as “strongly pro-choice” favor significant restrictions on abortion (see page 8).

Columbia recently spoke with three lawmakers — Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth (Ontario), a member of Father Theobald Spetz Council 5135 in Waterloo — about both the signs of hope and the challenges facing the pro-life movement today.

Columbia: What signs of encouragement do you see regarding pro-life culture and legislation today?

Rep. Ann Wagner: I’m very encouraged on multiple fronts. Every January, I take part in the March for Life, and one of the greatest signs of hope is that there are so many young people who care deeply about the rights of the unborn. Meanwhile, advances in medical science and ultrasound technology have really helped people to understand that life is created at conception.

I’m encouraged by key pieces of legislation we passed this year. For example, I spoke out very strongly in favor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that the House of Representatives passed outlawing abortion after 20 weeks, when a baby can feel pain. [The measure is still pending in the Senate.] In addition to the Hyde Amendment ensuring that no taxpayer funding goes to abortion through appropriations bills this year, Congress passed a bill dealing with the health exchanges in the new Affordable Care Act to ensure that no taxpayer dollars pay for abortion coverage.

I’m also encouraged by the outcry that ensued after the Health and Human Services contraception mandate of the health-care reform law. Americans are going to fight for their country’s founding principles and their First Amendment rights — in particular, the right of conscience and religious freedom.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski: Public opinion polls are showing that more people consider themselves to be pro-life. We’re also seeing progress with the younger generations — that’s good to see. There is certainly hope in terms of changing people’s minds on the issue of life.

Legislatively, it’s been very difficult on the federal level with the [Affordable Care Act] and the various issues that have hardly been supportive of life. But we’re continuing to work to change those. At the state levels, however, I’m very happy that there’s been a good amount of progress.

MP Stephen Woodworth: First, I’m encouraged by the fact that growing numbers of people are willing to take the time and effort to work for political change. Today [May 8], for example, thousands will attend a pro-life rally on Parliament Hill. Every year for the last five years we have been blessed with more and more people in attendance. In particular, there is a growing contingent of young people who are interested and active in the pro-life cause.

Also, I think there is a growing awareness of the legal situation in Canada, where a child is not defined as human until the moment of complete birth. In part through my own efforts and that of other pro-life members of parliament, I hope that more people are now aware of this atrocious reality.

Columbia: What are some of the hurdles you have encountered in your work as a pro-life legislator?

Rep. Ann Wagner: The media often tries to play a “gotcha” game with pro-life legislators. I get very angry as a pro-life woman when we are portrayed as anti-woman. I believe that pro-life is pro-woman. I’ve spoken with women who have had abortions, and they say that everyone was telling them that it was their body and their choice, but no one ever told them the implications of that choice: the physical risks, the emotional and psychological tolls, and the physical and mental difficulties that they had later on in life.

Those who support and perform abortions are the ones waging a war on women and children. They’re not being truthful about that choice and what the consequences of that choice can mean.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski: As a Democrat, it’s been particularly difficult. Illinois has had a long tradition of pro-life Democrats, but that’s been dwindling. The other side has a lot of money when it comes to campaigns, and that is always a difficulty.

This year actually was the first year that I did not have a primary opponent when I was running. Every year up until this year, one of the biggest issues that opponents have raised against me is that I am pro-life. That is certainly a hurdle that I continue to encounter.

MP Stephen Woodworth: Lack of awareness is still a problem. For example, up until 2010, nearly 80 percent of Canadians believed that the law limited abortion in the third trimester. This is completely untrue.

We still have not reached critical mass in energizing pro-life people. Until pro-life people are willing to go out and insist that politicians respect human rights, the politicians will continue to ignore them.

Finally, the pro-abortion faction has been very successful in seizing positions of political power. In May, for example, the leader of the Liberal Party announced that the party will not accept any pro-life candidates.

Columbia: In the face of an often-polarized political environment, how do you effectively articulate your pro-life position and appeal to those who disagree with you?

Rep. Ann Wagner: We need to communicate from a place of love, focusing on the humanity of the unborn baby — not attacking the women or the victims. For example, I often chronicle what the child can do at three and six and 10 weeks, moving up to 20 weeks, when the baby recognizes the sound of its mother’s own voice and can feel pain.

Start from a place of love and focus on the baby — this is the best way to articulate our pro-life message and to change hearts and minds.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski: My way of dealing not only with the life issue, but also other issues, is to be respectful of others, yet to be very firm in what I believe. From the first day that I was running for office, I said unequivocally that I am pro-life. People know that they are not going to change my position on this. I explain why I am pro-life, but it is not the only issue that I talk about.

MP Stephen Woodworth: In facing polarization, we first have to identify the areas of consensus. The United Nations’ [1948] Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that legal recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of every member of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice and peace. Among Canadians, I think we do generally share such a consensus. But I have been quite distressed to see that, in Parliament and largely in the media, this principle is challenged. I’ve brought some motions to recognize this principle, but they have been defeated because the pro-abortion faction regards universal human rights and equality as a threat to abortion.

Columbia: What do you think the future holds for the pro-life cause?

Rep. Ann Wagner: I’m very hopeful. As I said, I am encouraged by advances in science and technology, the interest of youth, and the fact that the movement has continued decade after decade to stick with us both at the state and federal level, encouraging legislators to come up with ways to help the women and children and give them alternatives to abortion.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski: It’s great to see so many young people at the March for Life every year. Often I have gone to pro-life events and have seen an older crowd. But I have seen more activity of pro-life student groups, and the March for Life really makes me optimistic about protecting life as we move forward.

Still, it’s not going to be easy. In today’s culture, there’s such an emphasis on doing the easy thing and not respecting that life begins at conception, even though science clearly demonstrates it. If we are going to change hearts and minds, we need to continue to teach kids about why we are pro-life, and why they should be pro-life. I think that’s the most important thing.

MP Stephen Woodworth: I truly believe that history is ultimately on the side of justice and human rights. I believe that 400 years of democratic development have led us to an increasing awareness of the importance of equality and human rights. In Canada today, those opposed to universal equality and human rights have the upper hand, but I believe this is a temporary setback. What we are striving for has the force of justice, truth and freedom — and we will prevail.

Columbia: What advice would you give to Knights of Columbus and others in the pro-life movement in their efforts to change public policy?

Rep. Ann Wagner: Continue to fight and be there for us. I agree with Margaret Thatcher’s famous line: “First you win the argument. Then you win the vote.”

So, you have to help us win the debate. You have to be those grassroots activists out there, bolstering and supporting our legislative efforts and all of the other good works done in the pro-life movement. Take the information we have and work at educating and changing hearts and minds in a way that is filled with love and compassion.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski: Pro-life candidates who are running for office need the support of pro-life people. In whatever ways they can, people have to stand up and support candidates for office who are dedicated to upholding and defending the right to life, sometimes courageously in the face of opponents who have a lot of money and power on their side.

MP Stephen Woodworth: We need to reach down through the layers of debate and start with the issues where we can find agreement, not the most contentious ones. I believe this should begin with the idea that every human being has equal worth and dignity. We have to look for these areas of consensus, develop them and then build on them.