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Chronicling the pro-life movement

40th anniversary feature: WORLD’s coverage of the battle for the unborn highlights the highs and lows of a movement with often unexpected allies


Pro-life advocates rally during the 2017 March for Life. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Chronicling the pro-life movement


(Editor's note: August marks the 40th anniversary of World News Group. In the following feature, WORLD reporter Leah Savas reviews WORLD’s coverage of abortion and the pro-life movement over the years.)

IN THE 1990s, a few of the most visible faces of the pro-life movement were murderers. An unknown gunman in 1998 shot abortionist Barnett Slepian through the kitchen window of his Buffalo, N.Y., home. The bullet hit his chest as he chatted with his wife and boys over an evening bowl of soup. He died less than two hours later on that Friday night in October.

By the next spring, law enforcement had found a DNA match between a hair on the crime scene and one from a Jersey City apartment. The red hair and apartment once belonged to James Kopp, an activist involved in the pro-life movement’s sit-ins and abortion facility blockades. That May, law enforcement named him a suspect in the killing. The next month, he made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.

He wasn’t the movement’s first notorious face. In 1993, activist Michael Griffin shot and killed abortionist David Gunn in the parking lot of the Pensacola abortion facility where he worked. Shootings in 1994 left another abortionist and two abortion facility workers dead, adding the names of pro-lifers Paul Hill and John Salvi to the list of killers of abortionists.

Two sheriff’s officers lead James Kopp into court for the murder of Barnett Slepian.

Two sheriff’s officers lead James Kopp into court for the murder of Barnett Slepian. Getty Images

Nine months before Kopp pulled the trigger on the SKS assault rifle in the woods behind Slepian’s house, WORLD ran its first Roe v. Wade anniversary issue, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the country and brought exponential growth to the pro-life movement. WORLD later covered Slepian’s murder and noted how it had become a distraction from facing the millions of deaths of unborn children. In the years since, WORLD has continued to cover the pro-life movement at its worst and best, revealing a contingent of often unexpected allies—former abortion workers, Democrats, and people who don’t call themselves pro-life but who don’t like abortion—and a cause that seems to grow the most in a hostile environment.

Paul Hill

Paul Hill Peter Cosgrove/AP

THINGS DIDN’T LOOK GOOD for the pro-life movement in the 1990s. The year before the parking lot shooting in Pensacola, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to a hopeful pro-life movement when it issued its June decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. With two new conservative justices on the bench, pro-lifers had hoped to see the Pennsylvania abortion restrictions at issue in the case lead to a reversal of Roe v. Wade. But the majority opinion explicitly reaffirmed the 1973 decision.

That wasn’t the only trouble facing the movement. Its public image was suffering too. Only 33 percent of Americans who responded to a 1995 Gallup poll identified themselves as pro-life—perhaps because the term was distasteful to many. The movement at the time had received the most press attention for sitting en masse in front of abortionists’ cars, pouring glue into the locks of facility doors, and—in rare but highly publicized circumstances—shooting abortionists. All the while, the babies they were trying to save kept dying. Abortion numbers hit an all-time high in 1990 at 1,608,600.

John Salvi

John Salvi Jay Malonson/AP

But soon a new image entered the American conscience: that of the unborn baby and its death at the hand of abortionists. In June 1995, U.S. Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., presented a bill proposing to ban a particularly graphic type of abortion known as “intact dilation and extraction” or “partial-birth abortion.” That July, one of the bill’s supporters—Ohio Congressman Tony Hall—received a letter from a nurse who had witnessed these kinds of abortions while working for three days at the Women’s Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, run by late-term abortionist Martin Haskell.

Nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer described one of these abortions in detail, writing that Haskell used forceps to pull the baby’s legs into the birth canal and then delivered the baby up to the neck. “The baby’s body was moving,” wrote the nurse. “His little fingers were clasping together. He was kicking his feet. All the while his little head was still stuck inside.”

The abortionist then stuck scissors into the back of the baby’s head and used a suction tube to extract the baby’s brains. After delivering the rest of the baby, “He threw the baby in a pan,” where Shafer saw the baby move. She said watching the process almost made her throw up.

Hall circulated the letter in October. Other members of Congress disputed its contents, but supporters of the bill to ban partial-birth abortion pointed out that Haskell himself indirectly corroborated key portions of Shafer’s account in previous descriptions of his procedures. Shafer—formerly an abortion proponent who had been considering staying full time at Haskell’s clinic—later recounted the same events in testimonies before congressional subcommittees, including one that WORLD reprinted in part in 2000.

Rep. Charles Canady stands next to a poster illustrating partial-birth abortion in 1995.

Rep. Charles Canady stands next to a poster illustrating partial-birth abortion in 1995. Greg Gibson/AP

Although the ban didn’t become law until 2003, after George W. Bush replaced Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, descriptions of the gruesome abortion method worked in favor of the pro-life cause. In May 1999, WORLD pointed to a Gallup poll showing that 61 percent of Americans supported the ban, up from 55 percent in 1997.

Pro-abortion groups immediately challenged the ban after Bush signed it, but the days it spent in court only further exposed the brutal practice. Despite pro-abortion leanings, federal Judge Richard Casey probed witnesses in the New York trial of the 2003 law. One abortionist testified in spring 2004 about what he saw during one of these abortions:

“What they did, they delivered the fetus intact until the head was lodged in the cervix,” the abortionist explained. “Then they reached up and crushed it. They used forceps to crush the skull.”

“Like a cracker that they use to crack a lobster shell?” Casey asked.

The abortionist clarified: “Like an end of tongs you use to pick up a salad, except they are thick enough and heavy enough to crush the skull.”

Casey then stated the obvious: “Except in this case you are not picking up a salad, you are crushing a baby’s skull.”

WORLD reported on this and other exchanges from the Casey trial but found that only one daily newspaper ran the Associated Press report detailing the judge’s probing questions. No TV networks covered the trial.

Casey called partial-birth abortion “gruesome, brutal, barbaric and uncivilized,” but in August 2004 he still ruled against the ban. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the law when it weighed in on the issue in 2007. After the decision came down that April, WORLD quoted former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who had sponsored the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban in the Senate: “With partial-birth abortion, you can’t miss the baby. … It’s not a ‘blob of tissue.’ It’s a little baby with arms and legs and feet and eyes and a nose. Because of the PBA debate, there is now a very cognitive process that people have to go through when analyzing what abortion means to them.” That was something Judge Casey could likely attest to, as could thousands of other Americans.

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, for one, had already begun asking itself what the procedure signified. In summer 2004, the party’s platform committee added a section scolding Republican pro-life efforts and axed a portion that cited “respect” for “the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue,” referring to abortion. But Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry failed to take the White House from incumbent Bush in the 2004 election, and the party began to reconsider its party platform. The week after Thanksgiving, Kerry advised party loyalists in a closed-door meeting to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party and to make sure voters knew Democrats didn’t like abortion. The audience gasped.

John Kerry signs autographs for pro-abortion supporters during his 2004 campaign.

John Kerry signs autographs for pro-abortion supporters during his 2004 campaign. Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

By early 2005 party officials were finally returning phone calls to Democrats for Life president Kristen Day. “This election was a wake-up call for a lot of people,” Day said. Her group authored an initiative presented by Democratic Congressman Lincoln Davis that April, proposing to provide avenues to dissuade women from having abortions with the goal of cutting abortions by 95 percent. In 2008, the party platform included a statement calling for policies to “reduce the need for abortions.” Even Hillary Clinton in her vying to win the 2008 presidential election expressed “respect” for those who opposed abortion.

Somehow, radical abortion became the fringe as formerly fringe pro-lifers advanced to majority status. In 2010, WORLD reported the results of a Gallup poll showing the drastic shift in public opinion since before the partial-birth abortion ban: The formerly 33 percent of pro-lifers in 1995 grew to 44 percent in 2008 and then 51 percent in 2009.

WORLD reported the personal stories that contributed to this shift in public opinion. For many, the game-changer appeared to be the visual reality of abortion and of the tiny humans it kills. That’s what did it for Chris Kan, 28. From his vantage point in the New York financial world he had seen the “pro-choice” side as the civilized and intellectual position. All that changed when he saw a video depicting fetal development followed by an abortion and its aftermath: “mangled limbs … on a surgical counter,” a “severed head in … gloved hands,” WORLD reported. Kan began training to be a counselor at the Midtown Pregnancy Support Center near Grand Central Station a month later and soon planned to add baby showers to his repertoire.

AMONG THE WITNESSES of abortion’s evils that WORLD highlighted were some women who would never have a chance to attend post-abortion counseling because their own abortion experiences killed them along with their unborn babies. One of those was Holly Patterson, a blonde 18-year-old high-school graduate and Macy’s employee who took the abortion pill RU-486 in September 2003, two years after the FDA approved the drug for chemical abortions. As WORLD reported that October, Patterson died from septic shock seven days after taking the drug, provided to her by Planned Parenthood. A friend said Patterson and her boyfriend had researched the pill on the internet: “They were told no one in the country had died of this. But we later found out that’s not true.”

Her father, Monty Patterson, didn’t even know his daughter was pregnant until moments before her death at the hospital. For years after her death, Patterson pushed to get the FDA to issue warnings about the drug, which had killed other women both before and after his daughter. He set up a website to highlight the health risks of the abortion pill. “The website isn’t about the abortion debate,” Patterson insisted in a 2011 WORLD article, since he believed women should have a choice to abort. But he said, “No woman should have to risk her life or health because she lacks factual and accurate medical abortion information.”

Monty Patterson holds a photo of his daughter, Holly, who died after taking RU-486.

Monty Patterson holds a photo of his daughter, Holly, who died after taking RU-486. Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP

Georgette Forney, co-founder of a post-abortion recovery group called the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, said abortion still isn’t acceptable, even decades after Roe v. Wade. And for many women, Forney said, the pain of the abortion doesn’t get any better decades after the procedure. Forney would know: She had an abortion at 16 and didn’t find healing until almost two decades later.

As WORLD reported, the pro-life movement found many unexpected allies throughout the early 2000s, but polarization grew again around the 2016 election. The Democratic National Convention that year went more liberal than ever on abortion by calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a historically bipartisan budget rider that since 1976 had kept taxpayer money from directly funding abortion. Meanwhile, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during their final presidential debate displayed sharp opposition on abortion.

Trump’s presidential administration took executive actions that pro-lifers praised, but some regretted his association with the pro-life movement because of his polarizing personality and degrading comments toward women. That association in some ways undid progress made since pro-lifers had distanced themselves from shooters like James Kopp. “We get lumped in with Donald Trump, and I don’t know if that is going to have a positive, long-lasting effect for people who are going to outlast Donald Trump for fighting for the pro-life movement,” Weeseetsa Maeding, a staff member at a Sacramento, Calif., pregnancy center, told WORLD in 2020.

Progressive groups, though, keep pushing out pro-lifers. Today, the radical pro-abortion administration under President Joe Biden is further alienating pro-life Democrats by pushing to make abortion—even unsafe at-home chemical abortions—easier and more accessible.

But even in a hostile political environment, pro-life state legislatures continue to make bold strides in 2021. They may break the 2011 record for passing pro-life bills, in the hope that a favorable Supreme Court ruling in an upcoming case out of Mississippi will allow that legislation to take hold. Meanwhile, in today’s pandemic era, WORLD has reported on the increased need for the help of pregnancy centers. Since lockdowns began in spring 2020, women taking the abortion pill at home are asking for abortion pill reversal at record numbers.

Another bright side: Surgical abortion facilities have continued a gradual decline, and the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute show that abortions in 2017 were down to 862,320, almost half of the all-time high in 1990, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest incomplete data show a 1 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Cutting through these numbers, life ultimately comes down to the everyday decisions of individuals. As WORLD’s coverage has shown, those decisions aren’t easy, and making the right choice is not a fix-all.

Another mother, profiled in 2014, never even considered abortion for her son whom doctors predicted would have problems, but some would later question her implicit decision for life. Christian was born to Lacey and Chris Buchanan with cleft eyes that never formed. Lacey posted a picture of him on her Facebook page, and an acquaintance called the permanently blind baby “a drain on society.” The Facebook friend scolded Lacey for not aborting. In the early stages of Christian’s life, Lacey became mad at God after repeated experiences of people in public whispering about or pointing at Christian. But, as Lacey told WORLD, “All of the sudden it hit me that I should be thankful that Christian is even alive.”


Leah Savas

Leah reports on pro-life topics for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.

@leahsavas

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