Articles of Faith
By Cynthia Gorney
Simon & Schuster
575 pp.; $27.50, hardcover

In 1989, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the pivotal abortion case William L. Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, reporter Cynthia Gorney was dispatched by The Washington Post to "do a curtain raiser" on the law that was at issue. That law had been fiercely debated in the Missouri general assembly, passed in 1986, and was to become the centerpiece for the Webster case. It seemed, at the time, that the Supreme Court entertained the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade, but wanted each side to make its case about the validity of the Missouri law before making a ruling.

Gorney had not written in depth about abortion before. Nor had she encountered the energy that "strong religious faith" brings to this issue. Her unrelenting desire to understand the nuts and bolts of the controversy and the passion behind it compelled her to "press the flesh." (She integrates over 500 interviews into her narrative.)

When she began the formidable task of gathering background material from archives, she looked for an objective account of the evolution of the thinking on both sides. She needed a book, she says, "whose mission was not to convince but rather to explain." That's when she discovered that such a book "did not exist."

Now it does. Gorney's Articles of Faith, recently published by Simon & Schuster, offers an unprecedented fair-minded account of the passion and conviction that inspired people on both sides to become activists, leaders, and volunteers in this wrenching debate. She organizes the book around the two real-life figures of Judy Widdecombe and Sam Lee, vigorous activists in opposing camps. Putting human faces on this ideological battle has had the surprising effect of evoking empathy for both sides from both sides.

Gorney is a writer living in California. Articles of Faith is her first book.

How would you characterize the heartbeat of the pro-life movement?

There were a couple of revelations I had in the course of the reporting, which I hadn't seen anywhere else and which changed my view of how the right-to-life community developed and grew. The first decade of right-to-life work, from about the mid-1960s on, was dominated by Roman Catholics. The right-to-life effort,it has to be remembered, did not begin with Roe v. Wade but with the early attempts to change state abortion laws around the country way before Roe.

The first right-to-life groups were local groups. One great misconception is that bishops were urging their parishioners to rise up. That's not the case at all. In many regions, Catholic people banded together to oppose changes in their own state abortion statutes.

Article continues below

What motivated them?
The thing that fascinated me as I interviewed those early right-to-life advocates, that I kept hearing over and over, was: "Yes, I was Catholic. Yes, I was educated Catholic. But, no, I was not doing it because I was Catholic. It was not my Catholic faith that I was trying to promote."

Everything they knew in the world they knew as Catholics. They knew geometry as Catholics. They knew American history as Catholics. They knew catechism as Catholics. They had learned all their lives to separate out religious training from what was general training applicable in the world and in a secular society.

So there was a collection of lessons they had learned as Catholics that they understood to be part of their Catholic faith. There was another collection of lessons that they had learned as moral people in the world. Into that second collection went a whole list of broad principles.

One of those broad principles was, You don't kill innocent life. The notion that what is in the womb constitutes human life that is indistinguishable morally from born life was so basic to their understanding of biology—and everything—that it never seemed to them that this could be regarded as dependent on their distinctively Catholic convictions. It seemed to them obvious, scientifically provable.

So, in the early stages of the debate, it was not broached as a "religious issue"?
No, it wasn't. Take, for example, the Handbook on Abortion, written by J. C. Wilke, who was a Catholic general practitioner and one of the influential early leaders in the right-to-life movement. That book was the teaching guide for many right-to-life speakers and organizational groups. It's done in Q&A form, and it gives right-to-life speakers a logical, historical, and persuasive guide to the nature of their argument. You will not find God mentioned anywhere in that book. It asserted: This is clearly a human life because of the chromosomal development. It's very deliberately nonreligious, which was the broad intent when the national right-to-life committee was formed.

And the second revelation?
The second thing I learned, which really surprised me—and evangelicals with long memories will already know this—is that when Roe v. Wade came down in 1973, evangelicals did not shout out in opposition. You find editorials, in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, for instance, saying that this is a bad decision. But if you read the editorials carefully the tone is clearly, "Hey, folks! This is not just a Catholic issue. You should pay attention to this."

Article continues below

The Southern Baptist Convention (this factoid always floors people) endorsed Roe v. Wade in 1973. They saw it as a furtherance of the separation of church and state. The Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission was headed at that time by a pastor from Texas who actually thought Roe v. Wade was a pretty good thing because it removed government from this decision. His position, which was reaffirmed annually at the Southern Baptist Convention's meetings for the next four or five years, was that abortion is a very serious thing, it's not a good thing, it's a very prayerful matter, and it basically needs to be left to the prayerful consideration of the woman and her pastor and her physician.

When did evangelicals become galvanized on this issue?
A combination of things that took place from 1978 to 1981 really hauled evangelicals into this struggle. There was great upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention, and a faction that was much more conservative, theologically and politically, took over the leadership. But this was only one influence on the abortion issue. The others were, first, two very influential evangelicals, C. Everett Koop and Francis Schaeffer, who felt very strongly about abortion and what they saw as a slide toward a devaluing of human life.

They were concerned that evangelicals seemed to be ignoring this issue. Part of this was because there was genuine confusion about what posture to take, and part of it, clearly, was because of a thick strain of anti-Catholicism.

So Koop, who had been working as a surgeon in Philadelphia doing repair on neonates—doing all this work to keep tiny babies alive when they were aborting babies not much younger—got together with Francis Schaeffer. And together, along with Schaeffer's son, Franky, they drew up plans for a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

Audiences were not crazy about the movies, and Schaeffer and Koop didn't get the kind of attendance that they had hoped they would. But the very presence of these films, and Koop and Schaeffer urging people to become concerned about these issues, was quite influential in and of itself.

What was the other factor that galvanized evangelicals?
In addition, there was a concerted political effort going on directed from Washington, between 1978 and 1981, to rouse evangelicals into a powerful voting bloc. The small coterie of New Right people in Washington, D.C., who started this effort—Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie—themselves were not all that agitated about abortion. They cared about international politics, taxation, more Washington-oriented subjects.

Article continues below

But they figured out that the way to rouse a community that wasn't particularly politically oriented into their voting bloc was to put together a social-issues agenda that included abortion, homosexuality, feminism, taxation, and Taiwan. They saw clearly that abortion was going to be the top item on this agenda because it could be portrayed as the most alarming factor in a whole bunch of slides toward immorality.

So they rounded up Jerry Falwell and a number of other preachers who had abortion on their minds. Falwell had been preaching about abortion ever since 1973. His Moral Majority campaign, and the deliberate attempt to make this into a political agenda with religious people at its core, was drummed up by these organizers out of Washington. At the same time, certain evangelical leaders, like James Dobson, were putting abortion at the top of their list of concerns, and radio audiences were multiplying rapidly. So really, from 1978 to 1981, there was a giant infusion of new energy into the right-to-life movement. That was very successful in rousing evangelicals. It worked.

Did evangelicals then join forces with the Catholics who were already mobilized?
There were a lot of ways in which the evangelicals didn't get along with the Roman Catholics. It wasn't just the old religious tensions; the agendas were quite different. The Catholic right-to-life movement included many activists with a strong "social justice" commitment who didn't see eye-to-eye with the more conservative evangelical activists.

Were the evangelicals using the name of God in a way that the Catholics weren't?
Very explicitly. This made a lot of the Catholics uncomfortable. The evangelicals, for the first time in this debate, were relying on Scripture. As you know, the word abortion never appears in the Bible. But the standard roster of scriptural quotations used to buttress the right-to-life position started to emerge in the late 1970s. When the evangelicals spoke about why abortion was bad, there was no problem with saying, "It's bad because God says it's bad and because Scripture tells us that it's bad." This brought in a great influx of people of faith, but it also unnerved some people of the previous generation who had been working to make this look like a secular wrong, not a religious wrong.

Article continues below

Would you characterize the evangelical presence in this debate as monolithic?
What was interesting to me was discovering that there was still a great deal of dispute and debate among evangelicals about how abortion ought to be viewed, what the law ought to say, and about what a person's responsibility was in the public arena. The majority of right-to-life people in this country, I think, are still uncomfortable with the notion of civil disobedience, and the vast, vast majority are horrified by violence. There's a great deal of dispute about tactics and compromise. There are, I think, large numbers of evangelicals who don't necessarily support a purist right-to-life position. But, by nature, evangelicals are people who argue broadly amongst themselves. There is no official line or mutual authority. So you've got people with all kinds of different views on it.

One of things that many nonreligious newspaper reporters tend to do is misuse the word evangelical. Many people who are not familiar with religion tend to say evangelical and fundamentalist in the same breath and not understand what evangelical means and how broad a brush that really is. There are many reasons for this, but one small part is the abortion movement. People have allowed a very narrow stereotype to become the defining image for the right-to-life person. That stereotype is somebody who is unable to talk about anything except what God wants and has a crazed look on his or her face and is blocking the doorway to an abortion clinic.

I've observed in reading newspaper accounts that it seems to be impossible for persons of strong religious convictions to hold a Bible; they are always "clutching" a Bible.

Did you come into this project with this kind of predisposition?
No. I'm used to being impressed by my own ignorance. One of the things that pulled me into this book project was discovering not only how little I knew about the origins of the right-to-life movement and the nature of right-to-life thinking, but what surprised and upset me was how little I could find that was written in a clear, dispassionate, nondemeaning voice to make these ideas accessible to me. Everything I could find about the right-to-life movement fit into one of two categories: One was "preaching to the choir" books, written by right-to-life people for right-to-life people; the other was books written by the other side that professed to be objective accounts. Almost without exception I found those to be silly, demeaning, careless, and clearly written with the intent to describe these people as fairly stupid, easily misled, religious zealots. That made me mad, because I needed to understand things better than that.

Article continues below

That was when I began thinking that this was a book somebody needed to take on. It seemed terribly important to tell the stories of these people in a longer format.

How has your book been received by both sides of this debate?
I expected people to be mad because, whichever side they were on, the book made their enemies look like human beings. I expected this more from the pro-choice community than the pro-life community, because the pro-life people are accustomed to being treated in a hostile way in the secular press. I thought I would be going on radio shows and getting pro-choice people calling in saying, "How could you make those bad guys look like good people? They're bombers, they're name-callers. They throw things at us as we walk in."

None of that has happened, to my astonishment. Instead, as I go out and speak, people from both sides have said, "I really don't get it. Can you explain why they think this or why they do that?" The tone has been one of baffled interest.

What do you say to people who support abortion on demand who ask you, "Where are these people coming from?"
What I say is this: "The Supreme Court has just decided that states have to make it legal for women who are in a terrible situation to dispose of their three-year-olds in medical clinics. It's a grave and serious matter, but ultimately, the three-year-olds are the offspring of those women, and it must be up to the women and their doctors to decide when, and if, those three-year-olds get terminated. That is how Roe v. Wade looks to right-to-life people. It's that horrifying.

"If that happened tomorrow, would you try to overturn it or stop other people from doing it?"

That's the way I tend to explain it. There is often a stunned silence and they'll say, "Really? It really looks like that?" And then they rethink a lot of things that they have thought about pro-life people. The thing that is hardest for pro-choice people to understand is that most pro-life people are in this because it is genuinely clear to them that once conception or fertilization takes place, you're talking about a human life that is as individual and as different as a born life; that this is the central motivation, not taking women back to the 1950s or overturning the advances of the last 20 years or making sure people don't have sex.

Article continues below

What do you say to pro-lifers who can't fathom the mind of abortion advocates?
A lot of pro-lifers don't see that for most pro-choice people there is something between life and nonlife, which sounds nonsensical to pro-life people. Everybody that I know who is pro-choice believes that there's something going on in the uterus that's "potential life." The in-between stage is mysterious to the pro-life person and totally clear to the pro-choice person.

How does late-term abortion look according to that line of reasoning?
Many pro-choice people are uncomfortable with late-term abortions, especially with what are variously called partial-birth or D&X abortions. Nobody likes this kind of thing, and most pro-choice people who defend it are holding their noses. At that point, a lot of the people who think of themselves as solidly pro-choice suddenly begin wavering.

Would you characterize a lot of these people as being more conservative than the vocal leadership?
The difficulty right now—the political difficulty—is that if you take apart the polls, it looks like a majority of Americans are willing to keep abortion legal, but only in certain fairly rare circumstances. The polls show that a majority of Americans think abortion ought to be illegal in the very circumstances in which most abortions are actually done. They reject the reasons most often given by women who choose abortion: it should be illegal, for instance, to have an abortion just because you feel that you can't afford the child. It should be illegal to have an abortion so that you can continue your education, with which a child would interfere.

But there's a big catch. What Americans say in a poll is very different from what a lot of them will actually do when it's their sister or their daughter who's in the same situation.

How has writing this book changed you?
The whole issue now, morally, is infinitely more complicated to me than it was when I began. There was one review that almost made me cry. Someone who thought very highly of the book said in the last couple of paragraphs of the review: "Here's what really bothers me about this book. She seems to know more about this issue than anybody else in the country. Why doesn't she tell us what to do? We need to get some guidance from her on where we ought to go."

Article continues below

I thought, "I wish I could." But there's a way in which I'm the least capable person right now. The intensity of both sides makes such sense to me.

If you were to offer advice to pro-lifers about what they can do to move the discussion forward, what would that advice be?
I wish right-to-life folks would think about stepping up repudiation of the violence in a more public way. I understand that every right-to-life group, whenever there's a bombing or physical attack, immediately says, "This is awful. This is not us." But I think there needs to be a more collective rethinking of what to do about the fact that there clearly exists a tiny faction of the right-to-life effort that has argued its way toward violence against persons.

I expected people to be mad
because, whichever side they were on,
the book made their enemies look like
human beings. None of that has
happened, to my astonishment.

I think also—though I know this is a very difficult subject for a lot of right-to-life people—that right-to-life people need to sit down and think out publicly their positions on contraception. I understand the reason for the silence on contraception. The pro-life movement includes people of all persuasions on this issue, and to address this would be divisive. But the silence on contraception seriously reduces the credibility of the right-to-life position in the mainstream and in the pro-choice communities. One of the questions I'm asked most frequently on radio shows by pro-choice people is, "Why won't they help us on contraception if they think abortion is bad?"

What advice would you give the abortion advocates?
They were formed as a battle group, but battle isn't the right metaphor anymore. They need to get out of the defensive crouch and understand that in the fundamental ways now—in the courts and in Congress—they've won. The battle is over. There is not going to be a constitutional amendment protecting life from conception. So I wish they would stop labeling everybody either only pro-choice or anti-choice. Somebody who thinks abortion should be legal but that a 48-hour waiting period is okay is not anti-choice.

I also would urge them to acknowledge publicly that there are a lot of people out there who are opposed to abortion who are good people, who could be reached out to and worked with; that not every abortion opponent is the guy with the bomb on the steps of your clinic. There's a huge community of pro-life people who are very sorry that the doctors are having to go to work wearing bulletproof vests and still think abortion is very wrong.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.