[Today's guest post is by Michael Crone and Joseph Kirchner.]
History demonstrates that major social transformations, once thought impossible, can be realized very quickly. When momentum reaches a certain level, social opinion reaches a tipping point and the prevailing norm then gives way to a new standard.
In the 1850s, slavery was a well-entrenched social institution in the United States, so much so that any thought that it might be abolished in the foreseeable future was considered foolish. In Parties and Slavery, 1850-1859, historian Theodore Clarke Smith writes (emphasis added):
In spite of the Kansas question [whether or not to have slavery in the territory of Kansas] the slavery problem was not the only nor even the most important subject in popular interest, except for brief periods; and it was never regarded at any time as anything but an unpleasant interruption except by professed agitators. Nevertheless, in these years the attitude of the northern people towards the south underwent a distinct change. In 1850 the great majority of voters were not ready to let their dislike of slavery draw them into any permanent antagonism towards the south…
What changed? In 1854, a single-issue anti-slavery party was formed: the Republican Party. It performed respectably in the 1856 election, garnering second place in a multi-party field, and the Republicans won the presidential election in 1860. The institution of slavery collapsed in 1865 with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment—when only fifteen years earlier, all but “professed agitators” had viewed slavery as a relatively unimportant political issue.
Many more examples abound. When Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1981 that “The West won’t contain Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written,” his was a minority view. (The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.) Roe v. Wade itself came as a surprise to most Americans. When Margaret Sanger died in 1966, Planned Parenthood was still anti-abortion. A 1964 Planned Parenthood pamphlet stated plainly that “an abortion kills the life of the baby after it has begun.” At that time, few would have guessed that preborn human lives would be stripped of all legal protections in 1973. And more recently, cultural and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage has progressed at a remarkable pace.
How do we explain the suddenness of these seismic historical shifts? Many factors are at work, but the “Overton window” provides a very plausible explanation for this phenomenon. Joseph P. Overton posited that with respect to any particular issue, such as slavery or abortion, the public does not consider every possible outcome at once. Rather, there is a “window” of reasonable discussion, with the “reasonable” options defined by “what politicians believe they can support and still win re-election.” This window is not static, but can be adjusted to include viewpoints not currently in the window. This process, termed “moving the Overton window,” is achieved when the public sees that a sensible case be made for views not currently under consideration. This is what happened when the Republican Party began winning elections on an anti-slavery platform. In this way, many more times than not, the perfect is the ally of the good.
Now it is our turn. There is currently more support for the right to life than there has been in decades. Pro-life politicians, particularly at the state level, are coming out in favor of innovative legislation, such as banning abortion for pain-capable fetuses (~20 weeks). More recently, there has been discussion about banning abortion methods that require dismemberment of the unborn child.
But polling suggests that we can do more. The 20-week abortion bans already enjoy support from the majority of the American public, especially women. This means that we aren’t pushing the Overton window. To do that, more ambitious proposals are required. Now is the time to bring the ideal—a complete restoration of the right to life—into the realm of possibility.
A note of caution needs to be sounded here. While the call for the end to abortion should be voiced, doing so with indefensibly strident rhetoric will not prove fruitful in the long term. Pro-life advocates should strive to avoid the “bombast temptation” even though it evokes greater interest initially. In the long run the mushy middle will respond far better to calm support and well-reasoned arguments than to angry voices and personal attacks.
We also need to realize that in the battle to defeat abortion, opposition from pro-choice power centers will escalate as the pro-life position becomes the norm. In fact, this is the sign that pro-life efforts are reaching fulfillment. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The pro-life movement is now at the beginning of the “fighting stage” and must press on to final victory. Let us recall the words of noted historian Arthur Schlessinger Jr. (1992) regarding the fall of Communism: “History has an abiding capacity to outwit our certitudes…”
Now is the acceptable time to move the window. Now is the time for great boldness. Our conviction, based solidly in historical precedent, should drive our belief that the advent of a totally pro-life culture is on the horizon.
Michael Crone has a PhD in Mathematics from George Mason University and an MS in Mathematics from the University of Wyoming. He has worked as a statistical analyst, polling director, and radio talk co-host. Contact him at email@example.com.
Joseph P. Kirchner obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Mount St. Mary’s University and a Master of Divinity degree from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.