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Learning from the past of the American pro-life movement

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 30, 2017

Some 25 years ago, Our Sunday Visitor published my book, Operation Rescue: A Challenge to the Nation’s Conscience. To be perfectly candid, it was not a great commercial success. By the time the book appeared in print, the wave of civil disobedience that began in the 1980s had crested, and interest in the topic had begun to wane.

Over the past few months, however, I have noticed an uptick in sales of the book. (It’s been easy to notice this revival, because until recently, sales were rare events.) The new spark of interest has come from a new generation of readers. Too young to remember the heyday of Operation Rescue, they’re curious to know what it was all about.

As well they should be! The pro-life activism of the late 1980s—the non-violent blockades of abortion clinics, in which tens of thousands of people risked arrest to save lives—is an important chapter in American history, to say nothing of the history of the pro-life movement. In terms of the number of people participating in acts of civil disobedience, it dwarfs the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s, or the anti-war movement of a decade later. And the movement was stopped only by draconian laws—laws that applied to pro-life activists and no one else—that threatened lengthy prison terms for peaceful acts.

Popular historians generally ignore this fascinating story, just as secular journalists ignored it while it was happening. But as my wife Leila constantly reminds us, “it’s important to maintain the collective memory.” Young pro-life Americans should know more about what we older activists did. They can learn from our mistakes, certainly. But they may also be inspired by our sacrifices. And they should understand the injustices that we suffered: injustices that now permeate the American judicial system so thoroughly that they might be—but never should be—taken for granted as simply “the way things are.”

Let me offer one more reason why the story of Operation Rescue should be understood and appreciated by young Americans, especially young Catholic Americans. Tens of thousands of Americans made real sacrifices to participate in the movement, and I firmly believe that in the spiritual economy, such investments cannot fail to pay large dividends. All these years later, I think I have begun to see the payoff—and I don’t mean just a few sales of my book.

(But if anyone is interested, the book is still available on Amazon. Look for the collectible copies: clean, new, and signed by the author.)

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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