ROME, September 10, 2013 ( – A fear of confrontation, a business mentality and refusal to be “prophetic” are crippling the effectiveness of the pro-life movement around the world, a US based pro-life pioneer told last month. The pro-life movement as a whole is suffering from a lack of a unified strategy based on the fearless assertion of the horrific realities of abortion, said Gregg Cunningham, the founder and director of the Center for Bioethical Reform (CBR), at a private meeting of pro-life leaders in Rome.

“We are a movement that is trying to avoid a fight on abortion. We are a movement filled with appeasers who are afraid of defeat and so they’re afraid to fight.”

CBR is the originator of the Genocide Awareness Project that uses public displays of enlarged photos of aborted babies juxtaposed with photos of the Nazi Holocaust, the slave trade and other historic injustices. The photos jump-start the conversation and trained pro-life apologists “make the case” with passers-by on university campuses and other public venues around the US, Canada and most recently in Britain.


The effectiveness of graphic images, Cunningham said, has been amply proven by other civil rights struggles of the past. He cited the single case of William Wilberforce’s struggle against the African slave trade in the 18th century. Wilberforce, he said, “got nowhere” with the most impassioned and eloquent speeches. It was only when he started using graphic depictions of the horror of slavery that public opinion started to swing against it. After that, he added, Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament, had to maintain personal bodyguards to protect him from the slave trade supporters.

Cunningham said, “Pro-lifers think that if they’re doing anything that people don’t like, if they end up being unpopular, that must mean that they’re ineffective. When historically, effective reformers are almost never liked and liked reformers are almost never effective.”

Cunningham, whose wife founded and still runs some of the first crisis pregnancy centres in the US, said CBR believes “in a division of labour within the pro-life movement.” He agreed that confrontational “prophetic” pro-life work is not for everyone, but insisted that it is necessary and that a major failing of the churches is that they are suppressing this difficult and unpopular work.

But the work of the pro-life movement, whenever it moves away from the strictly pastoral realm, he said, is being hampered by the leadership of a Church that is itself trying to avoid a fight on abortion. He particularly highlighted his experiences in the US where the Catholic bishops have “come down hard on Catholic pro-life activists who have attempted to pull the Church into the abortion wars. They very much want to keep the Church out of the abortion wars”.

“You have this terrible disconnect,” he said. “You have the Holy See on the one hand, with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict saying it is incumbent on all Catholics to fight abortion with all of our might, and on the other hand you have the bishops who say ‘that’s too confrontational,’ or it’s too controversial.”

“You have this terrible disconnect,” he said. “You have the Holy See on the one hand, with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict saying it is incumbent on all Catholics to fight abortion with all of our might, and on the other hand you have the bishops who say ‘that’s too confrontational,’ or it’s too controversial.”

But an exclusive focus on the “pastoral side,” giving aid to women in crisis pregnancies, while necessary, will not definitively stop abortion around the world or roll back the legal gains of the abortionists, he said.

Cunningham believes that the failure of the Church in the pro-life fight comes from the unwillingness of Christians to fully emulate Christ, whose ministry was “equal parts pastoral and prophetic”. “Today the churches have become almost entirely pastoral and almost not prophetic at any level. And the reason for that is being pastoral is profitable.”

“If we are to model our ministry after Christ’s ministry, it is to be pastoral, that is to say compassionate; but also prophetic. Which is to say we must confront the culture over injustice and human suffering.”

He agreed that these assertions would not make him popular within the pro-life movement, but said, “I’m not speculating about this. I’ve had pro-life leaders whose names you would recognise, admit to me in a quiet moment behind closed doors that they like what we do, but they don’t have the courage to do it because it will cost them something.”

Compassion and pastoral care for individual women is naturally more attractive because it sells well to a skeptical public, it makes the people engaged in it popular or at least acceptable. “But the ‘truth’ side, the prophetic side” of Christ’s ministry, Cunningham said, was the “confrontation with the religious and secular culture in ways that caused people to hate him, and ultimately to murder him,” and the pro-life movement on the whole has refused to engage meaningfully with the culture.

“It’s risky. It’s costly. It will depress their fundraising. It will invite persecution. They’ll do the pastoral stuff, but they won’t do the prophetic stuff.” In that sense, he said, “they are not Christ followers in the sense of a balanced ministry”.

Echoing a recent call from Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Rio di Janiero to young people to “make a mess,” in the world, Cunningham said pro-life advocates cannot be afraid to be “disruptive”. “That willingness to be disruptive is deeply, deeply Christian. Christ and the Apostles were seditiously disruptive. They disrupted the culture; they disrupted the theology; they challenged the abuse of authority by priests and Pharisees and Sadducees.”

After his military service, Cunningham was a pro-life legislator, serving as a Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and then as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles. His dedication to the use of graphic images came, he said, from his own experience of conversion on the subject. His first encounter with the graphic reality of abortion shocked him into a total change of direction in life. While working in Washington as a legislative consultant in the early 1990s, “someone showed me an abortion video… I was just so shocked by this that I felt I could not continue to practice law.”

He left his practice and began looking for ways to work full time in the pro-life movement. Seeing a lack of balance within the pro-life movement between pastoral work and more confrontational efforts to change public opinion, he founded CBR. The group’s strategy is based on the premise that laws cannot be significantly changed until public opinion has made a major swing towards the pro-life position and that will not happen until the public is forcibly confronted with the reality of abortion. Often staffed with part time people, CBR, he said, is “having a disproportionate impact on the culture” where it is active in the US, Canada and Britain. 

A Vietnam War veteran and former air force intelligence officer, Cunningham credits his training in military strategic planning for his approach to pro-life work. “I see the world through a military lens,” he said, which gives him the ability to assess strictly pragmatically the strengths and weaknesses of the global pro-life movement as a whole.

His experience has taught him that the pro-life movement needs to work on becoming  better “strategic thinkers” and needs to build more strategic unity in its international leadership.

“Everything we do is informed by strategic planning of the sort that the military routinely does.” The pro-life movement, he said, needs to seek out what in military intelligence parlance are called “exploitable nodes of strategic vulnerability” in the abortion industry and its political allies, instead of looking only at their political strength.

Most pro-life work is done locally, and piecemeal, in a “disjointed” and “incoherent way” without an eye on the global situation. He said that there needs to be more international cooperation to confront a global and highly organised, abortion movement that has a tightly controlled public message.

“Pro-lifers tend to prefer tactics to strategy,” he said, “and the tactics they prefer are those that are low risk, low cost, that they find either enjoyable or at least not off-putting. But most pro-life organisations don’t engage in an analytical process and decide what most needs to be done, and then do that in the context of some coherent strategy.”

He said that there are “two things that have to happen in order for the pro-life movement to be effective, and they aren’t happening anywhere in the world in any systematic way”.

First, and prior to making gains in legislation, “the population has to be convinced of the humanity of the unborn child, early in pregnancy. And the population has to be convinced of the inhumanity of abortion, early in pregnancy.”

He pointed out that the gains made in public opinion have been in support for abortion restrictions only in later stages of gestation, when abortion is already much less common. Most US and British opinion still favours largely unrestricted abortion in the first trimester, when the great majority of abortions are conducted.

“Most people hear the word ‘embryo’ and in their minds that term is synonymous with ‘blob of tissue’ or ‘blob of cells’. And they see abortion perhaps as evil but as the ‘lesser of two evils’ at worst. Certainly not evil enough to justify putting anyone in prison who performs abortions.”

“Nothing is going to change until we persuade the population that the baby really is entitled to developmental rights of personhood from the moment of fertilisation. And that abortion is an evil of sufficient enormity to justify criminalising the act. By which I don’t mean putting women in prison, I mean putting doctors in prison,” he continued.

Polls have shown that public support for legalised abortion has actually increased for the early stages of pregnancy in the last 15 years. In 1998, he said, about 61 per cent supported unrestricted legal abortion for the first trimester of pregnancy; about 15 per cent supported it in the second trimester, and 7 per cent in the third trimester. He compared this with statistics from 1980 when only 50 per cent of the population supported unrestricted 1st trimester abortion. By 2003, the number had risen to 66 per cent. Globally, 90 per cent or more of legal abortions are conducted within the first trimester.

Thus, while public opinion may indeed be trending against late term abortions, it makes little difference to the support for the great majority of abortions that are actually occurring. This puts into grim perspective the claims from many corners of the pro-life movement that public opinion is swinging against legalised abortion in general.

“When people say we’re winning this fight, the numbers refute that contention,” Cunningham said. “The only public opinion numbers that really matter – support for unrestricted abortion in the first trimester – are bad and they’re getting worse.”

He insisted, however, that not all pro-life groups are called to do the same things. “We some should be doing pastoral things and others should be doing prophetic things.” But he decried the factionalism he has observed in the pro-life movement, saying that “all these organisations should be working together” in a mutually supportive way to further an organised strategy.

But he warned that the pro-life groups that knowingly take on the more difficult and less rewarding “prophetic” work must be prepared to consider themselves as “expendables” and accept being unpopular both in the world and within the pro-life movement itself. “Someone has to accept that they’re never going to raise a lot of money, never going to have a big staff, never going to be rewarded for altruism.” CBR activists are known for their use of the courts, often after being arrested, to break down the legal barriers to showing the public the truth of abortion.

Tens of thousands of students have seen the GAP displays at the large university campuses where CBR does the majority of its work. Cunningham says that an example of the “prophetic and the pastoral working side by side,” in the pro-life movement, is the jump in visits to local crisis pregnancy centres wherever the displays are set up.

“We don’t ask these crisis pregnancy centres to endorse us.” The centres, however, often send counsellors to the GAP displays to offer whatever help may be needed. Local CPCs, he said, regularly report huge increases in the number of women coming for assistance in unplanned pregnancies after a GAP event came to their universities.

He readily admitted that abortion-minded women can become “upset” at the photos, but added that this emotional disturbance is vitally necessary, and is only the first step towards rescuing them and their children. “We don’t want to upset women and then abandon them. We want to upset them and then help them.”

“The whole idea of upsetting them is so that instead of going to Planned Parenthood to get out of a crisis pregnancy, they go to the crisis pregnancy centre for help getting through the crisis pregnancy. But you’ve got to upset them before they’re going to be willing to do that.”