“It's part of the idea that God has given us a sense of right and wrong,” Dudley said, “And that if something elicits disgust and contempt, it appeals to our inner moral compass.”
Some in the pro-life community have resisted simply trying to restrict when and how abortions can be performed, believing that such half-measures acknowledge that some abortions are legitimate.
In 2011, for example, a group of die-hard pro-life groups in Ohio pushed for a “heartbeat bill,” which would have banned abortions in the state after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually occurs at about six to eight weeks. But the state's main anti-abortion organization, Ohio Right to Life, refused to back it because they felt it was too radical—and therefore risky—for the political climate at the time.
“Step-by-step measures haven’t stopped the killing,” Linda J. Theis, president of a group that broke away from Ohio Right to Life, told the New York Times.
Still, the effectiveness of this step-by-step strategy has become clear in recent years.
Last week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Pro-life advocates also set their sights on state and, in the case of Albuquerque, municipal legislatures with laws that aim to elicit the same revulsion that laws banning so-called “partial-birth” abortion relied on. Rather than employ philosophical arguments about the true start of human life, anti-abortion groups are instead leaning on more visceral messages about pain and suffering.
“The life at conception issue gets to a spiritual question that's unknowable and unanswerable to a lot of people,” said Alesha Doan, chair of the women, gender, and sexuality studies department at the University of Kansas. But the fetal pain argument touches on the fact that, “we anesthetize for all surgeries, and it's considered cruel and unusual punishment not to do so.”
Currently, nine states ban abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization, or 22 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual period. Nebraska was the first to do so, in 2010. Though total abortion bans are losing ground, even in conservative states like Mississippi, the 20-week bans are “really good politics” for the pro-life movement, Halva-Neubauer said, because it makes their argument appear stronger and “takes a lot of late-second-trimester abortion providers out of the game.”
Ultimately, Halva-Neubauer believes pro-life groups hope to force the 20-week issue to the courts, and then on to the Supreme Court, where in 2007 a similar ban on “partial-birth” abortions, the pro-life term for intact dilation and extraction (IDX), was upheld.
Like the fetal pain issue, the debate over IDX also centered on the gruesomeness of the procedure, with pro-life materials detailing a fully-formed baby being dragged out of a womb and then stabbed with long scissors.