Nearly four decades after the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States, the abortion debate is still very much alive in our culture, media, legislatures and courts. 

Part of the reason is advances in fetal imaging technology, which have made it harder to dismiss and dehumanize the fetus as a “blob of tissue.” There also have been steady gains in embryological science, which make it impossible to deny that a new human life begins at conception. 

But much of the credit is owed the pro-life movement and its maturation into a savvy, articulate, compassionate, dedicated groundswell. It is likely that one day historians will see strong parallels to the civil rights movement of the 1960s — and we all know how that ultimately turned out. 

It was once a favored tactic of the pro-abortion lobby to paint all pro-lifers as extremists. But the pro-life movement today is more likely to be identified with the sorts of people profiled in this week’s Respect Life special section (see Pages 9-20). This is a new generation of pro-lifers, building on the gains of their predecessors. Hearing their stories paints a virtual road map to how the pro-life message can change hearts and minds, just as it did theirs. 

One of the most striking testimonies is by Abby Johnson, who used to head a Planned Parenthood facility in Texas, which was regularly picketed by pro-life activists. 

She says she had received six different death threats and therefore readily bought into the Planned Parenthood corporate line that pro-lifers were dangerous, “that they will be following you around and putting a bomb somewhere.” 

But her description of different sorts of picketers — and their degrees of effectiveness — is striking: 

“You have these crazy people outside on the sidewalk with big signs of aborted babies and people screaming in your face, and you think that, yes, they really are trying to scare and intimidate you. But they really aren’t doing any good. 

“Then when you see a woman praying with her 5-year-old, you realize that nobody is trying to harass you. When you have people there lovingly offering different alternatives to abortion, and they are peacefully praying, that’s wiping out the [radical pro-life] stereotype and taking the wind out of the [pro-choice] sails, and they don’t know what to say.” 

Ours is a culture ripe for the pro-life message, intelligently, passionately and compassionately articulated. Even a recent MTV special unintentionally publicized that many people have pro-life instincts that need only nurturing and supporting. One young woman breaks down recalling her abortion and her attempt to dehumanize the embryo as a “thing.” 

“A ‘thing’ can turn out like that,” she says, gesturing to her infant daughter. “That’s what I remember ... ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.” 

A Catholic columnist recently noted “the paradox” of America’s unborn. On one hand, the culture is replete with affirming stories of people overcoming infertility to welcome a new life, using ever more complex concoctions of different people’s eggs, sperm and wombs. On the other hand, one in five American pregnancies ends in abortion. “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured,” he wrote. “And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 

Against all odds and much opposition, the pro-life movement has lasted for a generation. As pro-lifers like Abby Johnson can testify, the next generation is ready to continue the struggle to protect the weakest among us.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.