Ask the Attorney: An Interview with Gregg Cunningham

Please tell me about your education and legal background; I gather it’s pretty exotic.
Exotic may be the right word. I’m a Vietnam veteran; I went to Vietnam right out of high school. I went to college later, at Penn State, and went on to law school at Ohio Northern, then clerked for a judge and ran for the Pennsylvania legislature. I defeated an incumbent feminist who was a very outspoken champion of “abortion rights,” after a campaign that the press turned into a referendum on abortion. I interpreted my victory as a mandate of sorts to change the law and set about doing that immediately after being elected, and even as a freshman put in a bill to cut off all public funding for abortion. In those days, 1979, the state was funding about 60,000 abortions a year.

Incredibly, the bill passed and was signed into law by the governor and that was it— no more publicly funded abortions. I was emboldened by that victory to help organize a much more ambitious bill that became the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, and after overcoming a gubernatorial veto to force the bill into law it was litigated up to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Thornburgh case and eventually as amended became the Casey decision. This was then the most restrictive abortion law on the books. I wanted to force the court out into the open, to make them stop being disingenuous about the fact that they had legalized abortion without restriction through all nine months of pregnancy. We achieved a victory at least in this, that we smoked the court out and stopped this charade that Harry Blackmun had tried to orchestrate, that Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were really very moderate. If no state can stop a doctor from killing a viable baby in the very act of being born, then the notion of the states retaining any ability to regulate abortion is preposterous. I ended up being asked to do a lot of radio and television interviews, and I began to do a great deal more reading about this issue. I became convinced that abortion represented a cultural watershed for this country, and that the outcome of this battle would heavily influence, morally and spiritually, who we were as a nation. It seemed to me that this was so important an issue that it was worthy of more energy than was being invested in it by the church and by people of conscience generally. I went on to become a justice department official in the Reagan administration, working on legislative issues, and then became a special assistant U.S. attorney for Los Angeles. From that job I came to realize that the part-time work I was doing on pro-life issues really wasn’t achieving the objectives I had set out for my own involvement in the work, so I began doing pro-life work on a full time basis.

After it became clear to me that to be optimally effective I would have to start my own organization I undertook to do that.

What is this organization? When did you start it and what does it do?
It is called the Center for Bioethical Reform. We started in 1990, and we exist to re-invent the pro-life movement. I began with the assumption that we were losing this battle, that we were losing it badly and in every significant way. There are lots of well-intentioned Pollyannas who think we are not losing, but I compare them to what Martin Luther King called the civil rights moderates in the 50’s and 60’s; King said that out in the precincts of Selma, Alabama or Montgomery or parts of Mississippi where black people were not allowed to educate their children in decent schools and were not allowed to vote or to sit down in restaurants of their choosing, there were great injustices that were being ignored by those who said that we are winning. King said that he was going to make civil rights an unavoidable issue for the American culture which was reluctant to engage on this topic, and that he was going to do it by dramatizing the existing injustices.

There are many prolife moderates who in an attempt to justify their tepid, anemic approach to pro-life activism, say that we are winning and that all we have to do is to stay the course. We reject this idea. Our view is that the vast majority of time being invested in the pro-life movement is being invested in Crisis Pregnancy Ministries, and that the vast majority of women in crisis pregnancies don’t go anywhere near these centers; they go straight to abortion clinics. The enterprise in which we are investing the greatest amount of time is being largely ignored by the women to whom it was designed to appeal. The enterprise in which we are investing the greatest amount of money, which is lobbying, is not producing any measurable result because legislation which would restrict abortion in any meaningful way is being immediately overturned by the federal court. I would say it is time to take a fresh look at what we are doing, re-define the problem, try to get a clearer sense of why what we are doing isn’t working, and then devise a new strategy and find tactics to implement that strategy. That is an exceedingly difficult proposition, because so many pro-life leaders are so invested in the maintenance of the status quo that they feel threatened by any new approach, especially one that is going to rock the boat or invite persecution.

What would be an example of a new approach?
Our Genocide Awareness Project is such an example. The pro-life issue is being largely ignored in America today as growing numbers of Americans have been personally involved in the decision to kill a baby. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that 43% of American women will have had at least one clinical abortion by the age of 45. One out of five women who abort identify themselves as evangelical Christians, and the numbers are way worse for women who identify themselves as Catholics. You can see how reluctant the American people would be to think about abortion, to talk about abortion; they have just enough guilt about abortion to not want to deal with it, but not enough to repudiate it. As we saw in the partial birth abortion debate there was a dramatic shift in public opinion on late term abortion because of the publication of very graphic pictures of babies being killed in the process of being born. The American people were scandalized. The single most pivotal factor in the shift of public opinion against late term abortions was the broadcasting of the pictures. The downside of this is that late term abortions are a very small percentage of the whole; 90% of all abortions are performed in the first three months of pregnancy when most Americans believe that abortions should be legal without any restrictions.

That point of view is underpinned by the view that the baby at that age is a blob of tissue, and is developmentally so primitive as to be not entitled to the rights of personhood. What we are trying to do with the Genocide Awareness Project is to change people’s minds early in pregnancy concerning who this baby is and what abortion does to this baby, in a way that mirrors the change in people’s minds that was effected by the partial birth abortion debate. But we don’t have the vehicle of legislation with which to do this so we are doing it with huge display panels which we erect around the country in high-traffic areas, and basically compel the public to confront who the baby is and what abortion does to the baby.

The pro-life movement has traditionally made the mistake of affirming conclusions without showing the facts that are the bases for those conclusions. We live in a very visual culture; people who don’t see things tend to have a difficulty in understanding them. The best evidence for that proposition can be found in the fact that if Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD had not been videotaped there almost certainly would not have been any trial. There is a difference between understanding an evil cerebrally and understanding it in your gut; when we are dealing with an evil which is inexpressibly enormous, words fail to describe it. That’s why when high school or college teachers are trying to teach about something as shocking as the Holocaust they always use immensely shocking pictures. When we use similarly shocking pictures to attempt to teach what the abortion holocaust is all about, suddenly the rules change and we are no more allowed to use those pictures than opponents of the Holocaust would have been allowed to use Holocaust imagery in Nazi Germany.

The tolerance for that would have been zero, just as the tolerance for the civil rights movement in the South would have been very low for photos depicting the mistreatment of African-Americans. In fact frequently when King would confront his oppressors in carefully staged confrontations which would force racists to abuse blacks in public as they had been abusing them in private, it was the photographers who would be attacked first because the racists were sophisticated enough to understand that it was bad publicity for them to be seen brutalizing blacks in public. King was saying that we are no longer going to permit this brutalization to be limited to private venues; we’re going to force these racists to brutalize us in public and we’re going to arrange to have the press here. The power of pictures is irrefutable and when we use them, the pro-aborts become very upset because you can’t lie about who the baby is or what abortion does to him to someone who is standing in front of the pictures.

So you are putting up big signs.
That’s one of many projects in which we are involved, all of which are designed to engage the culture. We are losing this thing in no small measure because pro-lifers sit around talking to one another instead of engaging the culture. They don’t want to engage the culture because the culture doesn’t want to be engaged. When we try to educate people who are in profound denial, of course they will respond angrily. Most pro-lifers can’t deal with the anger, so they dumb down the message to the point where it can’t offend anyone.

This sounds like an impersonal, shotgun approach. Is there any follow-up?
Yes, this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches.

We’re going to be launching a project in church venues by picking one large church whose pastor will not preach against abortion—we’re going to put these signs outside the church every Sunday until he does. And we’ll have a very long list of things that the church could be doing and should be doing, and when the church is ready to start doing these things, we’ll move on to the next church. We want pastors to wonder whether their church is going to be next, and if pastors aren’t going to tell the truth about abortion inside, we’re going to tell it outside.

So these are things you are planning for the near future. Do you have enough people? Are you looking for volunteers?
Absolutely. We always need more money and more manpower.

So, you are going to be targeting churches and schools.
Yes, and we will also be targeting businesses that in some way support the abortion industry.

But you won’t be doing a lot of political work.
No, because we believe that you can’t change the law if you don’t change the culture. As annoyed as I am with George W. Bush’s declaration that he’s not going to do much to change the law because the culture isn’t ready, he’s at least half-right. The culture isn’t ready, but he’s wrong in assuming that he has no responsibility for getting the culture ready.

Whose responsibility is it to get the culture ready? Is it the church’s?
The church has failed miserably. A narrow majority of Catholics now believe that a woman should have a legal right to kill her baby. The numbers are almost as bad in the evangelical churches. The church is in near total collapse as a witness against abortion. With regard to the government, the Democratic party is viciously pro-abortion and the Republican party is in full retreat. We can’t find teachers who are willing to tell the truth about abortion in any balanced way, so the educational establishment is against us. The entertainment industry is against us, the news media are against us. Who is it that’s supposed to get the culture ready when every institution that’s supposed to have responsibility for influencing the culture’s norms and values is monolithically pro-abortion or cravenly cowardly? The people who are claiming progress are living in a dream world.

When we exercise our First Amendment rights to get the public to face the horrors of abortion, the first thing that happens is that the messenger gets attacked, and everybody wants to take away our First Amendment rights. The way the Americans cope with this tragedy is with denial. It is going to be very interesting to see how committed this country is to the First Amendment. Will we try to tear up the Constitution as a way of silencing people who are delivering a very troubling message? And so far the trend is chilling.

Life Legal Defense Foundation will play a critical role in all of this. It was created to get rescuers out of jail. Now it will exist to keep activists out of jail by guaranteeing that our First Amendment rights are protected. We aren’t breaking the law; we’re just doing what the Constitution guarantees us the right to do, and the question becomes will we have the resources to turn back the legal challenges that we expect will encounter us at every turn.

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

[The Center for Bioethical Reform may be contacted at (818) 360-2477 (P.O. Box 8056, Mission Hills, CA 91346.) More information is at — Ed.]