Critics of the pro-life movement argue that it was a phenomenon that emerged as a reaction beginning in the early 1970s, when some states began liberalizing abortion laws. The pro-life movement really got off the ground, the story goes, when the Supreme Court stepped in and guaranteed the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Critics contend that the pro-life movement began mostly among Catholics (evangelicals came a bit later) who were alarmed by the feminist movement generally.
As Justin Taylor’s post suggested a few weeks ago, Daniel K. Williams’s book Defenders of the Unborn shows that the pro-life story played out quite differently. Williams writes:
Most histories of postwar American politics say almost nothing about the millions of Americans who opposed abortion before Roe v. Wade. They do not mention the African Americans in Detroit, the Lutheran wheat farmers in rural North Dakota, or the Catholics in Midwestern parishes who mobilized on behalf of the unborn at the beginning of the 1970s. They do not discuss the pro-life movement’s success in defeating abortion liberalization proposals in dozens of state legislatures and ballot initiatives in 1971 and 1972. . . .
Instead, most histories of postwar American politics treat the pro-life movement—if they mention it at all—only as a reaction against Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the growth of federal power. As Rickie Solinger has written, “There was no organized anti-abortion movement in the United States until after 1973. In reaction to Roe, a growing number of people, identifying a pervasive ‘values crisis,’ called for laws and policies to restrain what they saw as an excess of equality.” Solinger, who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the history of abortion and reproductive rights in twentieth-century America, is hardly alone; her summary represents a widely accepted historical consensus on this topic, especially among historians of feminism and sexuality. . . . As a result, historians have mischaracterized both the chronology of the pro-life movement and its ideological origins. Pro-life activism actually began decades before Roe v. Wade or the formation of the National Organization for Women. And it originated not as a conservative backlash against individual rights, but as a defense of human rights for the unborn.
Because historians have misunderstood the pro-life movement’s origins, they have been unable to explain why it remains a potent political force today, long after other socially conservative, religiously inspired causes, from Prohibition to school prayer, have faded from the scene. If the opponents of abortion had based their opposition merely on religious teaching or the seemingly arcane principles of natural law—as Catholics had when campaigning against contraception—it is unlikely that the pro-life cause could have withstood the forces of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the social changes of the 1960s. But because the pro-life movement grounded its arguments in the language of human value and constitutional rights, it was able to attract a politically and religiously diverse coalition that actually gained strength over time. . .
[The pro-life movement] originated not among political conservatives, but rather among people who supported New Deal liberalism and government aid to the poor, and who viewed their campaign as an effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority (in this case, the unborn). Only after Roe v. Wade, when the pro-life movement’s interpretation of liberalism came into conflict with another rights-based movement—feminism—and it became clear that pro-lifers would not be able to win the support of the Democratic Party, did the movement take a conservative turn. Yet because of the movement’s liberal origins, its position in the Republican Party remains an uneasy one even today.
Pro-life readers might quibble with Williams about the religious roots of at least some of the pro-life movement, but his analysis helps to clarify tragedies of abortion politics today. Democrats have in the past year become even more hostile toward pro-lifers in the party, even though the pro-life movement itself was substantially rooted in the ideals of the Democratic Party of the New Deal era. I have often mused about whether I would vote for pro-life Democrats, if given the chance. (I absolutely would have voted for a pro-life Democratic candidate for president in 2016.) But I’m almost never given the chance—it seems that the pro-life Democrat has become the most endangered species on today’s political landscape.
Similarly, Williams suggests that the Republican Party has never been quite at home with its identity as the pro-life party, an identity it backed into in the 1970s. Republican presidents from Reagan to Bush 43 have talked a good game on abortion, but have typically spent little political capital on the issue. They have also appointed (or at least sought to appoint) some justices to the Supreme Court with dubious pro-life credentials, at best.
Pinning Donald Trump down on particular issues can be a frustrating enterprise, but we know that he used to be “very pro-choice” and once he would not have restricted even partial-birth abortion. Pro-lifers were generally delighted with Trump’s successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, though we don’t know exactly what Gorsuch thinks about Roe v. Wade. Vice President Mike Pence addressed the 2017 March for Life. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump tried to foster ties with Planned Parenthood in the early months of the Trump administration, though that move has not met with universal success.
Pro-lifers, in spite of their movement’s deep ideological roots in the American tradition, don’t have a comfortable place to stand in the current political arrangement. Democrats won’t have us, and it’s not clear how seriously Republicans take us. But pro-life principles, including a commitment to defending the lives of the most vulnerable among us, and the idea that all people are equal before God, are powerful currents in American history. The pro-life movement has always had more than enough intellectual and spiritual capital to endure in an unfriendly political environment.
Sign up here for the Thomas S. Kidd newsletter. It delivers weekly unique content only to subscribers.