Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater. George Wallace. These men probably won’t be featured on pro-choice pamphlets any time soon, but during at least some point in their political careers, the Moral Majority-era president, conservative stalwart, and infamous segregationist all favored the legalization of abortion. In the four decades since the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade, the political debate over abortion in America has become stale and polarized, with two sides utterly divided and little change in public opinion. But in the years leading up to Roe, many people’s views on abortion didn’t fit neatly into either liberal or conservative ideology. In fact, early anti-abortion activists viewed their cause as a struggle for civil and human rights, of a piece with social programs like the New Deal and the Great Society.
In a new book, Defenders of the Unborn, the historian Daniel K. Williams looks at the first years of the self-described pro-life movement in the United States, focusing on the long-overlooked era before Roe. It’s somewhat surprising that the academy hasn’t produced such a history before now, although Williams says that’s partially because certain archives have only recently opened. But the gap in scholarship is also partly due to the difficulty of putting abortion into a single intellectual framework. “Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”