The Progressive Roots of the Pro-Life Movement

A new book looks at the history of anti-abortion advocacy before Roe v. Wade, arguing that today’s activists are much different than their predecessors.

Bettmann / CORBIS / AP / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

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.”

Without knowing this history, Williams argues, it’s difficult to understand why pro-life views have had such staying power in American politics, even as public opinion on other social issues, such as LGBT rights and birth-control use, has steadily shifted to become more permissive. Abortion, he says, has a different history. Its early opponents thought it was their duty, and their government’s duty, to protect the unborn alongside the poor and the weak. They believed their position offered women empowerment, not oppression.

Most importantly, this history shows how contorted the abortion debate has become, as women’s bodies and children’s futures have been turned into rhetorical proving grounds for politicians left and right. Today, pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct, and openly pro-choice Republicans rarely make it to a national stage like this year’s presidential race. Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case. What happened to America’s progressive pro-lifers?

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If the first advocates of abortion legalization in America were doctors, their most vocal opponents were their Catholic colleagues. By the late 19th century, nearly all states had outlawed abortion, except in cases in which the mother’s life was threatened. As Williams writes, “The nation’s newspapers took it for granted that abortion was a dangerous, immoral activity, and that those who performed abortions were criminals.” But in the 1930s, a few doctors began calling for less harsh abortion bans—mostly “liberal or secular Jews who believed that Catholic attempts to use public law to enforce the Church’s own standards of sexuality morality violated people’s personal freedom,” according to Williams. In 1937, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Guilds issued a statement condemning these abortion supporters, who, they said, would “make the medical practitioner the grave-digger of the nation.” Although some Protestants had been involved in early efforts to prohibit early-term abortions, in these early years, resistance was overwhelmingly led by Catholics.

Some hospitals interpreted abortion laws loosely, relying on psychiatrists to certify that a woman might be at risk of suicide if she were forced to carry her pregnancy to term. But even some of the doctors who performed these procedures and advocated abortion-law liberalization—like Alan Guttmacher, a New York gynecologist who went on to head Planned Parenthood in the 1960s and is the namesake of one of today’s most prominent pro-choice advocacy organizations—shrunk from full-on support of the procedure, hoping that birth control would eliminate its need. “I don’t like killing,” Guttmacher said, but he believed abortion was justified if it preserved a mother’s life.

Meanwhile, a handful of courts were taking on a different aspect of the debate: whether abortion was a violation of human rights. From 1939 to 1958, five state supreme courts and the U.S. District Court in D.C. handed down rulings that recognized fetal personhood. These rulings lined up with the convictions of theologically conservative Catholics, who believed that life begins at conception, and this group may very well have influenced the decisions. As Guttmacher wrote in 1963, “The Catholic Church is so well mobilized and makes up such a large percentage of the population that changing the law of any state in the Northeast of the U.S.A. is a virtual impossibility at least for the next several decades.”

Catholic doctors opposed abortion supporters, who would “make the medical practitioner the grave-digger of the nation.”

But though these Catholics may have been theologically conservative, most of them were not what most Americans would consider politically conservative, either by midcentury or contemporary standards. “There were some political conservatives who participated in the early movement, but for the most part, the public rhetoric of the movement tended to be grounded in liberalism as seen through a mid-20th century Catholic lens,” Williams said. “It’s New Deal, Great Society liberalism.”

For most mid-century American Catholics, opposing abortion followed the same logic as supporting social programs for the poor and creating a living wage for workers. Catholic social teachings, outlined in documents such as the 19th-century encyclical Rerum novarum, argued that all life should be preserved, from conception until death, and that the state has an obligation to support this cause. “They believed in expanded pre-natal health insurance, and in insurance that would also provide benefits for women who gave birth to children with disabilities,” Williams said. They wanted a streamlined adoption process, aid for poor women, and federally funded childcare. Though Catholics wanted abortion outlawed, they also wanted the state to support poor women and families.

Other progressives, though, took a more calculating approach to poverty and family planning. Some proponents of the New Deal believed birth control could be used to implement government policy—a means of reducing the number of people in poverty and, ultimately, saving the state money, Williams said. Later, as technology made it easier to detect fetal deformities, abortion proponents commonly argued that women should have the option of terminating their pregnancies if doctors saw irregularities. “It was a widespread belief among abortion-liberalization advocates … that society would be better off if fewer severely deformed babies were born,” Williams said. The Catholics who opposed abortion “saw this as a very utilitarian perspective,” he said. “If you believed the fetus was a human being, this life would be destroyed for someone else’s quality of life, and they saw this as a very dangerous way of thinking.”

At times, there was a dark racial component to pro-abortion and birth-control rhetoric. In the early 20th century, for example, “there was substantial support in some areas of the country for the eugenic use of birth control to limit the reproductive capabilities of poor, sexually promiscuous, or mentally disabled women—especially those who were African American,” Williams writes in his book. Decades later, as public-aid spending ballooned in the 1960s, a new kind of racism entered the abortion debate. “Many whites stereotyped welfare recipients as single African American women who had become pregnant out of wedlock and were ‘breeding children as a cash crop,’ as Alabama Governor George Wallace said,” William writes. “Wallace eventually took a strong stance against abortion, but like some of his fellow conservatives,” he was an early supporter of legalization.

The ’60s saw the first serious wave of abortion legalization proposals in state houses, starting with legislation in California. Catholic groups mobilized against these efforts with mixed success, repeatedly hitting a few major obstacles. For one thing, the “movement” wasn’t really a movement yet—abortion opponents didn’t refer to their beliefs as “right-to-life” or “pro-life” until Cardinal James McIntyre started the Right to Life League in 1966. After that, anti-abortion activists began getting more organized. But because Catholics had led opposition efforts for so long, abortion had also become something of a “Catholic issue,” alienating potential Protestant allies—and voters. “African Americans were among the demographic group most likely to oppose abortion—in fact, opposition to abortion was higher among African American Protestants than it was even among white Catholics,” Williams writes. “But pro-life organizations had little connection to black institutions—particularly black churches—and they were far too Catholic and too white to appeal to most African American Protestants.”

Catholics had been “squeamish about engaging in a discussion of a matter that violated their sense of modesty.”

Catholic clergy quietly began starting state-level organizations, seeding the initial funding but stepping aside to let Protestant leaders take leadership roles. Many also de-emphasized their opposition to birth control. “They accepted as leaders in their movement mainline Christians who were advocates for contraception,” Williams said. And “they tried to provide resources for women who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock—they wanted to reduce the stigma.”

The first big losses for the pro-life movement happened in 1970. Hawaii, Alaska, and New York became the first states to legalize elective abortion, no longer requiring doctors to perform the procedure only when a woman’s life was in danger. Although Hawaii only let residents seek the procedure, New York did not establish the same requirement. “In the first fifteen months after New York legalized elective abortion, the state’s doctors performed 200,000 abortions,” Williams writes, “at least 60 percent of which were for nonresidents.”

Many pro-lifers reacted with horror. For a long time, many Catholics had been “squeamish about engaging in a detailed discussion of a matter that violated their sense of modesty and propriety,” Williams writes. After 1970’s legislative defeats, their tactics changed. Pamphlets became more graphic. Advocates delighted in fetal photography; they believed that seeing a fetus’s infant-like features would be enough to convince any American of its personhood. As newspapers tilted in favor of legalization efforts, pro-lifers increased their efforts to distribute these photos. “By distributing these shocking images,” Williams wrote, they claimed “they were simply telling the truth about a subject that the news media refused to cover.”

As more states debated liberalized abortion laws in the early ’70s, the pro-life movement finally found its momentum. Although they suffered a number of legislative defeats, there were also victories—in 1972, for example, right-to-life advocates successfully organized voters in Michigan and North Dakota against referendums to legalize abortion. Those involved in the movement were more diverse than ever, including anti-war pacifists, college students, and, crucially, many women. It seemed like maybe, just maybe, the push for abortion legalization could be stopped.

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In 1973, everything changed. In Roe v. Wade and an accompanying decision, Doe v. Bolton, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to get an abortion, weighed against the state’s obligation to protect women’s health and potential human lives. Suddenly, being pro-life meant standing against the state’s intervention into family affairs, or at the very least, the court’s interference with citizens’ rights to determine what their state laws should be. Ronald Reagan, who once signed one of the country’s first abortion-liberalization laws as governor of California, went on the record supporting the “aims” of a Human Life Amendment, which would change the Constitution to prohibit abortion. New leaders took up the pro-life cause, including Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which “connected the issue to a bevy of other politically conservative causes—such as campaigns to restore prayer in schools, stop the advances of the gay-rights movement, and even defend against the spread of international communism through nuclear-arms build-up,” Williams writes. Advocates shifted their focus toward the Supreme Court and securing justices who would overturn Roe. And in recent years, a significant number of state legislatures have placed incremental restrictions on abortion, making it harder for clinics to operate and for women to get the procedure.

Abortion also became a debate almost exclusively about gender and sexuality, and largely a debate among women. For decades, men led both pro- and anti-abortion advocacy efforts; women were silenced by default, largely absent from politics and medicine, or they were actively excluded from the opposition movement by Catholic clergy. In the 1970s, that changed. “The debate about abortion was a conflict over gender, even though most pro-lifers of the late 1960s and early 1970s had been slow to recognize this fact,” Williams writes. “It was not a conflict of men against women, as some pro-choicers believed; instead, it was a debate between two different groups of women.”

On the pro-choice side, abortion supporters believed they were not only defending women’s right to control their bodies—“they were giving [poor] women the tools they needed to voluntarily limit the size of their families.” But some opponents also identified as “pro-life feminists,” believing abortion gave men an excuse to treat women as sexual objects. As Williams writes, they thought “women’s rights would be respected only when their roles as life-givers and mothers were fully honored.”

As more evangelicals joined the movement in the years after Roe, members of the pro-life movement became more focused on sexual conservatism, pairing their opposition to abortion with a general stance against the mores of the sexual revolution. From the Falwell years forward, abortion was merely one in a suite of conservative issues, solidifying the pro-life movement’s alliance with the Republican Party. But, as Williams points out, the Republican Party has never been a fully comfortable home for the social-justice ideals of those who started the movement. “Republicans had given little support to the pro-life cause before Roe,” he writes, and the party “gave scant attention to poverty reduction, social-welfare provisions, or the other causes that had interested pro-life leaders of an earlier generation.” Yet, in a Democratic world heavily influenced by organizations such as Emily’s List and NARAL, it’s become increasingly difficult for politicians on the left to take a boldly pro-life position. As the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore told me in an interview last year, “I wish we were in a situation where we had two pro-life [parties]. I started my career working for a pro-life Democratic congressperson, and he was pro-life, pro-family. That world doesn’t exist anymore.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why the electoral politics of abortion don’t quite seem to capture how Americans feel about the procedure. On the presidential campaign trail, a number of Republicans have taken a hardline stance against abortion, with some even opposed to exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or threats to the health of the mother. On the Democratic side, all three current candidates firmly support abortion rights. For many Americans, it’s probably not the issue that will determine their vote, although it’s still important to a minority of committed activists on both sides. Most puzzlingly, fewer women have been getting abortions in America—the number of people pursuing the procedure has steadily declined over the past decade and a half. There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon, but one thing is for sure: The complexity of the issue is not reflected in stump speeches and presidential debates. Abortion is an issue of alienation—of a movement, from its history; of voters, from their politicians; and of women, as their most intimate experiences become rhetorical fodder. Perhaps this is because firm positions on abortion require a vocabulary that was embraced by early activists, but that’s uncommon in American politics: one that dares to define the meaning of life outside the framework of U.S. political ideologies.