Historians have a favorite saying: “The past is like a foreign country.” When we travel there, we meet people who think and act very differently. We return home with a new perspective, recognizing how much we take for granted, how much is far from inevitable.
For a powerful illustration of this truth, look no further than Daniel K. Williams’s masterful new book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press). When readers turn the final page, they may feel like they have visited not just a different country, but a different universe.
The Twilight Zone
When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, only one in six of today’s Americans were adults. The rest of us have grown up in a later age. In the world we know, abortion has always been a constitutionally protected right. It has always pitted Republicans against Democrats, conservatives against liberals, Christians against secularists.
But the world has not always been this way.
Consider the following features of the period that Williams focuses on, roughly the four decades prior to Roe v. Wade. For most of these years:
- Evangelicals mostly watched from the sidelines as Catholics stood in defense of the unborn.
- Women rarely played visible roles on either side of the debate. Abortion was a matter of public health or social justice, not a question of sexual equality.
- Pro-lifers were often political liberals; political conservatives thought abortion laws were too strict.
- Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to favor total legalization of abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. While Ronald Reagan was signing an abortion liberalization law in California, Ted Kennedy was endorsing the “right to life” in Massachusetts.
Have we entered The Twilight Zone?
More important, Defenders of the Unborn demonstrates that by 1970, a vibrant, effective pro-life movement had taken off in the United States. Scholars have often portrayed the pro-life movement as if it began in 1973, when Roe v. Wade awakened conservatives to feminism, government activism, and sexual permissiveness. The book makes a compelling case that the movement “originated not as a conservative backlash against individual rights, but as a defense of human rights for the unborn.”
Williams begins his narrative with the Great Depression. It was a time when state laws almost uniformly prohibited abortion. But the number of illegal abortions soared in this era of unprecedented poverty. So did the number of women who died from botched back-alley procedures.
In this context, a few doctors began calling for loosening abortion restrictions as a way to protect women’s lives. Dissenting Catholic priests and physicians appealed to traditional church teaching about sexual morality. But they also framed the issue as a matter of social justice, and called for increased government aid to the poor as essential to reducing abortion.
The story of the next three decades is of how “a small, beleaguered Catholic movement” grew into “a massive ecumenical movement of grassroots activists.” They scored dozens of victories in the years before Roe v. Wade. As late as the early 1960s, Catholic teaching linked abortion with the use of contraceptives. Catholic leaders condemned both practices as symptoms of a larger cultural trend toward separating sexual pleasure from reproduction. After the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, however, Catholics fashioned a different strategy. In that case, the Court had declared anti-birth-control laws unconstitutional, persuading an important segment of Catholic opinion to separate the arguments against abortion and contraception.
In 1968, Catholic activists founded the National Right to Life Committee. Dropping references to contraception and sexual morality, they adopted “the language of postwar American liberalism.” Thus, they defined opposition to abortion as a civil rights movement for a defenseless minority. At the same time, they reached out to Protestants who objected to traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality, but supported Catholic positions on poverty, racial justice, capital punishment, and nuclear proliferation.
The result was a collaboration of Catholics and mainline Protestants. Both groups condemned abortion as reflecting a “broader disrespect for human life in all its forms.” Although popular opinion on abortion remained badly divided, in 1971–72 this alliance was strong enough to resist abortion liberalization in more than two dozen state legislatures. When the Supreme Court obliterated those victories the following year, its ruling would require legal changes in 46 states.
The memory of these achievements faded in later years, as a very different pro-life coalition campaigned, unsuccessfully, to overturn Roe v. Wade. The book’s final chapter reviews the pro-life campaign after Roe, but everything about this familiar story looks different in light of Williams’s careful re-creation of the previous decades. When evangelicals rallied to the cause in the late 1970s, they did not create a new movement so much as transform an existing one. Following a script crafted by national leaders such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell, they brought a new narrative to the pro-life movement. Up to the mid-1970s, pro-life advocates had described legalized abortion as a reflection of the culture’s general disregard for the sanctity of life. The Christian Right framed the issue in terms of the culture’s denigration of family values and traditional sexual morality.
An Unpredictable Story
Over time, advocates of the latter narrative forged an uneasy alliance with the Republican Party. A Gallup poll in late 1973 showed that both major parties were badly split over Roe. But the Democratic Party rejected a Human Life Amendment at its 1976 convention, while the Republicans endorsed it. At that point, pro-life activists mostly cast their lot with the GOP, even as the party did little to follow through on its pledge.
This new political landscape left pro-lifers who defined abortion in terms of social justice politically homeless. The Republican Party might become an effective vehicle for pro-life political action, but the party had little sympathy with the broader issue portfolio that motivated the pro-life movement before 1973. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party championed social justice, but was now adamantly committed to defending abortion rights.
Is there a lesson in this? Williams hesitates to say. His book is not a polemic, but a meticulous reconstruction of a historical moment that we think we know but don’t. If there’s a moral to the story, Williams only implies it, although I sense that he believes the pro-life movement took an unfortunate turn after 1973.
Readers may disagree, and they might be right. This much is clear, however: Williams has done an invaluable service to anyone who cares about the future of the pro-life cause. We rarely think deeply about aspects of the world that seem carved into granite. Defenders of the Unborn restores a fluidity and unpredictability to the story of abortion politics. The way things are is not the way they have always been—or always will be. God willing, when future historians visit our own abortion-friendly age, they too will be puzzled by its foreign customs.
Robert Tracy McKenzie chairs the history department at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic), and blogs at Faith and History: Thinking Christianly about the American Past.