For those who have come of age in the so-called millennial generation, the alliance between conservative Republicanism and “pro-life” activism is accepted without question. Indeed, that relationship has been firmly in place for the last 40 years, and in that time has escorted untold millions of “single-issue” voters into the ranks of the GOP. But the history of the American abortion debate extends back farther than the 1970s, to different times and political circumstances that even baby boomers are unlikely to recall.
This history is the subject of a new book by Daniel K. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. In his Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, Williams charts the ideologically complex roots of the abortion debate, tracing them back to a time when liberal Democrats opposed abortion with vigor, and conservative Republicans remained largely indifferent.
Eric C. Miller interviewed Williams over email. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
R&P: In the four decades after Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement was largely defined by dual commitments to conservatism and Christianity. Your book suggests that things were very different before the ruling. How so?
DKW: Before Roe v. Wade, there was a vibrant pro-life movement, but it was not allied with political conservatism or with evangelical Christianity. Most of the pre-Roe pro-life activists were Catholics with liberal political sympathies shaped by their Church’s social justice teachings and the New Deal. They viewed their campaign to save the lives of the unborn as a human rights cause, which is why much of their rhetoric closely paralleled the language of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Several state pro-life organizations of the pre-Roe era coupled their demands for restrictive abortion laws with a call for expanded social welfare programs for pregnant women and infants, and some called for the expansion of the War on Poverty. Many pro-life activists opposed the Vietnam War. Pro-lifers’ insistence on using the arguments of secular human rights liberalism enabled a movement that had started among Catholics to begin attracting the support of a number of liberal Protestants and a few Jews in the early 1970s.
The movement’s supporters in this era included such nationally known liberals as Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of John F. Kennedy), Ted Kennedy, Senator Mark Hatfield, Jesse Jackson, and a host of others.
By contrast, many of the nation’s best-known Republicans had little regard for the pro-life movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the nation’s first abortion liberalization laws were signed by Republican governors such as Spiro Agnew in Maryland, Nelson Rockefeller in New York, and Ronald Reagan in California. The nation’s leading conservative Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater, was an early supporter of abortion rights, as were many of the more moderate members of his party, such as Senators Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, and Robert Packwood.
Evangelicals had mixed views on abortion in the early 1970s. Although a number of prominent evangelicals denounced abortion, very few joined a pro-life organization, which meant that the campaign for the rights of the unborn was led almost entirely by Catholics and a few mainline Protestants whose political views were well to the left of the nascent Christian Right.
In short, there was little evidence of a connection between political conservatism and the pro-life movement before 1973. The pro-life movement at the time was politically diverse, but its arguments were grounded in the language of human rights liberalism, and many of its leaders were liberal Democrats who supported an expanded social welfare state.
R&P: If the pre-Roe abortion debate amounted to a disagreement among political liberals, did religious difference play the divisive role?
DKW: In one sense, the debate over abortion that began in the 1930s and 1940s certainly reflected a religious divide. After all, the doctors who advocated abortion law liberalization were usually liberal or secular Jews or, in a few cases, liberal Protestants, while those who denounced abortion were Catholics.
If it were not for the religious difference, the activists on both sides of the debate would have seemed remarkably similar. Most were physicians. Most were also New Deal liberals who wanted to help the less fortunate and improve societal well-being. Both sets of activists thought that their own position on abortion advanced liberal values.
Yet in another sense, the divisions over abortion were about more than a difference in religious identity; they also reflected a clash of moral values. The early proponents of abortion law liberalization were moral utilitarians who believed that an action was morally justified if the benefits of the action outweighed the harm involved. They conceded, in many cases, that abortion destroyed a human life and was therefore “evil.”
Yet they also believed that abortion prohibitions drove thousands of women to their death each year by denying them access to safe hospital abortions and thereby encouraging them to terminate their pregnancies by more dangerous means. Abortion legalization would save women’s lives and was therefore justified as the lesser of the two evils, they thought.
By contrast, opponents of abortion were also opponents of a utilitarian value system, so their moral reasoning rested on a different framework. They believed in inalienable human rights that could never be compromised, and, invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, they argued that those “inalienable rights” began with the right to life. Human life had absolute value, so it was never right to kill an innocent human being, even for the sake of saving other lives, protecting someone else’s health, or promoting societal well-being.
The “defenders of the unborn” in the 1930s and 1940s thus believed that they were fighting for something much larger than merely the prohibition of abortion. In their view, they were defending the foundation of all human rights. Their fight against abortion was not an effort to defend a sectarian religious teaching, they argued, but was instead a human rights campaign to defend the absolute value of all human life.
R&P: You note that this debate played out at the state level all over the country in the decade or so prior to Roe. Did the debaters foresee nationwide legalization on the horizon?
DKW: The abortion legalization movement gained a lot of ground in the late 1960s, but after four states legalized elective abortion in 1970, the pro-life movement changed strategy and won a string of victories.
In 1971 and 1972, dozens of state legislatures considered abortion legalization bills, but pro-lifers defeated all of these proposals except for an abortion liberalization bill in Florida that was imposed by court order. The pro-life movement’s political success during the two years preceding Roe v. Wade suggested that nationwide legalization was not on the immediate horizon; in fact, the political momentum seemed to have shifted to the pro-life side. Nevertheless, the struggle between pro-life and pro-choice forces did suggest a protracted debate.
The first stage in that debate occurred in the early 1960s, when state legislatures began considering proposals to liberalize state abortion laws in order to allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, dangers to a woman’s health, and suspected fetal deformity.
For several years, pro-life Catholics stopped these bills from passing, but in 1967, Colorado, California, and North Carolina liberalized their abortion laws, giving the abortion liberalization movement their first major political victories. For the next three years, the pro-life movement was on the defensive. By the end of 1970, twelve states had adopted liberalization laws and another four had gone even further by legalizing elective abortion—which pro-lifers called “abortion on demand”—through the second trimester of pregnancy.
The greatest blow to pro-lifers came in New York, which, in 1970, removed nearly all restrictions on first and second-trimester abortions. Because New York’s law had no residency requirement, thousands of women from outside the state traveled to New York to have abortions. By the end of 1970, the state’s hospitals were performing more than 10,000 abortions every month.
Pro-lifers capitalized on a backlash against “abortion on demand”—a backlash that they helped to generate by publicizing fetal photographs and graphic descriptions of abortion—to stop further abortion legalization proposals.
In 1972, New York’s state legislature passed a bill to make abortion illegal once again—a bill that was stopped only by Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s veto. In the months leading up to Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers were confident of further political success, and pro-choice activists were worried. But Roe changed the political equation.
R&P: To focus on the abortion debate as a struggle between competing liberalisms is perhaps to obscure the significance of the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement that were active in those same years. What influence did questions of race, class, sex, or gender bring to the discussion?
DKW: The public debates over abortion that occurred between the 1930s and early 1960s featured a similar set of actors on both sides of the controversy: white male professionals. That changed in the mid-to-late 1960s, when women reframed the terms of the debate. For women who became leaders in the abortion rights movement, the campaign for abortion legalization was a fight for women’s right to equality and bodily autonomy. For pro-life women, the fight against abortion legalization was also a fight for women’s rights—that is, women’s right to be mothers, to protect their children (both born and unborn), and to be free from sexual coercion.
Public opinion polls showed that women were more likely than men to oppose abortion and Roe v. Wade, with opposition to abortion especially strong among married Catholic women. It was thus not surprising that much of the leadership for the pro-life movement after 1970 came from women—from young homemakers such as Gloria Klein, who headed the pro-life effort in Michigan; from liberal Protestants such as Marjory Mecklenburg, who served as president of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life; and from medical professionals such as Mildred Jefferson, who was not only the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School but also the first African American president of the National Right to Life Committee.
Many of the women who joined the pro-life movement combined a liberal social vision of governmental assistance for women facing crisis pregnancies with opposition to the sexual revolution. Some pro-life women claimed to be feminists, but the feminism that they championed was the first-wave feminism of early twentieth-century Progressives who believed in state aid for mothers, not the second-wave feminism of abortion rights advocates.
Many of these women thought that their championship of state assistance for mothers and children should have gained them a sympathetic hearing from liberals, but in the end, pro-life women’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment—which they claimed could be used to mandate abortion rights—and pro-choice feminism was a key reason why the Democratic Party rejected the attempts of Ellen McCormack, Marjory Mecklenburg, and other pro-life Democratic women to win support from the party for the pro-life agenda.
Pro-lifers viewed their cause as a civil rights movement for the unborn, but they also believed that it was a movement that would help African Americans maintain their own civil rights. A few prominent African American, civil-rights advocates, including Jesse Jackson, supported the pro-life movement for a while because they believed that legal abortion disproportionately hurt racial minorities and the poor.
In the 1970s, African Americans were more strongly opposed to abortion than whites were. A few pro-life campaigns—especially the campaign against a Michigan abortion legalization referendum in 1972—successfully reached out to African Americans with the help of African American, pro-life activists. But in the end, with only a few notable exceptions, most African Americans were reluctant to join a movement that was still overwhelmingly white, Catholic, and middle class. The pro-life movement of the early 1970s transformed itself into a movement led by women, but it was only partially successful in reaching its goal of becoming a thoroughly interracial, religiously ecumenical campaign.
R&P: For me the most fascinating part of the book comes in the closing chapters, when you explain how the pro-life movement made its way out of the post-Roe wilderness and into the Republican Party platform. Is it fair to say that the GOP’s embrace of anti-abortion politics formalized its partnership with conservative Christianity?
DKW: The Republican Party’s adoption of a pro-life platform plank in 1976 was a catalyst for the party’s alliance with conservative evangelicals and the creation of the Christian Right. But no one foresaw this outcome at the time.
In 1976, the pro-life movement was neither evangelical Protestant nor politically conservative, and the Republican Party leadership was not antipathetic to Roe. What, then, prompted the alliance between the pro-life movement and the GOP that year, and what caused this alliance to eventually develop into a larger “partnership with conservative Christianity”?
Pro-lifers were willing to ally with the GOP because they felt betrayed by the Democratic Party when its 1976 platform repudiated the proposed Human Life Amendment to the Constitution. Ronald Reagan’s appeals to pro-lifers during his 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination brought disaffected Democratic pro-life activists into conservative Republican politics for the first time.
In response to these developments, the Republican Party adopted a pro-life platform plank in 1976 in order to secure the support of pro-life Reagan delegates who were skeptical about Gerald Ford and also to win over traditionally Democratic Catholic voters. This move brought the nation’s major pro-life leaders into the Republican camp.
This shift, however, would probably not have resulted in a larger alliance between the GOP and conservative Christianity if there had not also been a change in the religious composition of the pro-life movement in the late 1970s.
In 1976, the pro-life movement was still overwhelmingly Catholic and mostly politically liberal (despite pro-life activists’ brief flirtation with Reagan’s primary campaign), but by 1980, there was a new group of pro-life activists: evangelical Protestants. Evangelical pro-lifers were much more likely than their Catholic counterparts to be political conservatives (and thus, were more natural allies for the conservative wing of the GOP), and they were also more likely to connect the abortion issue to their larger concerns about sexual morality and secularization.
The Catholic pro-lifers of the early 1970s had linked their anti-abortion campaigns to anti-poverty initiatives and denunciations of the Vietnam War, but evangelical pro-lifers of the early 1980s connected their opposition to abortion with political battles against gay rights. When the Reagan campaign and the GOP enlisted the support of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in 1980, they sidelined politically liberal Catholic pro-lifers and instead gave political momentum to the politically conservative, largely evangelical Protestant wing of the pro-life movement—a wing closely identified with the Christian Right.
R&P: In 2012, I argued that contraception, sex education, and social welfare programs could provide a new way out of the intractable abortion debate. You demonstrate that a version of that argument was already old news in the 1960s. In fact, many of the most popular arguments have recurred and morphed over time. Having completed this study, do you see a trajectory to this debate? Is there any hope for a satisfactory resolution?
DKW: Pro-choice advocates’ attempts to find common ground with their opponents through efforts to reduce abortion rates have not succeeded, because most pro-life activists believe that these attempts do not address their real goal, which is the protection of the human rights of the unborn in public law. Because the debate over abortion is a battle between competing human rights claims, neither side is likely to want to engage in compromise or capitulation until their own rights claims are addressed.
Perhaps the first step to defusing the political tension in the debate is to recognize that both sides in the abortion controversy are making legitimate human rights claims that are grounded in American liberal values. One side would like to protect women’s rights to equality and autonomy, while the other side would like to protect the rights of the unborn. It might seem difficult to imagine a set of policies that would simultaneously honor both sets of rights claims, but Charles Camosy’s recent book, Beyond the Abortion Wars, offers some promising suggestions—even if such policies have little chance of passage in our current political climate.
Roe did not settle the abortion debate; instead, it only fueled pro-lifers’ determination to gain a hearing for their cause. Pro-lifers’ inability to overturn Roe (despite repeated attempts to do so) has exacerbated political tensions over abortion and has turned Supreme Court nomination hearings into highly charged partisan battles. Pro-lifers have also succeeded in passing restrictive abortion legislation in numerous states. The number of abortion clinics has greatly decreased during the past 20 years, and the nation’s abortion rate is now at its lowest level since the early 1970s. Yet at the same time, Roe v. Wade seems more secure than ever, especially if—as currently seems likely—Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat is eventually filled by a more liberal justice who would vote to uphold Roe. The pro-life movement continues to be a vibrant, politically powerful movement. Any proposed compromise solution to the abortion controversy must therefore take this movement’s claims seriously and address its central goal of protecting the human rights of the unborn.