Daniel K. Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. His book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, was published in January by Oxford University Press. It charts the ideologically complex roots of the abortion controversy, tracing them back to a time when liberal Democrats opposed abortion with vigor and conservative Republicans remained largely indifferent.
ECM: 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.
ECM: 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.
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