What if I told you there was a time in American history when many Republicans supported liberalizing abortion laws, while liberal Democrats protested that fetuses had constitutionally protected rights? That liberals like Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Dick Gephart took pro-life positions while Republican governors Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation expanding access to abortion? Would you believe it?
Surprising as it may seem in the 21st century, protecting the unborn used to be an issue that liberals championed, as Daniel K. Williams shows in his outstanding new study, “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade” (Oxford University Press, 2016). Williams demonstrates that, prior to Roe (which struck down most state laws restricting abortion), pro-lifers grounded their opposition to abortion in the rhetoric of human rights. In contrast to previous interpretations that interpreted the pro-life movement as a backlash against women’s rights and the Sexual Revolution, Williams argues that opponents of abortion viewed their cause as intimately linked with other “pro-life” positions like opposition to the Vietnam War and the death penalty. They believed that the fetus was the most defenseless of all human beings and that the Constitution guaranteed it the right to life.
From the 1930s (when liberalizing abortion laws first became an issue in the medical and legal worlds) until about 1970, Catholics stood almost alone as defenders of the unborn. At first, they linked their opposition to abortion with their anti-contraception stance, since both practices allegedly involved humans meddling with the origins of life. As the majority of Protestants accepted birth control by mid-century, however, such arguments became increasingly unpersuasive. Instead, in the context of the Holocaust, Catholics began to argue that permitting abortion symbolized the general devaluing of human life. Permitting abortions in the case of fetal deformity seemed reminiscent of Nazi intentions to purify the race.
The abortion issue really came to the forefront in the 1960s, when pro-life advocates witnessed mixed success. In the 1962-63 legislative session, Catholics defeated abortion liberalization measures under consideration in Minnesota and California. Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates thought that abortion reform was dead in the water: Catholics made up “such a large percentage of the population that changing the law of any state in the Northeast . . . is a virtual impossibility,” Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher lamented. It was a sign of the times that abortion opponents were generally Democrats of the New Deal mold who saw a logical coherence in their support for poverty relief programs, parochial schools, unions, and the rights of the unborn.
Other forces, however, combined to make early pro-life victories ephemeral. Rightly or wrongly, the reforms introduced in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) resulted in lay Catholics increasingly dissenting from the official teaching of their Church. Where bishops had been able to exert substantial political force among their parishioners in the pre-Vatican II era, their influence diminished in the council’s aftermath. As a result, politicians became less fearful of “the Catholic vote.” Second-wave feminism, with its downplaying of gender differences in its call for equality, also accelerated abortion liberalization by introducing the rhetoric of bodily autonomy. Women must not be forced to bear children against their will, feminists asserted. Where an earlier generation of abortion advocates tried to balance women’s rights against those of the fetus, pro-choice activists by the early 1970s were declaring in effect that the fetus had no rights.
The upshot was that pro-lifers lost significant legislative battles in the late 1960s, as California and New York both adopted laws increasing access to abortion. Again, the political alignments shock present-day sensibilities. California’s law found some of its strongest support from the lower house’s most senior Republican and was signed into law by Governor Reagan. Some of the attacks on the bill came from a liberal Democrat whose speech opposing abortion also lambasted the Vietnam War and the death penalty; in his view, each immorally destroyed human life. In New York, Republican Nelson Rockefeller signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law in 1970; it too had Republican sponsorship in the state house. When the legislature voted to repeal the unpopular legislation two years later, Rockefeller vetoed the repeal bill.
After some setbacks, pro-lifers felt they were winning by the early 1970s. Only Rockefeller’s veto had prevented the overturning of New York’s law, and the movement had finally recruited some non-Catholics to the cause. They felt they had a good chance to make more legislative inroads. Then Roe v. Wade changed everything. By requiring that all states allow abortion in more circumstances than many wanted, the court set in motion important political realignments. Many Republicans, to put it frankly, were more disturbed by the intrusion into states’ rights than they were by the threat to the unborn. Nevertheless, pro-life advocates found new allies in a party with which they had previously felt little sympathy. Moreover, while the Republican Party moved right on abortion, the Democrats moved left, adopting pro-choice planks in their 1976 and 1980 platforms. The course of the Democratic Party after 1976 epitomizes Williams’s shrewd observation: “The pro-life movement came into conflict with two other key values of late twentieth-century American rights-based liberalism—personal autonomy and gender equality.” When forced to pick, the Democrats chose those values.
This development meant that, over the course of the next two decades, pro-lifers gradually left the Democratic Party altogether. When Pennsylvania’s pro-life Democratic Gov. Robert Casey was refused a speaking spot at the 1992 National Convention, it signaled to many that pro-lifers were no longer welcome in that party. For many of the pre-Roe veterans, however, the alliance with the GOP was one of convenience rather than principle. Republicans’ policies on the arms race, poverty relief, capital punishment, and other matters ran against the liberal principles animating the original pro-lifers. As a result, and with the strong influence of groups like the Moral Majority, Williams says, the pro-life movement began to couch its opposition to abortion in the language of moral decay and secularization rather than human rights.
While Williams focuses primarily on intellectual and political history, another intriguing tale receives only brief treatment. That heartening story involves the decreasing numbers of abortions in the United States. In 2013, Americans had fewer abortions than at any time since the early 1970s. Moreover, while fewer than 1800 abortion clinics were in operation in that year, 2500 crisis pregnancy centers offered better solutions for women in distress. In other words, much had been accomplished in Americans’ hearts and minds without the Constitutional amendment banning abortion that pro-lifers had long hoped for.
While contemporary activists must pursue all goals in ridding the nation of abortion, they ought not to be too discouraged by legal and political setbacks. Politics may be unreliable and unpredictable, as Williams demonstrates, but churches and community organizations can do what politics often cannot: Change hearts, one person at a time.
Image copyright Oxford University Press. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame. He is writing a dissertation entitled “American Crusade: Lyman Abbott and the Christian Nation at War, 1861-1918.”