A Project of the John C. This history is the subject of a new book by Daniel K. Williams, associate professor of history pro life abortion essay the University of West Georgia.
In his Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.