The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe and Its Lessons for Today: An Interview with Daniel K. Williams

What was the pro-life movement like before Roe v. Wade? In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams, history professor at the University of West Georgia, provides an essential overview of the pro-life movement in this period. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Williams on his groundbreaking book and its implications:

The pro-life movement is often associated with conservatism, but could you talk a little bit about the roots of the movement?

The modern American pro-life movement, which originated in the mid-twentieth century, was the creation of Catholic Democrats, most of whom subscribed to the social ethic and liberal political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  They believed that the government had a responsibility to protect the rights of minorities and provide a social safety net for the poor.  They viewed the unborn as a minority deserving of legal protection, but many of them also believed that the federal government had a responsibility to provide maternity health care for women facing crisis pregnancies.  In their view, the pro-life movement was a social justice and human rights cause.

How would you assess the impact of the Catholic Church and certain pro-lifers linking contraception and abortion during the critical political debates over the fate of each of these issues?

Until the 1960s, Catholic theologians and clergy, along with many laypeople, argued that both contraception and abortion compromised the value of human life and violated natural law.  When campaigning to restrict legal access to contraception, they often argued that widespread acceptance of birth control would produce a contraceptive mentality that would lead to demands for legal abortion.  For a while, these arguments were politically viable in heavily Catholic areas, but by the mid-1960s, most Americans – especially Protestants, but also many Catholics – found these arguments unpersuasive.  When the Supreme Court overturned anticontraceptive laws in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the abortion rights movement capitalized on the decision by arguing that if the Catholic Church had acted unconstitutionally in attempting to deny people legal access to contraception, it was also overstepping its constitutional bounds in fighting abortion legalization.  The pro-life campaign suffered a series of political defeats in the late 1960s, partly because the public backlash against the Church’s anticontraceptive campaign had produced a widespread suspicion of any Church involvement in the politics of reproduction.  One of the keys to the pro-life movement’s political revitalization at the beginning of the 1970s was its determination to separate itself from debates about contraception.

What is the overall impact of tying abortion to conservative sexual ethics in your view?

For decades, the pro-life movement’s primary argument against abortion has been a human rights argument that has nothing to do with sexual ethics.  Abortion is wrong, the pro-life movement has asserted, because the fetus is a human person, and it is a violation of human and constitutional rights to deprive a person of life without due process.  In the early 1970s, the movement worked very hard to divorce itself from any hint of social conservatism on sexual issues.  But despite these attempts, the pro-life movement has not been able to get around the fact that reproductive issues are never far removed from issues of sex.  More than 80 percent of the abortions in the United States are obtained by unmarried women – a fact that suggests that there is a close relationship between out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion.

Beginning in the 1980s, a number of pro-lifers – especially conservative evangelicals, but also many conservative Catholics – linked their cause to broader campaigns for sexual responsibility, which, in their view, meant abstinence for unmarried people and faithful, monogamous relationships for heterosexual married couples.  The advantage of this approach was that it may have addressed some of the larger structural causes of abortion.  But the disadvantage was that it made the pro-life cause less attractive to people who were not social conservatives.  The pro-life movement’s human rights argument has persuaded millions of people across the ideological spectrum and attracts many millennials and other young people to the cause, but the movement’s sexual conservatism may have far less trans-ideological appeal.

You talk about abortion as a conflict between two strands of right-conscious liberalism. What exactly do you mean by liberalism? Does this divide perhaps also reflect a battle between communitarian progressives and contemporary liberals (who emphasize individualism, autonomy, and choice rather than things like solidarity or the common good)?

“Liberalism,” of course, can be a slippery term.  In the late nineteenth century, being a liberal meant something very close to what we today would call an economic libertarian, but in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appropriated the term for supporters of the New Deal.  In the 1940s, the New Deal liberals began making human rights claims central to their ideology.  In my book, I use “liberal” in this twentieth-century sense (which I believe also characterizes a lot of self-described liberals today).  Twentieth-century liberals believed that the federal government had a responsibility to protect human rights, including the civil rights of African Americans, the rights of women to legal and social equality, and the rights of gays and lesbians to freedom from discrimination.  Both the pro-life and pro-choice movements grounded their arguments in the rights-conscious language of twentieth-century American liberalism.  The pro-choice movement argued that women had an absolute right to bodily autonomy and equality, and the pro-life movement argued that the fetus had an absolute right to life.  In that sense, the debate over abortion was a conflict between two groups of rights-conscious liberals, each of whom emphasized a different inviolable individual right.

But in another sense, the conflict, as you suggest, was between communitarian progressives and individualistic liberals.  The historic roots of the pro-life movement’s social ethic were the Catholic social teachings of the early twentieth century, which were grounded in communitarian notions of social responsibility.  By contrast, the Supreme Court’s abortion rights ruling in Roe v. Wade was grounded in an argument for individualistic autonomy – a notion that appealed to many twentieth-century liberals, but that doesn’t take into account the notions of collective social responsibility and communitarian values that informed the New Deal, the Great Society, and many of the social justice campaigns of the last century.

If the pro-life movement remained a progressive cause (rather than conservatives coming to dominate the movement), what impact do you think that would have had on the pro-life movement?

It’s important to remember that even today, there still are a number of politically progressive pro-lifers, including a few who remain in the Democratic Party.  But nevertheless, it is true that the mainstream wing of the movement has developed a close alliance with the GOP.

This conservative alliance has sometimes made it difficult for pro-lifers to persuade people outside their movement that they genuinely care about women’s health and human life outside the womb.  It was not so difficult for pro-lifers to do this forty-five years ago, in the early 1970s, because at that time some of the nation’s leading pro-life advocates were speaking out in favor of maternal health insurance and increased governmental assistance to the poor and the disabled.  If the pro-life movement had continued to champion anti-poverty initiatives and governmental programs to provide positive alternatives to abortion, the movement might have been able to remain a bipartisan, politically independent movement with broad appeal to liberals as well as conservatives.  I think that the movement would have become more politically diverse and less politically isolated than it has, and it might have found it easier to make alliances with other human rights groups – just as some progressive pro-lifers allied themselves with the antiwar movement in the early 1970s and with the campaign against nuclear arms buildup in the early 1980s.

But if one is tempted to criticize the pro-life movement for abandoning its earlier progressive ideology, it is also important to note that the primary reason that pro-lifers abandoned their progressivism was not because they suddenly found New Deal liberalism objectionable, but rather because the Democratic Party refused to support their cause.  In other words, most pro-life advocates of the late twentieth century would have said that they did not leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left them.

How did early pro-lifers link the issues of poverty and abortion? Do you think there are parallels in this thinking with Pope Francis’ message on a ‘throwaway culture’ that discards the poor and the unborn alike?

Many pro-lifers of the late 1960s and early 1970s argued that the legalization of abortion would lead middle-class people to devalue the poor.  Instead of working to solve the problem of poverty or providing assistance to impoverished children and their families, the middle class would instead simply encourage the poor to terminate their pregnancies in order to reduce the welfare rolls.  Some states, they believed, would make abortion a prerequisite for welfare assistance for low-income pregnant women, just as many states had required sterilization for unwed mothers on welfare in the mid-twentieth century.  Pro-life advocates wanted to help the poor by providing them with the material assistance to care for their children, not by encouraging them to terminate their pregnancies.  They believed that their campaign was a stand for human dignity and inviolable human rights against the attacks of utilitarians who seemed at times more concerned about societal betterment than the protection of human life.

Because the pro-life movement’s approach to poverty was closely linked with Catholic social teaching, it is not surprising that there are echoes of this philosophy in the documents of Vatican II, the proclamations of the American Catholic bishops, and the statements of Pope Francis.  Whether the exhortations have come from Mother Theresa or from Pope Francis, the message has been the same: every human life is equally valuable, whether it exists in the womb, in the slums or prisons of an American city, or on the streets of Calcutta.

Social Darwinism and eugenics were more popular in the United States than many people realize. The enduring impact on free market conservatism is clear, I think, as American conservatism is perhaps the most economically libertarian form of conservatism in the West. What role did this type of thinking have on the issue of abortion?

Nearly all of the early advocates of legalized abortion in the mid-twentieth century (the 1930s until the beginning of the 1960s) were utilitarians who placed a higher priority on social good than on the protection of inviolable human rights.  And some of the earliest abortion legalization advocates were sympathetic to the eugenics movement, which was grounded in a utilitarian ethic – that is, the ethic of securing the greatest good for the greatest number.  The pro-life advocates of the mid-twentieth century saw themselves as defenders of the absolute value of human life in the face of utilitarian threats to this inviolable right.

There are over 20 million pro-life Democrats. But economic elites that are disproportionately hostile to the pro-life cause dominate the Democratic Party. And pro-life groups (that claim to be nonpartisan) have actually targeted pro-life Democratic members of Congress for defeat rather than pro-choice Democrats in adjacent districts, because of their complete subservience to the Republican Party. Do you think the pro-life movement would be stronger if it were more bipartisan? Would the movement be strengthened if some of the old arguments and reasoning you describe in the book from the pre-Roe movement were revived and pushed?

Yes, I do believe that the pro-life movement would have broader appeal if it were more bipartisan and if it made a greater effort to highlight the politically progressive human rights arguments (including an emphasis on health care and material assistance for pregnant women and their children) that characterized the pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade.

Part of the problem, though, is that by linking their campaign to a conservative judicial strategy – that is, an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade by getting a sufficient number of conservative justices appointed to the Supreme Court – national pro-life organizations have adopted a litmus test for politicians that is almost impossible for a Democratic politician to meet.  In the late 1980s, for instance, the National Right to Life Committee began opposing pro-life Democratic senators if they voted against Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination – even if some of their pro-life votes on abortion legislation met the NRLC’s standards.  This year, only three Democratic senators voted for Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation (which was one of the pro-life movement’s highest priorities) – thus making it nearly certain that hardly any Democratic senators will receive favorable ratings from the NRLC this year.  As long as the pro-life movement makes changing the Supreme Court its primary immediate goal, pro-lifers will likely find very little common ground with Democrats.  And as long as the Democratic Party continues to send signals that pro-life liberals are not welcome to voice their dissenting views on abortion in the party, even politically progressive pro-lifers will find the Democratic Party an uncomfortable fit.  But if the pro-life movement revived its politically progressive arguments and joined forces with pro-choice Democrats in working for health care expansion, improved prenatal care, and antipoverty initiatives, I would hope that Democratic politicians would begin viewing pro-lifers as potential allies rather than adversaries.  The pro-life movement needs bipartisan support in order to achieve its long-term goals; it is not in the movement’s best interest to be entirely dependent on the support of a single party.

Supporters on the left and (libertarian) right came to argue for abortion to deal with “unwanted” children. Despite different motives, did both share the idea that there were simply too many poor children?

The pro-choice movement of the early 1970s frequently claimed that child abuse, criminal activity, and increased poverty resulted from the phenomenon of “unwanted” children, especially when those children were born to low-income single parents.  (This argument was repeated and propagated to the millennial generation in the bestselling book Freakonomics).  In the early 1970s, there was a lot of overlap between the population control and abortion rights movements, with many people arguing that it would be better for the planet and better for society if the population growth rate were curbed.

At the same time, some conservatives believed that welfare rolls would be reduced if abortion were legalized and the poor had access to it.  Thus, in the early 1970s, conservative state legislators often joined forces with liberals to pass abortion legalization bills.  Some conservatives voted for abortion legalization on libertarian grounds (believing that the state did not have the right to interfere in private medical decisions), while others voted for it because they saw it as a way to save on the cost of welfare.

Pro-lifers decried all of these arguments.  The poor were not expendable, they argued, and the state had a duty to protect unborn human life.

Conservative Supreme Court justices would typically send abortion back to the states, where we would expect big states like New York and California to keep abortion legal—meaning that there would still be millions of legal abortions after Roe, were it to be overturned in this way. If pro-life progressives were on the Court, might they instead extend 14th amendment protections to unborn children? Was that type of legal thinking ever found in the pro-life movement?

Yes, before 1973, pro-life lawyers universally argued that the 14th amendment did protect the unborn, and they hoped that the Supreme Court would declare that the unborn had an inviolable constitutional right to live – thus making abortion illegal nationwide.  After Roe v. Wade (a decision that explicitly rejected the pro-life movement’s interpretation of that 14th amendment), the pro-life movement made a Human Life Amendment (HLA) – that is, a constitutional amendment to protect human life from the moment of conception – its top priority.  It was only in the 1980s, after the movement’s failure to pass an HLA, that pro-lifers reluctantly settled on the strategy of overturning Roe v. Wade through the Supreme Court, an outcome that, if successful, would give state governments the power to enact abortion bans.  In the Reagan era, overturning Roe with the appointment of a few additional conservative justices seemed to be a far more realistic goal than passing an HLA or convincing liberal justices to extend 14th-amendment protections to the unborn.  But the conservative judicial strategy was a second-choice stratagem for pro-lifers, because they knew it would not secure the universal constitutional protections for the unborn that they believed were necessary.  Now, three decades later, many outside the movement (and perhaps even some within it) have forgotten that overturning Roe was never the movement’s original goal.  The movement has become so closely associated with a conservative judicial strategy in recent years that it is easy to forget that the movement’s legal arguments of the 1960s and 1970s rested on a liberal reading of the Constitution – that is, an attempt to extend constitutional protections to additional groups – rather than strict constructionist or “originalist” conservative interpretations.

How would you assess the overall effectiveness of graphic images of abortion?

In the early 1970s, graphic images of second-trimester fetuses and later-term abortions were the key to pro-life political victories in several states.  Until the mid-1960s, most Americans had never seen a photo of a fetus, so graphic pictures of the impact of abortion on the unborn still had a lot of shock value and were therefore a strong political asset for the pro-life movement.  Because the movement’s primary argument was based on the personhood of the fetus, graphic images were helpful because they often convinced an audience of the fetus’s humanity and focused the public’s attention on what exactly was being destroyed in an abortion.

Contemporary pro-lifers still find that color 3-D ultrasounds dissuade some pregnant women from choosing abortion.  Graphic images, whether in the form of fetal photographs, videos of abortion, or live ultrasounds, have been essential tools for the pro-life movement since the beginning of the 1970s.

However, as politically valuable as these resources are for pro-lifers, their popularity may obscure a larger point – namely, that the pro-life movement’s argument that the embryo or fetus is a human person deserving legal protection rests not on the appearance of the fetus or on the pain that it may (or may not) feel during abortion, but rather on its status as human life with a unique genetic imprint.  As chemical abortions increasingly come to replace surgical abortions as a common form of pregnancy termination, and as abortion takes place at increasingly earlier stages of pregnancy, pro-lifers may find that the graphic images that have been mainstays of their campaigns are not as relevant or effective.  But the philosophical arguments that provided the foundation for the pro-life movement are still just as valid, regardless of whether or not they are accompanied by images.

Contemporary pro-life feminists argue that abortion is a product of an unjust patriarchy. How did earlier generations of pro-life feminists view the connection between abortion and the exploitation or abandonment of women?

In the 1970s, women were more likely than men to oppose abortion, and many of the nation’s leading pro-life advocates were women – including a few who claimed the feminist label.  Pro-life feminists of the 1970s argued that the legal availability of abortion encouraged men to treat women as expendable sex objects by offering them a socially acceptable way to refuse to take responsibility for the pregnancies that resulted from their sexual exploits.  If a man could convince a woman to have an abortion, he would not have to provide for his child and could instead go on to his next sexual partner.  As Juli Loesch said, “The idea is that a man can use a woman, vacuum her out, and she’s ready to be used again. . . . It’s like a rent-a-car or something.”  Pro-life feminists believed that by offering women – especially low-income women or women facing crisis pregnancies – abortion instead of the help that they needed to care for their children, American society was denying them their feminine prerogative and proving once again that it did not really care about women’s well-being.  True feminism, they believed, meant supporting women’s right to give birth.