Before Roe, New Deal Democrats Led the Pro-Life Movement

Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

What was the pro-life movement like before the Supreme Court transformed American politics with its ruling in Roe v. Wade? This question would stump most people, including many pro-life activists.

Generally, most people associate the pro-life movement with the rise of the religious right and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But ignoring the history of the movement before that era obscures how the movement changed over time; whether those changes were positive, negative or a mixture; and what lessons pro-life activists can draw on to build a stronger movement that delivers genuine, sustainable results.

Daniel K. Williams’ book “Defenders of the Unborn” (Oxford University Press, $31.95) thus is essential reading. It is one of the most valuable books written on the pro-life movement, and its focus is on the movement before Roe v. Wade.

In an interview on the book, Williams explained that the roots of the movement are on the left rather than the right: “The modern American pro-life movement, which originated in the mid-20th 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.”…

Is there hope for a bigger, stronger movement going forward? Williams says, “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.” Poverty and abortion were linked in the minds of these pro-lifers. Williams states, “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.” Will more people come to see how these issues are linked and believe that abortion is no substitute for real social and economic justice?

If any religious figure can change the status quo, it is Pope Francis, who has denounced both poverty and abortion as part of a throwaway culture. If Catholics and people of good will recognize the integral unity of Francis’ message, perhaps a new generation of pro-life activists can revive some of the movement’s strongest arguments and lead it to a brighter future that transcends partisanship.