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When Liberals Were Pro-Life

Emma Green has a fascinating article about a new work of history shining light on the progressive roots of the pro-life movement. [1] Excerpt:

In a new book, Defenders of the Unborn, the historian Daniel K. Williams looks at the first years of the self-described pro-life movement in the United States, focusing on the long-overlooked era before Roe. It’s somewhat surprising that the academy hasn’t produced such a history before now, although Williams says that’s partially because certain archives have only recently opened. But the gap in scholarship is also partly due to the difficulty of putting abortion into a single intellectual framework. “Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”

Without knowing this history, Williams argues, it’s difficult to understand why pro-life views have had such staying power in American politics, even as public opinion on other social issues, such as LGBT rights and birth-control use, has steadily shifted to become more permissive. Abortion, he says, has a different history. Its early opponents thought it was their duty, and their government’s duty, to protect the unborn alongside the poor and the weak. They believed their position offered women empowerment, not oppression.

Most importantly, this history shows how contorted the abortion debate has become, as women’s bodies and children’s futures have been turned into rhetorical proving grounds for politicians left and right. Today, pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct, and openly pro-choice Republicans rarely make it to a national stage like this year’s presidential race. Fifty years ago, this wasn’t the case. What happened to America’s progressive pro-lifers?

Read the whole thing. [1] In brief, the pre-Roe pro-life movement was heavily Catholic, and the pro-life Catholics saw defending the unborn as part of a seamless garment with New Deal-type measures to defend workers and help the poor. And some conservatives of the 1960s favored abortion as a way to keep down the population of welfare recipients.

In the 1970s, post-Roe, that all changed. Abortion came to be spoken of in terms of gender and sexuality, not human rights. By the end of the decade, with so many Evangelicals moving into the pro-life camp, and social conservatives being pushed out of a Democratic Party that was fast moving leftward on social and cultural issues, abortion politics were slotted into the familiar left-right categories we know today.

But it wasn’t always that way, and that, says Ball, may explain why the complexity of the abortion issue cannot be neatly fitted into our contemporary political ideologies. Again, read the whole thing. [1] It’s really thought-provoking.

[H/T: Caroline Nina]

103 Comments (Open | Close)

103 Comments To "When Liberals Were Pro-Life"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 7, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

Hector is one of the few pro-life voices who still argues “ensoulment.” Most have dropped that like a hot potato, since its, you know, teleological in nature, and not subject to scientific proof, and focused instead on proving empirically that fetuses are babies, even that embryos are babies.

That either turns on the visceral response to fiber optic color photos of stages of fetal development, or, on the unique genetic signature that does indeed exist from the moment of conception.

Many of those photos do look appealingly cute, not unlike the image that closes out the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but are really only the shell of tissue that lacks a central nervous system, and only in the most rudimentary sense has a “beating heart.” (So do polliwogs).

The genetic argument has a certain epistemological appeal… there is continuity from conception to the grave that can be distinguished from what exists before and after. But I think of the genetic package, per se, as a self-executing zip file. Its not a person until it can function as a person.

Ensoulment is a rather abstract concept… I doubt that God is so mechanistic as to “bestow” a soul upon a biological organism at a certain “stage” of development. Assuming there is such a thing (and is is very much in tune with Talmudic and Oral Torah teaching that the nefesh is what makes the difference between a living organism and a pile of dead meat, while the nefesh chayyim — loosely translated “living soul” — is what makes a primate body into a human being) I can only suppose that the soul grows with and animates the biological component. Whether a fully self-conscious soul exists and “attaches” from the moment of conception is rather conjectural.

All that said, I believe North Carolina has legislated that the dividing line known as “quickening” will be moved to 20 weeks gestation, and required a written statement of the diagnosis that a woman’s life or health will be in danger before an abortion is performed after that point. Unless the news coverage I’ve read is distorted, that is essentially what Erin Manning said is the best deal she expects the pro-life movement can get in the immediate future, and it seems to me a perfect reasonable framework.

#2 Comment By JonF On February 8, 2016 @ 6:13 am

Re: there is some evidence (I think from Philo, but I’d have to look it up) that they held generally pro-life position.

Hector, Philo was a very heterodox (to the say the least) Jew. His views, which mix in a lot of Hellenistic notions, are no more good evidence for what orthodox Jews thought in the 1st century than Joseph Smith is not 19th century Christianity.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 8, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

FWIW, a Talmudic scholar I became acquainted with by email explained to me that in Jewish tradition abortion is bloodshed, and therefore severely prohibited, but not murder. Also, IF there is a real threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is considered a “destroyer” and abortion is mandatory.

I think early Christian views on abortion reflect Greek philosophy and tradition far more than Jewish teachings.