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. 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. It’s really thought-provoking.
[H/T: Caroline Nina]