The Pro-Life Movement’s Liberal Argument

Today’s guest post is from Daniel K. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.

In the Supreme Court hearings this week on the constitutionality of a restrictive abortion law in Texas, lawyers for the pro-life side have advanced a liberal argument. Yet few liberals are taking it seriously.  Pro-lifers have argued that in order for the state to protect women’s health – a goal that directly stems from the Progressive movement and that modern liberals often claim as their own – laws restricting allegedly unsafe abortion clinics are necessary.

The United States Supreme Court Building, photo by AgnosticPreachersKid, 2015, Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Pro-choice liberals view this appropriation of a progressive argument as no more than a cynical ploy to restrict women’s reproductive freedom, and, in fact, the argument is likely to win the support of only the Supreme Court’s most conservative members.  If pro-life activists fail to persuade pro-choice liberals that they have a genuine interest in protecting women’s health, that will likely be because women’s rights and progressive policies have not been at the forefront of the pro-life agenda for the past forty years.  But before Roe v. Wade, the situation was very different: the pro-life movement was a progressive campaign with support from many liberal Democrats.

The pro-life movement began as a liberal cause, grounded in the language of human rights and New Deal assumptions about the role of the state. It was most successful politically when it remained true to its liberal heritage.  When the nation’s debate over abortion legalization began, in the 1930s and 1940s, the people who spoke out against abortion were Catholic physicians and priests who supported President Franklin Roosevelt. They argued that disrespect for fetal life was inconsistent with the values of the New Deal and social and economic justice.  In the late 1940s, American Catholic bishops coupled their demand for the United Nations to officially endorse the “right to life and bodily integrity from the moment of conception” with a call for the UN to also endorse the “right to a living wage” and the “right to assistance from society,” along with other liberal principles.  This rights-based foundation for the pro-life cause – a framework that was remarkably similar to the constitutional claims of the civil rights movement – led many pro-life activists to ally their movement with other social justice causes when the nation’s debate over abortion entered state legislatures in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the pre-Roe era, pro-lifers made alliances with liberal Protestant ministers who opposed the Vietnam War, and they coupled their denunciations of abortion with exhortations to respect the value of all human life when it was threatened “through the suffocation of poverty or in villages ravaged by napalm,” as the archbishop of Detroit stated when condemning abortion in 1972.  Pro-lifers emphasized the humanity of the fetus by circulating photos of the unborn, but they also called for recognition of the humanity of women facing crisis pregnancies.  This emphasis became especially pronounced after some of the women who took leadership positions in the movement in the early 1970s made women’s health and well-being a central concern.  Some pro-life organizations, such as Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) and the National Youth Pro-life Coalition (NYPLC), called for expanded maternal insurance and social welfare benefits for unwed mothers, along with improvements in adoption law to encourage people to give homes to “unwanted” children.  “The solution to the woman’s problems is neither to offer her abortion, nor merely to prohibit it, but rather to demonstrate that there are humane alternatives,” an MCCL brochure proclaimed in 1971.  This meant, among other things, that there must be “effective welfare programs,” the organization declared.

Because pro-lifers of the early 1970s grounded their arguments on behalf of fetal rights in the language of rights-based liberalism, and coupled their campaign against abortion with advocacy of care for pregnant women and an expanded social welfare state, some of their strongest support came from political liberals.  Senator Ted Kennedy, the era’s liberal acolyte, endorsed the pro-life cause, while, by contrast, conservative icon Barry Goldwater supported abortion rights.  Republican governors such as Ronald Reagan and Spiro Agnew signed into law abortion liberalization measures, while a number of liberal Democratic state legislators vociferously opposed these bills.  Because the early 1970s was still a politically liberal, rights-conscious era (despite George McGovern’s landslide defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972), the pro-life movement won political victories when it positioned itself as a liberal cause.  Twenty-five state legislatures considered abortion liberalization bills in 1971, and pro-lifers defeated every one.

But by the end of the 1970s, the pro-life movement’s political fortunes, as well as its political ideology, had changed.  After the Democratic Party officially accepted Roe v. Wade in 1976, pro-lifers began casting about for new political allies, and they found them among conservatives.  Reagan positioned himself as an ally of the pro-life movement, while Ted Kennedy and his party became firmly pro-choice.  The reasons for this partisan shift on abortion – which included Roe v. Wade, the rise of the feminist movement, and the co-option of the pro-life movement by the evangelical-dominated Christian Right, among other things – are detailed more fully in my book, Defenders of the Unborn, and are too complicated to summarize here.  But the consequences of this political shift for the pro-life movement are worth noting.

In the early 1970s, when the pro-life movement framed itself as a politically liberal cause that favored the expansion of social welfare benefits to pregnant women, it was difficult for opponents to caricature the movement as a cause of heartless misogynists.  By the end of the twentieth century, though, it was more difficult for pro-lifers to plausibly argue that they cared about women’s rights and women’s health when they were allied with conservative Republicans who opposed federally funded healthcare and other social welfare measures that some of the pro-lifers of the early 1970s had argued were essential to giving women positive alternatives to abortion.

The pro-life movement originated as a liberal cause, grounded in human rights claims, and rooted in a concern for all human life, both before and after birth.  But because pro-lifers have largely forgotten their movement’s liberal heritage and have allied themselves almost exclusively with political conservatives, perhaps it is not surprising that many pro-choice liberals now question pro-lifers’ sincerity when they claim that abortion restrictions are necessary to protect women.  If pro-lifers were still promoting a comprehensive social justice agenda and federally funded medical care for women, as they did nearly half a century ago, perhaps liberals would be less skeptical about their professed interest in women’s health.

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  • Marta L.

    Well, there’s also the fact that the measures proposed just don’t seem relevant to women’s health at all. I mean, it’s not like they wouldn’t admit you to the hospital if a medical problem stemmed from an abortion, whether your abortionist had admitting privileges or not. And the building codes move is just silly. You don’t have to get into partisanship to see why those kind of moves seem more about delaying and preventing abortion than keeping it safe.

    This is a good history, though. As someone who opposes legal restrictions of abortion but thinks that morally they’re usually immoral, I would feel a lot more at home in this kind of a pro-life movement.

  • Nathaniel

    Nobody believes them because they are liars. Birth is far more dangerous than abortions for women’s health, yet birthing centers are far less regulated. The law makers weren’t thinking about women’s health when they drafted these deceitful bills.

  • James

    Liars for Jesus tend to assume that the ends justifies the means, never mind that zygotes aren’t people.

  • http://example.com/ SwiperTheFox

    If they’re willing to kill for Jesus (by doing things like advocating that women suspected of having an abortion be executed), merely lying is piddly child’s play by comparison.

    And if anyone thinks that the above is a straw man, just look up how influential Christian conservatives like ‘National Review’ editors post on Twitter about wanting those women hanged openly (really).

  • saab93f

    Pro-birthers are liars. They are dishonest as they don’t care one bit about the mothers but the zygotes.
    I am claiming that abortions are not easy or convenient solutions but ones that require a lot of thought. Pro-birthers are preying on the already vulnerable with their hateful rhetoric and despicable actions.
    The issue that the originator raised are valid though – if there was even a little bit of honesty or walk the walk -intent the issues the p-b movement raises could be taken more seriously.

  • mikeg

    The liberals are going to call us “heartless misogynists” no matter what. The real “war on women” is being waged by them – they’re just fine with women being sexual objects of men, using abortion as a back-up form of birth control. Christians have a much higher opinion of women.

  • Martin Hutton

    Bull pucky.

    Most evangelicals are just fine with the silent, barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen helpmeet.

  • Gary Whiteman

    Prove it.

  • Shadowbelle

    “they’re just fine with women being sexual objects of men,”

    The problem with this argument is that it denies the sexual agency of women. It assumes that women will not engage in sexual activity except in response to men’s sexual desire.

    As a parallel argument, I used to believe that no woman would be a sex worker if there had not been some trauma in her life; all sex workers were exploited; all strippers were exploited. I am an old-time feminist and it was very difficult for me to get my head around the notion that some women do these things *because they like it*. For them, there is no coercion, no exploitation, no trauma.

    Many women have sex because they enjoy it. They aren’t being forced or exploited. There are women who look upon men as sex objects and the sex is really all they want from the men. Some women like the sex even when they don’t like the man.

    It would be fabulous if all conceptions were wanted. But until that happens, people need to understand and accept that lots of women really like sex. We don’t need the same bunch of people arguing against both contraception and abortion. That isn’t useful. It doesn’t stop abortion, and it doesn’t improve women’s health.

  • cken

    There is no pro-life pro-choice issue. That issue has been settled. Let it go and move on. You don’t need to impose your version of morality on everybody else. It won’t make either better Christians. Abortion is between that person and their God. Take the mote out of your own eye to see if you can cast the first stone. If you can’t then let the issue rest.

  • JeffreyRo55

    “Murder is between that person and their God.”

    Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

  • cken

    Actually it does because it is. If you choose to call the removal of a zygote or fetus from it’s environment murder OK. That doesn’t mean you should do it but we have decided those who want to can. I do think there are incidents when abortion is not only justified but required. In as much as it causes you no harm whereas actual murder does cause others in addition to the victim harm.

  • Andy Vandy

    what if you replaced “zygot” and “fetus” with fully developed 30 week baby. Does you argument change? And I’m pretty sure “we” didn’t decide this, a court of 9 did. If “we” decided it there would be a whole variety of different regulations surrounding abortion on a state by state basis. Mississippi would probably outlaw it, NY would have it through all 9 months, and NC would probably ban it after 14 weeks. Almost every other country in the world has restrictions on abortion, except the united states where it is legal through all 9 months for almost any reason. Let’s stop using euphemisms like “zygote” because it doesn’t really further good dialogue

  • Adam King

    No, because abortion is not murder.

  • Andrew Dowling

    No society in history has ever recognized a fetus as a sovereign human being with individual rights . . that is a completely novel 20th century concept. Abortion historically has not been permitted because it’s viewed as a sin of the mother, NOT that the fetus is an additional living member of the community.

  • Frank

    This issue will never be settled until the precious lives of unborn children are protected by our laws.

  • The Happy Atheist

    Fortunately, no one will ever overturn Roe v. Wade. EVER. Every politician knows this, and none of them will touch it. They’ll make big promises and take “courageous” stands, but only because they know they’ll never actually have to do anything about it. Any candidate who commits to making abortion illegal is playing you to to get a vote.

  • Frank

    You go right on believing that. It is very possible. What’s even more possible is making the ruling irrelevant.

    No one who supports abortion deserves a vote from anyone.

  • The Happy Atheist

    And yet, tens of millions of Americans vote for those candidates in droves. Crawl under your fundie rock and go back to sleep, Frank.

  • Frank

    No doubt there are many unethical, immoral people.

  • http://example.com/ SwiperTheFox

    If you hate X and want to regulate X so much that it stops happening, then at least be honest. Don’t claim “But these regulations are not just a fig leaf because we really mean them, seriously, Scout’s Honor!” when it’s so clearly, transparently false. There is zero– absolutely zero– justification in terms of women’s health.

    It’s like when you hear a hard-line left-wing person (let’s just call him ‘Bob’) say in one breath “We must ban all handguns, get rid of them!” and then another breath “More gun control doesn’t mean anyone wants to get rid of the guns, that’s nonsense!” No freaking duh, there are people that actually want to get rid of the guns, Bob. You’re one of them. As said just a few seconds ago.

  • Leo Staley

    The problem is, Pro-lifer’s DON’T actually want to regulate it so much that it stops happening. If they wanted to reduce occurrences of abortion as much as possible, they would be in favor of policies like in Colorado, where they reduced abortion rates by 43%, by giving away free birth control.

    If they really viewed abortion as murder, then their moral compass is one that values controlling the sexuality of strangers over preventing murder.

  • Andrew Dowling

    That is a big part of it. I don’t see many Pro-Life Orgs distributing free condoms, even though doing so would prevent more abortions than getting in people’s face with pictures of dead babies so they can feel sanctimonious.

  • Rudy R

    The pro-life side has not advanced a liberal argument, the lawyers have advanced an argument based on a lie. The goal of Senate Bill 5 was to close women’s health clinics, not for women’s safety. Abortions are one of the safest medical procedures. National Right to Life President Carol Tobias admitted the law was about women’s safety and to restrict access to abortions. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gloated on Twitter about how the bill would shut down clinics.

  • Leo Staley

    The pro-life movement did begin as a “Progressive” movement, but that’s actually not the same as “Liberal.” Prohibition of Alcohol was part of Progressivism as well (it went hand in hand with Women’s Sufrage in fact, and was really the main reason many men were opposed to women’s suffrage), but Prohibition was certainly not “liberal.” It was inherently authoritarian and restrictive.

    Today, there is a terrible conflation of the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” and too many people don’t understand the difference.

  • BT

    The entire article is a bit of a rewrite of history. Randall Ballmer covers this in better detail in his book and reaches the opposite conclusion. In fact, it initially had little to do with abortion and more to do with how to use abortion as a unifying factor to support unrelated conservative causes.

  • Andy Vandy

    Why shouldn’t abortion facilities that perform surgery be held to the same standards as other places that perform surgery? Answer: because the people commenting on this thread want abortion facilities. Seems like their reasoning is the same as the reasoning they accuse pro-lifers of using.

    Why can’t we have a civilized discussion about abortion? Answer: because the people on this thread make blanket statements rather than acknowledging that, for instance, after 20 weeks (5 months) that baby is looking an awful lot like….a baby! Not all these abortions are on single cell embryos….So maybe dismembering that fully developed BABY that we all see in the ultrasound and say “oh look you’re having a girl!” makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But hey, maybe someone will just yell at me that Roe v Wade is divine law and we hate women, etc.

  • Nathaniel

    Not all “surgeries” are created equal. A dentist’s have performed surgery on me, but they are required to have the same regulations as hospital surgical wards.

  • BT

    True. Most abortions aren’t surgical, and most abortions aren’t as risky as your dental surgery.

    When pro lifers start wanting dentists to meet surgical ward standards, I’ll buy their argument. Until then, no.

  • Andy Vandy

    So are you both saying that no woman has ever died during an abortion (aside from that little woman in the womb…but I digress)? That the procedure has no complications….ever? In Texas (and most states) a woman having a vaginal birth after cesarean section has to abide by all kinds of government imposed regulations because her risk of death has increased by an absurdly small amount (less than risk of dying during an abortion, even using RU486). So if the birth industry is so regulated, why can’t the abortion industry have any regulations?

    Also, out of curiosity, what restrictions would you place on abortion? Would you be okay banning it after say 39 weeks?

  • BT

    The question is why dentists shouldn’t have even stricter requirements given that dental procedures tend to be riskier.

  • Andy Vandy

    Maybe dentists should have stricter regulations. But the actual question being decided by the court is why shouldn’t abortion facilities have stricter regulations. And the point I was making was that all kinds of things are regulated, including birth, and what Texas lawmakers (supported by many Texans) decided was abortion facilities should be more tightly regulated.

    And pro-lifers have always held that abortion is not as safe of a procedure as pro-abortion advocates claim it is. So no, I wouldn’t say it’s disingenuous for the pro-life legislator to regulate something deemed unsafe. And no one is claiming that there isn’t any motivation to see fewer abortions (I believe safe (ironic considering this conversation), legal, and *rare* was the liberal talking point), but to say that pro-lifers aren’t at all concerned about the safety of the women is absurd (considering we were the only ones pointing out the horrendous conditions of Kermit Gosnell’s business). Companies have to comply with state regulations all the time (see the affordable care act), and some close down. That’s the nature of our government.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Deemed unsafe by what? Texas’s arguments rely on pseudo rationalizations and misconstrued data. Funny how conservatives are “ra ra” about regulation here but other safety/environmental regulations . . .”oh no, big government, tyranny”

  • Andy Vandy

    And funny how liberals are ra ra about no regulation here…which was kind of the point of the above article

  • Andrew Dowling

    Like a good moderate, I want regulation where data and common sense points to it being necessary, and not having regulations when data does not support their existence and they are unreasonably onerous.

  • Andy Vandy

    Well if by common sense you mean the majority of Texans want this (making it common), then let the voting begin. Or should all decisions be personally addressed to Andrew Dowling the moderate

  • Andrew Dowling

    Regulatory decisions need to be backed up by sound data and reason. Texas voters have continually shown they are devoid of either.

  • Andy Vandy

    Ah, there is that ever wonderful moderate tone of yours. Funny how moderates can disdain an entire state of people. Anyways, this thread has gone on for too long

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s not the entire state . . it’s the majority of Texas voters; which is actually a minority of the state in terms of voting age population. And yes the past 10 years they’ve elected a bunch of idiots to public office.

    But you are merely sidestepping because your counter argument to everything said here is “maybe dentists should have stricter regulations” . . .lol

  • BT

    When we agree that items of similar risk should be regulated similarly, I’d be willing to continue the discussion.

    The statistics are fairly sound – abortion is safer than many other procedures that have less regulation attached. Assertions to the contrary are part and parcel of the same deception.

    Why else would one need an entire surgery center available just to take a pill???? It’s illogical. Even if there were a complication requiring surgery, it’s not going to happen while she is there! In fact, she is likely many miles away and not even able to get back to the clinic all that easily anyway.

    Just be honest and say the intent is to close down more clinics and we can talk.

  • http://example.com/ SwiperTheFox

    >’Why shouldn’t abortion facilities that perform surgery be held to the same standards as other places that perform surgery?’

    And… that’s an irrelevant straw man, because these laws are deliberately designed to impose restrictions that close abortion facilities and are in no way even considered to be imposed on anyone else. Hence you have things about proper hallway size being an issue, for crying out loud. As pointed out, going to the dentist involves surgery often, but there’s zero– totally zero– chance that anti-abortion people care about those facilities having the same standards as other places.