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The Pro-Life Movement’s Liberal Argument

The Pro-Life Movement’s Liberal Argument March 5, 2016

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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