The Pro-Life Movement prior to Roe v. Wade: one historian’s interpretation

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. As we’ve discussed over the last week and a half, once the calendar approaches January, pro-lifers begin to think even more intensely about January 22, the anniversary of the devastating Roe v. Wade decision. The following first appeared in 2016 and is one of the new or previously run stories from NRL News Today we are sharing with our readers.

I try not to go overboard, making comments that require more than a review or two of a new book, but Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement before Roe v. Wade by Daniel K. Williams appears to offer a lot both to “novice” pro-lifers and those of us who have been around literally for decades.

Oddly enough, I became aware of the book because I ran across an excerpt posted at TIME magazine, not exactly a hotbed of pro-life sentiment. The headline read, What You Don’t Know About the Abortion Fight Before Roe v. Wade.

Perhaps Prof. Williams is as unfamiliar to you as he was to me. He is an Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. Then I realized I had read a piece he had written previously for The Public Discourse, some of which I agreed with, some of which I most decidedly did not.

But for our purposes today–and again having not read the book–here are some important insights we can glean from some reviews of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement before Roe v. Wade and the excerpt in TIME magazine.

It is very helpful for people new to the Movement to realize that a pro-life movement existed prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Likewise, as Williams notes, prior to Roe, “the divisions did not fall neatly along partisan or ideological lines.”

There were many, many pro-life Democrats, especially in the states, and lots of pro-abortion Republicans. How the debate over life became largely pro-life Republicans versus pro-abortion Democrats is something we’ve written about before and no doubt is a major component of Prof. Williams’ book.

In addition, there is always a back and forth over how the abortion debate would have evolved had the Supreme Court not stomped on the abortion laws of all 50 states.

Pro-abortion Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg represents the persuasion that Roe gave pro-lifers a rallying point, unfortunate from her perspective. Had the Court not jumped in prematurely, inevitably (I think that is a fair characterization of her view) the states would have fallen in line with her preferred public policy.

Prof. Williams–and many others–correctly respond that by 1972 the abortion “reform” movement had stalled. For example, “In 1971, twenty-five states considered abortion legalization bills,” Williams writes. “Every one of them failed to pass.”

In addition

When Michigan and North Dakota introduced voter initiatives to legalize abortion in 1972, pro-lifers defeated both measures by wide margins. By the end of 1972, pro-lifers thought that they were probably within only one year of repealing New York’s permissive abortion law, and the director of Planned Parenthood’s Western Region division worried that pro-lifers would soon make abortion illegal in California too. “In the West we view ’73 as a difficult year for abortion,” he confided to a colleague in the summer of 1972.

I am not an historian, but my educated hunch is that Prof. Williams’ reading of New York and California is overly optimistic. That having been said, it is no less true that just prior to Roe, the pro-life movement had dug its heels in and fended off the next wave of pro-abortion laws.

As they say, it is no accident pro-abortionists turned to the courts to win what they were increasingly unable to win in the legislative arena.

One other quick point. It is undoubtedly true that in the very early days of the Movement, Catholics predominated overwhelmingly. But as Williams observes, more and more Protestants gradually assumed significant roles at the same time that the leadership of our Movement increasingly came to be led by women.

That diversity is even more obvious today, which is why (in addition to winning the battle among younger people) pro-lifers are very optimistic about the future.