Book Review: Defenders of the Unborn
by Carol Crossed
Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement before Roe v Wade is one of the few books about abortion that I read without dozing off within the first 15 minutes. Maybe this is because I know very little about the movement in the 1960s and 70s. My days were absorbed with petitions and rallies that addressed opposition to the war raging in Southeast Asia. Vietnam was a household word, not abortion. The 1973 Supreme Court Decision, on the other hand, sounded like a comedic line from a The Capitol Steps performance: Roe v. Wade are the two ways to cross the Potomac.
Author Daniel K. Williams, an Associate Professor of History, University of West Georgia, painstakingly writes an objective candid account of the pro-life movement and, in the early chapters, the pro-choice movement. Peppered with statistics which would usually make reading difficult, Before Roe juxtaposes them with critical narrative that shapes the direction of the discussion.
Because Defenders mainly discusses abortion’s early years, when the Catholic Church led the struggle, it can be seen as a history of the Catholic Church’s involvement with defending the unborn. And since the Catholic Church’s public position on issues other than abortion was embedded in a broad scope of human rights, particularly the poor and workers’ rights, the book is steeped in portraying a left wing bent to early pro-life politics.
Historically, much of the Church’s opposition to contraception grew out of Roosevelt’s New Deal politics; it was naturally partnered with human dignity and a living wage. Bishops warned that born and unborn disabled children were threatened by a gross perversion of human rights and the natural law. This liberal Catholic and Democratic constituency was the precursor to pre-Roe abortion opposition, and continued through much of the 1970s, even after Roe was decided.
A Gallop poll in 1969 reported that a full 46% of Republicans favored legalizing abortion. However, only 35% of Democrats favored it. This pre-Roe Republican support for abortion was played out in state legislatures escalating abortion legality. In Colorado, a Democrat was the leader in opposing Republican abortion support. In Connecticut, it was a Republican governor who advanced abortion support. In North Carolina, a conservative legislature backed opposition to unborn rights.
Reagan’s years as California’s governor could be described as tormented on the issue. Many conservatives who supported him wanted to repeal protection for the unborn. That was contrasted with a liberal Democrat whose statement for unborn protection was coupled with opposition to the Viet Nam War and the death penalty.
Despite the rocky road of the Catholic Church’s conflation of anti-birth control and abortion, the pro-life movement leadership was generally left-leaning. This trend expanded in the late 1960s when the right-to-life campaign divorced itself from sectarian language and infused the movement with the social justice flavor. This move provided the opening some pacifist evangelicals needed to publicly connect their anti-war passions and broaden the scope of human rights.
After Roe, the Catholic Church’s role began to publicly fade as the movement pushed to include more women and evangelicals. But it was too little too late for Democrats and social-justice Catholics when in 1979 organizations like the National Right to Life endorsed Ronald Reagan for President. This began the slide from Democrat to Republican, from liberal to conservative.
The epilogue is a brief history of the 1990s: the Supreme Court struggle, the rise of the Christian right, and how the liberal pro-life leaders tried to maintain their relevance through groups like Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life. Williams’ research presents astounding statistics. For instance, 1/3 of all abortions happen in California and New York, the states with the fewest restrictions. Another number: by 1991, Operation Rescue reported 40,000 arrests from anti-abortion sit-ins.
For this latter statistic, Williams uses what could be seen as a biased source. This is a small offense, considering that the book is an otherwise dispassionate account of the nation’s most volatile cultural issue today. It also provides reflection for consistent life ethic followers:
Have we already been where we are trying to go?