A different account of the beginnings of the pro-life movement

Justin Taylor recently posted some excerpts from Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Roe v. Wade by Daniel K. Williams, who is trying to challenge the usual interpretations of the pro-life movement as a reaction to Roe:

Because historians have misunderstood the pro-life movement’s origins, they have been unable to explain why it remains a potent political force today, long after other socially conservative, religiously inspired causes, from Prohibition to school prayer, have faded from the scene.

If the opponents of abortion had based their opposition merely on religious teaching or the seemingly arcane principles of natural law–as Catholics had when campaigning against contraception–it is unlikely that the pro-life cause could have withstood the force of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the social changes of the 1960s.

But because the pro-life movement grounded its arguments in the language of human value and constitutional rights, it was able to attract a politically and religiously diverse coalition that actually gained strength over time. The pro-life movement succeeded because it drew on the same language of the human rights, civil rights, and the value of human life that inspired the struggle for African American freedom, the feminist movement, antiwar protests, and the campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Williams also writes about the political origins and evolution of the movement:

This book also challenges conventional presuppositions about the pro-life movement by showing that it originated not among political conservatives, but rather among people who supported New Deal liberalism and government aid to the poor, and who viewed their campaign as an effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority (in this case, the unborn).

Only after Roe v. Wade, when the pro-life movement’s interpretation of liberalism came into conflict with another rights-based movement–feminism–and it became clear that pro-lifers would not be able to win the support of the Democratic Party, did the movement take a conservative turn.


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