Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

The Depressing Problem with Pro-Life 2.0

In 1965, Life magazine published a set of color photographs of the unborn child from conception to birth, taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. The photos caused a sensation: within four days, the issue sold eight million copies.

As Daniel K. Williams, who teaches history at West Georgia, writes in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, before Nilsson’s photographs, most Americans had not seen an unborn child. The article and the public’s reaction to it delighted opponents of abortion. Here was “clear photographic evidence that even an eight-week-old fetus had fully developed eyes, fingers, and toes.” The photos “proved that the abortion of even a first-trimester fetus destroyed a baby, not merely a lump of tissue or a ‘cellular growth.’”

If those comments sounds familiar, then you may understand why Williams’ indispensable history of the pro-life movement is, along with Shusaku Endo’s Silence, the most depressing book I’ve read in the last year.

An Unknown Story

Obviously, Williams didn’t set out to write a depressing book and, probably as obviously, most readers will have a very different reaction. Williams tells a heretofore largely (entirely?) unknown story of the pro-life movement from the early 1930s until today. (The “Before Roe v. Wade” part of the subtitle is not entirely accurate.) From the start, that movement was both readily recognizable and very different from today’s pro-life movement.

The most important similarity is that opposition to abortion was rooted in an unassailable belief in the sanctity of human life. Catholics like the editors of the Jesuit journal America saw abortion as fruit of the same poisonous tree that had produced the eugenics movement whose supporters had included the vast majority of America’s technocratic elite. This movement had led to mass involuntary sterilization and considerable support “for the eugenic use of birth control to limit the reproductive capabilities of poor, sexually promiscuous, or mentally disabled women—especially those who were African American.” (See Thomas C. Leonard’s book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era.)

The words “birth control” hint at one of the ways in which the original pro-life movement differs from its modern successor: it was virtually all Catholic. While some Protestants played important roles, especially in Minnesota, Catholics produced almost all the ideas, energy, funding, and organization. Until Roe, and even for a few years afterwards, abortion was regarded as a “Catholic issue.” For these Catholics, opposition to abortion was rooted in Catholic moral and social teaching. They drew inspiration from papal encyclicals such as Casti Connubii and Quadragesimo Anno.

Thus, the early pro-life movement, exemplified by groups like the Federation of Catholic Physicians, “argued that Americans’ willingness to use contraceptives signaled a dangerous disrespect for human life that could compromise the entire Western legal tradition of respect for human dignity.” As the Federation’s Jesuit moderator, Father Ignatius Cox, wrote, “Those who advocate contraception … have a philosophy which in its cynical disregard of the dignity of human life [that] is equivalent to the philosophy which accounts for the massacres of history.”

But what probably comes as a surprise is that in the same statement—a response to the American Medical Association’s 1937 endorsement of contraception—Father Cox also said that “This action is closely connected with a long denial of a truly living wage and of social justice in our present economic order.”

A lot has changed.

Pro-Life 2.0

My friends and colleagues often talk about “Pro-Life 2.0” by which they mean applying the principles of the pro-life movement to bioethical issues such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The assumption is that this application represents something new.

It doesn’t. As Williams documents, earlier generations of pro-life activists (i.e., Catholics) were talking about such matters a long time ago. What’s more, “Pro-Life 2.0” excludes an important issue from its consideration: in-vitro fertilization (IVF). It’s the sine qua non of the not-so-little shop of horrors augured by genetic technology, and pro-life Catholics have made clear their opposition to the practice.

Yet it’s almost never mentioned in pro-life circles because, as Williams tells readers, it is “so popular even among conservative Christian couples that the pro-life movement largely gave up trying to fight it.” By “conservative Christian couples,” he doesn’t mean lay Franciscans or the Legion of Mary.

The same, of course, is orders of magnitude even more true about contraception. The history of the pro-life movement, especially from the late 1950s to Roe, is in significant part about a Catholic movement trying to find non-Catholic allies.

Part of the price paid for this broader coalition was dropping any discussion about the link between abortion and contraception, and eventually IVF. Historically-speaking, it is better to define “Pro-Life 2.0” as the period in which Evangelical Protestants became, for most Americans, the face of the pro-life movement, and their concerns and priorities defined the rhetorical and tactical boundaries of the movement.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se. Despite the abovementioned differences regarding contraception and IVF, Catholics and Evangelicals overwhelmingly agree about abortion and other “hot button” issues, such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. I have heard more than one priest express what I call “Evangelical Envy” over the commitment and passion of many Evangelicals as compared to their own parishioners.

The Price of Pro-Life 2.0

But this comes at a price, which brings me to what I find so depressing about Defenders of the Unborn. I mean no disrespect to my Evangelical friends and colleagues, but reading Williams’ history, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some important things were lost in the transition to Pro-Life 2.0.

First, as Williams says, “Pro-life evangelicals saw the issue [of abortion] differently [from Catholics]. Most of them were political conservatives who linked abortion with other issues of sexual morality. For them, pro-life activism was part of a broader campaign to restore Christian morality in America.” Because of Evangelical influence, “After 1980, pro-lifers would increasingly argue that to fight abortion, they had to challenge the broader sexually licentious culture.”

Again, there’s nothing objectionable, per se, about making this connection, but challenging what an acquaintance calls the “pornoculture” requires saying more than “Don’t!” It also requires telling people what sex is for. It requires restoring the link between sex and procreation, which is difficult to do if you concede from the beginning that openness to fertility can be the (very) occasional exception to the rule of artificial barrenness. But contraception has been taken off the table as part of building the new coalition.

Second, there’s the neglect (abandonment?) of Catholic social teaching. People in pro-life circles increasingly talk about trying to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable and not just illegal. The trick is that getting to that point is not only a question of morals and culture, it’s also a question of politics and economics.

A woman facing an unexpected pregnancy must be reasonably certain that she will get the help she needs. The estimated 2,500 crisis pregnancy—or as they are increasingly called, pregnancy care—centers are a partial acknowledgment of this fact. “Partial” because more, probably a lot more, is needed. You can’t do pro-life on the cheap.

The problem is that Pro-Life 2.0 is, politically, a subset of the broader conservative movement for whom the kind of government policies and expenditures that the original pro-life movement, overwhelmingly New Deal Democrats, had in mind is, well, anathema. That this state of affairs is largely the result of the captivity of the Democratic Party by second-wave feminism doesn’t make it any less depressing.

A Version of Groundhog Day

The final aspect of Defenders of the Unborn that makes it unintentionally depressing are the many obvious parallels between the history of the pro-life movement before Roe and today. Reading the book made me feel like I was caught my own version of Groundhog Day, albeit one where the denizens of Punxsutawney wore different outfits each February 2.

The most obvious one is the conviction that some bit of visual evidence—Life’s photos in 1965, ultrasound in the 1980s, or, most recently, the Planned Parenthood recordings—will remove the scales from Americans’ eyes and turn the tide. It didn’t happen fifty or thirty years ago, and I suspect it won’t happen today. (Given that the people who exposed Planned Parenthood’s misdeeds were themselves indicted, I’m not going out too far on that limb.)

Likewise, reading Williams’ account of how the Thalidomide tragedy was used to open the door to legalizing abortion in the United States brought to mind the recent call to liberalize Latin America’s abortion laws in the wake of the Zika epidemic in that part of the world.

If it’s possible to be nostalgic for something you didn’t personally experience, that’s how I felt after finishing Defenders of the Unborn. It’s not because I don’t appreciate the remarkable achievements of the pro-life movement since Roe: successfully resisting and even occasionally rolling back the abortion regime in an increasingly permissive culture. And I am grateful for the expanded demographics of the pro-life movement that made possible things like Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

Still, I can’t help but suspect that some important things have been lost in the transition from “Pro-Life 1.0” to “Pro-Life 2.0.” We are trying to oppose abortion by challenging the premises of the Sexual Revolution while, at the same time, remaining silent about the technology—and the accompanying mindset—that made the Sexual Revolution possible. And we talk about Planned Parenthood targeting poor communities while having little to offer the people who live in them, apart from some pregnant women, besides anecdotes and self-help nostrums.

Like I said, things have changed but not all of the changes were for the better.

Other Articles in This Series

Joe Carter’s How Evangelicals Saved the Pro-Life Movement

Matthew Wright’s Evangelicals and the Run to First Principles

Erik Clary’s Strategy, Theology, and Saving Unborn Lives

Mark Liederbach’s No Reason to Be Depressed About Pro-Life 2.0

For Further Reading

Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931)

Andrew Haines’ Rejecting Contraception and Cohabitation: Now Without the Inquisition

Jacqueline C. Harvey’s Contraception Isn’t Healthcare; It Isn’t Even Helpful

Alana Newman’s The Rotten Fruit of an Infertile Culture

The New York Times’ Retro Report The Death and Afterlife of Thalidomide

Eric Metaxas’s Zika and Abortion, a Tale of Two Viruses

Evangelicals and Catholics Together’s That They May Have Life


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Methodius

    Huh. As a historian in training, I must say this was a fascinating essay. Just this past week, I was assigned to read an interesting book entitled “One Nation Under God,” which attempted to trace the evolution of the Religious Right (i.e., the alliance of social conservatism and economic libertarianism) as a very explicit corporate reaction against the Social Gospel utilized by the New Deal Democratic left. And this really fits in with that. I cannot help but feel both histories speak, for a Christian, as a tragedy, the selling out of American Christianity in exchange for short-term successes.

  • Brandon Beke

    Very true that, “getting to that point is not only a question of morals and culture, it’s also a question of politics and economics.” I am very pro-life but I have to admit that I am often turned off by the pro-life movement because of its seemingly unquestioned endorsement of Republicans. As someone that has mainly done factory and security work, I have no love at all for the Republican party with its laissez faire economics and union-busting factions. The Republican party is for the most part anathema to lower income people. It would certainly be a more attractive movement if it embraced the fullness of Catholic social teaching.

  • LawProf61

    You must also realize that “openness to fertility” does not resonate in a climate (pun intended) in which we hear constantly that there are too many people on the planet, and that their breathing causes global warming. This is a charade, of course. But “openness to fertility” also means, of necessity, much larger families. Given the costs of education (including and particularly, *Catholic* education, it must be noted), that is simply not workable for most families. In fact, having a large family today virtually ensures that their children will be in public school. Given what is being taught in public schools (not to mention the hostility to religion therein), that is a problematic result.

    Finally, a family with multiple children is a family in which the woman can likely not work outside the home – even as her family needs her income more. And American women will not be told that a tenet of their faith is that they belong back in the kitchen. Many voluntarily choose full-time motherhood, which is hugely beneficial. But many do not, and never will. That ship has sailed.

    • Kimberly

      Large families is not necessarily the only outcome of embracing openness to fertility (ie – forgetting about contraception.) If women were to put off getting married and having children until their late 20s then the amount of children they have will naturally go down. Two generations of women in my family had 6-8 children each – they also married as teenagers so this was not surprising.

      As for helping people to choose parenthood in an increasingly expensive country, the only way to do that is through sound economic policies including lower taxes. It is an absolute financial crime that people who pay high real estate taxes that help support public schools, and yet relieve the population burden on those same schools by sending their children to a private school, still don’t get a tax rebate for this to help them pay for it. Governments want to have their cake and eat it too; small class sizes, but a large budget paid for by people who help keep the class sizes smaller by sending their children to a private school that they also pay for themselves to build and maintain.

  • DavidM

    Some good points, but awfully vague about prescriptions for making “the present economic order” more “socially just.” Are we talking about broken family structures and welfare dependency, or just inadequate wages? If the original Catholic prolife movement was overwhelmingly New Deal Democrat, does that mean everything they supported was sound, that they had a sound, thoroughgoing conception of social justice? Clearly not. The changes that have occurred are not explicable solely by compromises made in the aim of coalition building – case in point, America (the Jesuit publication) has itself changed, undergone its own shift towards a contraceptive mindset, has it not? It’s not likely a mere coincidence “that Pro-Life 2.0 is, politically, a subset of the broader conservative movement for whom the kind of government policies and expenditures that the original pro-life movement, overwhelmingly New Deal Democrats, had in mind is, well, anathema.” And the notion that, “gee, if only poor people had more money, it would be so much easier to make abortion unthinkable,” is a silly canard that no intelligent person has any business propagating.

    • Thomas Storck

      OK, but if one is a Catholic, his fundamental attitude toward social and political questions should be what is found in papal social teaching. No, that teaching doesn’t align perfectly with New Deal policies, but it’s a lot closer to the New Deal than anything you’ll find in today’s Republican party, or among most Democrats as well.

  • arty

    I’d suggest that your comments about Evangelicals and Catholics are really just a specific example of something that divides those groups more generally. In my experience, if you want “fire” (for lack of a better word), go to an Evangelical Church. If you want philosophical and theological depth and coherence, go to a Catholic Church. The challenge for evangelicals is to avoid succumbing to emotivism in the sense MacIntyre used it, the challenge for Catholics is to actually read their own theology, as your comment about the 800 lb gorilla of contraception illustrates.

    So theoretically, I get your argument here. Practically? I’m not sure that a pro-life movement led by people who don’t read/understand/follow their own church’s teaching are much better than people who have plenty of “fire” but little in the way of theological coherence on this particular topic. I’m guessing it’s a wash, and that, as you say, is a bit depressing.

    The antidote for this particular bout of depression, is to do what you can, locally. Spend less time worrying about the “movement” or the “national,” and more time talking to people locally. I once raised the contraception issue (I’m not Catholic but my wife is, and we practice NFP with my full support) at a crisis pregnancy center board meeting. People paid attention. Don’t know how much, but they listened. That’s the sort of venue that matters, I’d argue. A national “movement” is ultimately a construct that is sometimes useful, sometimes not (a bit like “social justice” now that I come to it). In the end, there are just individual people, and if you talk to the people within your horizon, you’ve done what you can, and there’s nothing depressing about that.

  • Welcome to conservatism. This is what it does: sell its soul while gaining nothing, not even the world.

    The same story has been told a million times. Before this, it was divorce and woman’s emancipation in general.

  • David Mills

    Readers will be interested to know that we’re planning on running a symposium of Protestant responses next Wednesday (and perhaps Thursday and possibly Friday if enough people want to respond).

  • happiernow

    “People in pro-life circles increasingly talk about trying to create a society in which abortion is unthinkable and not just illegal. The trick is that getting to that point is not only a question of morals and culture, it’s also a question of politics and economics.”

    Yes. When I faced an unplanned teen pregnancy, I chose life. My daughter is now 23 years old and I am grateful every day for her. But what I learned from the experience is that the people and politicians who did not want me to choose abortion were very often the same people and politicians who did not support any welfare programs that would help me to feed, clothe and house my child. I was lucky enough to live in a state that created a welfare reform program that enabled me to go to college. I left welfare behind over 15 years ago and I haven’t looked back. It was the female Democrats in my state legislature who saved my daughter and me from a life of poverty and desperation by creating that program. Republicans just wanted me to drop out of college and get a minimum wage job with no benefits, no job security, no future, and no hope of a better life. And while the local crisis pregnancy center did give me some diapers and baby clothes, which I sincerely appreciated, they did not have the resources to provide any kind of real and sustained economic help to enable me to support my child and pull us out of poverty. Until the pro-life movement gets serious about the economic implications of their position, they are just blowing smoke. Maybe if more pro-lifers spent time lobbying for low-income mothers and their children and less time picketing at abortion clinics, people like me could truly respect their cause.