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.
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
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