[Editor’s note: Daniel K. Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, recently published Defenders of the Unborn, a chronicle of the roots of the pro-life movement, with Oxford University Press. Charles Camosy spoke to Williams about the book via email.]
Camosy: Your book Defenders of the Unborn has received a great deal of attention, including positive reviews in the New York Times and The Atlantic. Why do you think it has received such attention–particularly from the left?
Williams: Defenders of the Unborn presents a historical narrative that is surprising in at least two ways: 1) It demonstrates that there was a vibrant, politically successful pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade, and 2) It argues that the pre-Roe pro-life campaign won legislative victories precisely because it was a liberal movement.
Most previous scholarship on abortion politics has assumed that the pro-life movement developed only as a backlash against Roe, and it has portrayed the movement as a product of cultural conservatism. My book challenges this scholarly consensus through a detailed study of the people and organizations that mobilized on behalf of the rights of the unborn in the 1960s and early 1970s.
As I demonstrate through extensive references to primary source material, many of those people were liberal Democrats who lauded President Franklin Roosevelt and who supported anti-poverty initiatives and federal programs to protect the rights of minorities.
What is the most significant thing you learned in your research which surprised you?
I had not expected to discover that the pro-life movement originated as a liberal cause, nor had I foreseen the significance of this discovery. The fact that the pro-life movement originated as a liberal cause explains in large part why a consensus on abortion has not yet emerged in the United States, and why the political polarization over Roe v. Wade has never diminished.
On most other culturally contentious issues – such as civil rights for African Americans or, more recently, gay rights – a moderately liberal consensus has gradually emerged, and opposition to that consensus has been marginalized, but on abortion, both sides in the controversy have grounded their rights claims in the language and values of twentieth-century American rights-based liberalism.
The controversy over abortion originated as a conflict between two different groups of liberals. For that reason, it has not followed the political trajectory of other socially conservative movements. Most scholars have misunderstood the pro-life movement because they have incorrectly viewed it as a conservative cause from its inception.
One of the most fascinating things I learned from you is how pro-life rallies before Roe were quite different from what they would become after Roe. Can you say a bit about this?
Because the pro-life movement before Roe attracted many liberals, some of the national rallies of the early 1970s were distinctly liberal affairs. The 1973 National Right to Life Committee’s annual meeting featured a keynote address from the liberal antiwar senator Mark Hatfield, who was best known for his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
A few months earlier, in September 1972, pro-life college students from across the nation gathered on the Washington mall for a rally against abortion that was modeled directly on antiwar protests. The students listened to folk rock music from a pro-life band, and they heard a speech from the liberal antiwar minister Richard John Neuhaus, who had served as a delegate for George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention that summer.
[Note: Neuhaus would later go on to become a Catholic and a leading conservative voice in the Church.]
In a symbolic protest against the idea that life began at birth rather than conception, the students imitated draft card burners by throwing copies of their birth certificates into a large recycling barrel.
Few people know that one of the most important early leaders in the pro-life movement was an African-American woman named Mildred Jefferson. Can you say a bit about her?
Mildred Jefferson was a rapidly rising star in the pro-life movement of the early 1970s, and she served as president of the National Right to Life Committee. She was also an African American Protestant.
She had grown up as the daughter of a Methodist minister in the segregated South, and had then become the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. After a twenty-year career as a Boston surgeon, she began speaking out against abortion in 1970, claiming that it was both an attack on human life and an act of “genocide against blacks.”
At the time, African Americans were more likely than other demographic groups in the United States to oppose abortion, and several civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson, spoke out on behalf of the rights of the unborn. Jefferson’s views were not unusual for African Americans of the time, but her willingness to devote the rest of her career to pro-life activism – especially in organizations that had few African American members – was.
Jefferson sometimes framed her opposition to abortion in the language of social justice for minorities, but more often, she preferred to invoke her credentials as a physician and employ detailed medical and scientific arguments to persuade audiences that human life began at conception.
Did your research leave you with ideas for the contemporary pro-life movement?
I think that the continued appeal of the pro-life cause – especially among a younger generation of millennials – is largely due to the fact that it is a rights-based, social justice movement. In other words, the liberal origins of the movement account for its continued success, even at a time when the politics of the movement have been closely linked with political conservatism.
In view of this, I think that contemporary pro-life activists should remain cognizant of their movement’s liberal heritage and should be cautious about identifying their cause too closely with the political right.
While alliances with political conservatives may be pragmatic – especially at a time when very few liberal politicians are willing to support additional restrictions on abortion – pro-lifers should realize that their movement has experienced its greatest vitality and widest appeal when defenders of the unborn have framed their message around the historic American liberal values of human rights and the social obligation to care for the less fortunate and honor the dignity of all human beings.