WASHINGTON — Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., was a seminarian when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision legalizing abortion on demand, but the impact of the news remains fresh in his mind.
"I felt very passionate about protecting the dignity of all human life and was saddened and mystified by the court’s decision," recalled Archbishop Naumann, who had already been active in the civil-rights movement and later emerged as a leading pro-life advocate in his archdiocese.
As the nation prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Catholic pro-life leaders across the nation considered how the 1973 decision spurred their own activism, while also shaping the identity and mission of the Catholic Church in the United States.
By the early 1970s, grassroots efforts to overturn liberal abortion laws in states like New York and California had begun in earnest.
Yet few anticipated that pro-life advocacy would become their life’s work and ultimately forge a robust ecumenical alliance of Catholic and Protestant churches joined to defend the unborn.
When the high court handed down its decision, it stunned Michael Taylor, now the executive director of the Washington-based National Committee for a Human Life Amendment. At the time, Taylor was directing the National Right to Life Committee, temporarily housed at the bishops’ conference before it became an independent, non-sectarian organization.
"The issue was not national in 1972, and my job was to work with right-to-life groups across the country," Taylor recalled during an interview with the Register. "It was a different world in those days: There was more anti-Catholicism. The Church was urging the development of right-to-life groups, but the word ‘pro-life’ didn’t exist."
Four states had already approved liberal abortion laws, and a larger number allowed abortion in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Taylor knew the high court would soon hand down a decision in the Roe case. But he was buoyed by the fact that no new abortion laws had passed since 1970, and so hoped that the issue might be losing momentum.
Then, on Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court’s ruling was announced. Taylor rushed to the court to obtain a copy of the decision and immediately realized it was a "game changer."
"We thought they would be more moderate. Instead, it was far more extreme than any other law in existence," he said. "It made the issue national. They had taken the other side’s case completely. Every problem we have had since Roe is because the court seized control of the issue."
Just before the ruling, Taylor had thought he could take a break and return to graduate school. Instead, he became even more involved in organizing right-to-life committees across the country — though he did eventually go back to school.
Today, Taylor believes that the high court’s decision led Church leaders, along with pro-life advocates of every denomination, to become more engaged in public-policy debates on social issues. And those early days of the pro-life movement have given him a more nuanced view of two emerging movements to uphold traditional marriage and religious freedom.
"The pro-life movement didn’t happen overnight. People [who are now pro-life] have told me, ‘I spent a whole year working on the [abortion] issue, and I have changed my mind.’ Over 40 years, Americans have been educated, and they have educated themselves. In contrast, the marriage issue is new stuff, comparatively."
Phyllis Schlafly, for her part, was "absorbed with the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]" when the Roe decision was announced.
Yet, just a few years earlier, she and her husband, Fred, had helped to block an effort to legalize abortion in Illinois.
After Roe made abortion on demand the law of the land, however, Schlafly soon perceived that some feminist activists believed the ERA would help secure access to abortion.
"Feminist leaders who supported the ERA" wanted to use it to obtain federal funding of abortion, Schlafly stated during a telephone interview.
"Their argument was that if abortion is only for women, and you deny funding of abortion, you are discriminating against women," she said.
From her perch directing a national political movement opposing the ERA, Schlafly also witnessed some initial friction between Catholics and Protestant opponents of abortion rights. "The Catholic bishops took up the fight right away. They were out front on abortion. The result was that Protestants didn’t come aboard right away. Around 1973-75, there was still a lot of standoffishness. But, by ’77, the Protestants came aboard and have been prominent ever since," she said.
San Francisco Perspective
In San Francisco, Mary Ann Schwab viewed the court’s decision with equal dismay.
"I knew we had to counter it," said Schwab, the former respect-life coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
But the ruling didn’t entirely surprise Schwab, now in her 80s, who presently serves as the volunteer coordinator for the archdiocese’s Project Rachel.
"As I thought about the development of humanism and secularism in our country, beginning in the early 1900s, I saw which way the culture was going. As long as that trend continued, it would continue to foster acceptance of abortion," she said.
Schwab also observed the divisive impact of abortion politics among local Catholics: "The Church was divided, as you know. There was a tug of war, and it was hard to get into some parishes" in San Francisco, the national epicenter of the counterculture movement that ignited in the 1960s.
Forty years after Roe, Schwab has seen a steady shift in perspective among younger Catholics, who increasingly embrace Church teaching on life issues.
"Back then, one thing that initially stopped the progress of the pro-life movement was that so many young women were ensnared by the abortion mentality and had abortions themselves," suggested Schwab, a trained social worker.
"Even today, some pastors are torn by pastoral concerns and still don’t want to talk about abortion," she said.
She expressed relief that more women now feel free to acknowledge their struggles with post-abortion syndrome and that a new generation of Catholics is taking a leadership role in the pro-life movement.
"The young women under 30 who have been formed in Catholic colleges [and in their families] that support Church teaching give me hope," said Schwab.
Mother Teresa’s Witness
But back in the 1970s, when many Americans were just coming to grips with the reality of abortion on demand, it was tough to get the pro-life message out in the public square.
Archbishop Naumann recalled the powerful charism of Mother Teresa, who routinely spoke out against abortion, whether she was invited to testify before Congress or give an address at Harvard University.
"Mother Teresa took a heroic stand on the sanctity of human life. She inspired many with the beauty of her consistent concern for human life at all stages. She helped us see that the poorest among us were in the womb," said Archbishop Naumann, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
After abortion was legalized across the nation, then-Father Naumann soon discovered that his fellow activists in the civil-rights movement did not always share his passion for defending the right to life of the unborn. "What shocked me was that they had a blind spot regarding the unborn," he said.
The decision of many bishops, priests and laity to embrace the defense of the unborn as the central moral issue of the time would have broad repercussions for the Church’s role in the public square.
"We took a stand against the prevailing culture. It lost us some allies and created divisions, but it was necessary to defend the truth," said the archbishop. "And God brought forth from the evil of legal abortion the collaboration of people across denominational lines and faith traditions."
George Weigel, the papal biographer, was a senior in college when the high court’s ruling on legal abortion was announced, and he still celebrates the Church’s stand.
"The U.S. bishops, with evangelical allies, put down the first set of markers that told the political culture that this issue was not going away — and that Roe v. Wade, far from settling anything (or ending the abortion debate, as The New York Times insisted it had), had only intensified the argument," said Weigel.
"None of us could have foreseen, in those days, that the right-to-life issue would become the cultural marker of serious Catholicism in America or that it would give birth to a whole new ecumenism with evangelical Protestants," added Weigel.
"Yet both have happened, and both are great graces, even amidst the unending sorrow of the abortion license and what it has done to children, women, families, men and American public life."