What Was the Pro-Life Movement Like Before Roe v. Wade?

BOOK PICK: Defenders of the Unborn

Defenders of the Unborn

The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade

By Daniel K. Williams

Oxford University Press, 2016

400 pages, $29.95

To order: amazon.com


As most people know, 1973’s Roe v. Wade case was the Supreme Court decision that marked the beginning of legalized abortion in the United States.

Most people also believe it marked the beginning of the pro-life movement.

It didn’t, however. By the time of Roe, the movement was 40 years old. In his book Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel Williams does a masterful job of describing the pro-life effort’s history, one that came very close to eradicating elective abortions. It’s a tale that is both inspiring and instructive.

Indeed, the pre-Roe movement’s work had culminated in a belief on the decision’s eve that virtually every state in the Union would recognize the personhood of the unborn.

The story of why that didn’t happen is both tragic and fascinating and leads one to ponder many “what ifs?”

Williams starts with a 1937 meeting of Catholic physicians. Until 1930, all mainstream religious denominations had opposed the use of contraception. Up to that time, the issues of contraception and abortion were twinned in many people’s minds.

But that year the Worldwide Anglican Communion allowed married couples to use birth control if they had an informed and enlightened conscience and were at peace with God over the matter.

Other Protestant confessions and Jewish bodies quickly followed suit, and by the late 1930s, contraception usage was largely acceptable.

Concomitant with this, calls began to be heard for legalization of “therapeutic” abortions. These pleas were faint at first, but they increasingly became more vocal. Proponents thought abortion would “improve societal well-being,” writes Williams. “But many Catholics believed that allowing someone to kill a fetus in these circumstances would [mean the] right to life would no longer be absolute.”

On this basic battleground the abortion war was fought for three decades. When the contours of that battlefield first presented themselves, it shocked Catholic doctors and professionals and most of their Protestant brethren because society’s consensus against abortion had been so all-encompassing.

The problem for Catholics in turning the tide was that they insisted on continuing to yoke contraception and abortion together. This alienated Protestants. They not only cared nothing for what Christians had universally believed until 1930, but arguments about the natural law left them cold.

Thus, as Williams notes, while “the consensus against abortion held — at least momentarily — it had been weakened. The birth-control campaigns created a religious divide in Americans’ approach to reproductive issues. … By rejecting Catholic natural law-based arguments against birth control, Protestants made it more difficult to use those arguments against abortion. By the time that abortion policy became a matter of political controversy, most Protestant denominations had no consistent theological position on the subject.”

The Great Depression pushed the abortion debate to the forefront. Birth rates plummeted, and Williams estimates the abortion rate hit 700,000 annually by this period’s midway point. “Since several thousand women died each year from these illegal operations,” doctors began pushing for a way to safely perform these operations in hospitals.

Interestingly, as Pope Pius XI had predicted in his 1930 encyclical on marriage and birth control, Casti Connubii, abortion proponents agreed a link existed with contraception and increased demand for in utero termination of babies’ lives. “‘Now that the tide of public opinion is swelling in favor of greater freedom in the matter of childbearing,’ [Dr. A.J. Rongy] wrote, more women were requesting abortions.” Thus, he said, it was time to legalize the procedure.

For the next few decades, such arguments provided the ammunition for pro-legalization proponents, a battle both sides largely waged in college classrooms, community libraries and lecture halls. By the late 1950s, the war had moved to legislative assemblies and the courts and had changed from arguments over what was best for the general welfare to which right was predominant: the right to privacy of the expectant mother or right to life of the distinct person growing within her.

In what would surprise many of us today, several state Supreme Courts ruled in favor of the full personhood of the fetus. Legal opinion increasingly shifted to recognizing the rights of the unborn.

But in the 1960s, a number of states, including several in the Bible Belt — New York, California, North Carolina, Georgia, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware, Oregon, New Mexico, Kansas, among others — legalized abortion. Both the pro-abortion and anti-abortion movements could claim great strength, although the pro-life side was winning on a much more consistent basis.

Just before the Roe decision, the pro-life movement was beginning to attract more conservative adherents. It was still, however, a largely liberal phenomenon. Because of this liberal domination, pro-life lawmakers were not hesitant to use the power of government to affect change. They had begun to formulate laws and regulations designed to help women with crisis pregnancies, and these were designed to complement the movement’s anti-abortion efforts.

All of this set the stage for the legal showdown that was Roe v. Wade.

Going into the Roe arguments, pro-lifers felt very confident the justices would rule in favor of the fetus’ personhood. However, incompetent counsels for the states of Texas and Georgia argued so poorly, it should not have surprised anyone when Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion that effectively eviscerated every pro-life law in the nation.

While society had been moving toward compassionate care for crisis pregnancies, Roe stopped that movement dead in its tracks. Abortion became the go-to remedy for American society at large.

After the decision, pro-life Democrats for a time tried to straddle the line between placating the party’s ever-more- demanding pro-abortion forces and reducing abortions through workplace protections for pregnant women and such.

But the vanguard of the anti-abortion movement would not settle for this. Instead, it fought tooth and nail for a legal recognition of the fetus’ personhood and the overturning of Roe. Help for women in crisis pregnancies was seen as a half-way measure. The rest is history.

Williams tells this tale in a way that usually is engaging and is always very thorough. Indeed, he builds a lawyer-like case. However, occasionally, this thoroughness inhibits the narrative’s flow.

Despite this very minor weakness, Defending the Unborn is a must-read for any person — pro-choice or pro-life — who is interested in the abortion issue. It will bewilder, sometimes amuse, sadden and inspire thought about this topic, which is arguably the Gordian Knot of our times.


Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.