The Virtue of Steadfastness

Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade

  • Daniel K. Williams
  • Oxford University Press, 2016; 400 pages, $29.95

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital and abortion centers to meet the minimum legal standards for an outpatient surgical center. Five justices determined this law created an “undue burden” on the right to abortion the Court had created in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Quite apart from the specific holding of the majority, this case is remarkable in another way. It was decided 43 years after the Court had attempted to have the final word on the legal status of the unborn, and it was clear that the issue was still in contention—and would continue to be so. Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent specifically rejected the idea that the Court’s abortion cases had been correctly decided. More importantly, four decades after Roe, states like Texas were still pursuing legislation at odds with the abortion-on-demand regime introduced by that case and by its companion, Doe v. Bolton.

What explains the remarkable endurance of the pro-life cause so long after its most significant legal defeat? Part of the answer lies in the history of that movement, recounted carefully and admirably by Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia, in Defenders of the Unborn.

Professor Williams’ book is not a discussion of the legal history of abortion but instead a description of the social and political movement that developed first to prevent liberalization of abortion laws, and then turned to forestalling the acceptance of elective abortion and ultimately to restoring to the law legal protection of unborn children.

The narrative of Defenders of the Unborn begins with a 1937 meeting of the National Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Guilds at which the doctors forcefully rebuked nascent stirrings of approval for abortion in some circumstances. This, they said, reduced humans to the “level of a beast” and destroyed “the essential dignity of man.” In the next decades, increasing acceptance of contraception was followed by increasingly assertive arguments for abortion, gaining real legal traction with the American Law Institute’s 1959 endorsement of abortion in difficult circumstances when approved by doctors.

This, in turn, initiated a decade of legislative battles beginning in California. Defenders of the Unborn describes these battles and the increasingly well-organized forces taking the side of unborn children. The successes and defeats in these political battles are described in a compelling narrative that couples comprehensiveness and readability.

Though the title suggests an ending point of 1973, the book describes the response of the pro-life movement to the Roe decision, which is also very interesting and helpful. Particularly good is the description of the Democratic party’s repudiation of any pro-life sympathies as the party’s ideology hardened around an absolutist defense of atomistic autonomy in matters of sexuality and family. This resulted in the political realignment of the pro-life cause still evident today.

These stories are fascinating and well told. A particularly interesting part of the tale is the role played by increasing technological advances in understanding and portraying fetal development and, eventually, the abortion procedure.

An important part of this history is its portrait of the diversity of the movement. Though the Catholic contribution cannot be overstated, the pro-life movement attracted many adherents with a wide range of backgrounds, views, and perspectives. Early on, the effort coalesced around a message of protecting the essential human right to life of the unborn child. Thus, political liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, with contrasting views on government welfare programs, the licit-ness of contraceptives, population and the environment, the morality of war, and on and on, could make common cause. In fact, the book suggests that those we would today probably characterize as political liberals (New Deal supporters, Civil Rights activists, and anti-war protesters) were probably predominant in the early decades of the movement.

This general discussion is augmented by very fine portraits of some of the central figures in the movement, names perhaps known more to fellow activists than to the general public but who, taken together, form a catalog of noble contributions to the cause.

For instance, there is Robert Pearson, “a Maui building contractor” who spent $7,000 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defeat a 1970 Hawaii bill that provided for elective abortions. The immediate aftermath of the law was an increase in the number of abortions in Honolulu from 46 in the first week after the law became effective to 587 two months later. Robert Pearson “created a ‘cemetery for aborted children’” and, with his wife,

spent $20,000 building a home for women facing crisis pregnancies. He promised to pay all medical expenses incurred in childbirth if a woman chose not to have an abortion. By the summer of 1972, he had helped eighty women through their crisis pregnancies. It was a small number compared to the thousands of women in Hawaii who had abortions, but Pearson was happy that he was at least able to do something, no matter how limited, to rescue unborn children.

Professor Williams includes portraits of other inspiring and diverse figures, such as Father James McHugh, the “liberal reformer” priest who created the National Right to Life Committee; Fred and Marjory Mecklenburg, “self-described liberal Methodists” and advocates of contraception (Fred was a member of Planned Parenthood) who became leaders of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life; Mildred Jefferson, “a Boston surgeon who, in 1951, had become the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School” and became a powerful spokesperson for the cause, eventually being elected president of the NRLC; Ellen McCormack, a full-time homemaker from Long Island who launched a pro-life bid for president, raising over $500,00 and becoming “the first female presidential candidate in US history to qualify for matching federal campaign financing and Secret Service protection” and who used that status to air campaign commercials to educate the public on abortion; and many others.

These descriptions not only add interest but serve as reminders of the significance of the personal commitments of ordinary and sometimes extraordinary people to the creation and sustaining of this human rights movement.

Defenders of the Unborn concludes with an assessment of the successes of the pro-life movement seen from the vantage point of today. Professor Williams concludes that 40 years after Roe, the pro-life movement has succeeded in turning “the country back to a situation that was remarkably similar to the one that had existed immediately before Roe v. Wade.” This may not be where the movement wants to be, but it is nonetheless far better than might have been predicted when the Supreme Court handed down that decision.

Though the book, appropriately, does not spend time on drawing lessons from the history it describes, it will yield some helpful insights with relevance for worldwide efforts to prevent or rein in legal promotion of abortion and the growing insistence of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps the most significant of these is the unspoken theme of the narrative, running like a thread throughout—the virtue of steadfastness. The book describes a movement that has experienced significant legal setbacks, back-and-forth shifts in public opinion, and the unremitting hostility of elite opinion in media and the law and parts of the political class. It nevertheless persisted. The early legislative setbacks of the 1960s were followed by significant victories shortly after, like the amazing legislative repeal of New York’s liberal abortion law, stopped only by Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s veto.

Similarly, the seemingly crushing legal defeat in Roe did not mark the end of the movement but rather provoked a series of successful and unsuccessful efforts to reintroduce legal protections for the unborn. One political party completely realigned on the issue (such that even Donald Trump, who had earlier expressed support for abortion, felt the need to announce his opposition to abortion as a candidate for president), several American states have increased regulation, and in “2011 the total number of abortions in the United States was at its lowest level since 1975.” In 2013, “[f]ewer than 1,800 abortion providers were still in business, while 2,500 pro-life crisis pregnancy centers across the nation were offering women alternatives to abortion and convincing thousands of women each year to carry their pregnancies to term.”

Through all of this, and in the face of new legal challenges, the pro-life movement persisted. The stalwart Catholic activists continued in the face of early Protestant indecision and even opposition. The movement has persevered in spite of Supreme Court opposition; the desertion of a political party; a sexual revolution; and the immoral actions of a small, violent faction that betrayed its ideals. It is still a force in politics and culture and continues to attract young supporters.

Perhaps the great lesson to be taken from this account is: “Great causes are not won in a single generation.”[1] Defenders of life will stand firm.

William C. Duncan is Director of the Marriage Law Foundation.

  • [1]  Joseph F. Smith, an early-20th-century leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.