Defenders of the Unborn

The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade

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Daniel K. Williams
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book provides a thoroughly researched and engagingly written history of the pro-life movement in the United States from roughly 1930 to the present, though the center of gravity of the historical treatment is the late 1960s and early 1970s. The author’s main contention, which he establishes convincingly, is that the pro-life movement did not suddenly arise in the wake of Roe v. Wade. It preexisted Roe and was in a pitched battle with the pro-choice camp on a state-by-state basis for many years. Much of the book consists of detailed accounts of pro-life resistance to legislative efforts to liberalize the anti-abortion laws that had been on the books since the nineteenth century. As demonstrated in the copious notes, Daniel Williams carried out extensive archival research, in addition to working with published books and articles. However, the book lacks a bibliography.

One of the central themes stressed by Williams is that the primary opposition to the liberalization of abortion laws in the US came from the bishops of the Catholic Church. This was both a strength and a weakness, in that before Vatican II, the bishops had considerable clout in various parts of the United States, and they could quickly mobilize large numbers of lay people to write letters to legislators and to vote for pro-life friendly candidates. However, the weakness was that it was very easy for the pro-choice camp to claim that this Catholic clout was the imposition of a particular religious dogma on a pluralistic society. In the wake of Vatican II, a large portion of the Catholic laity broke away from the bishops and accepted contraception and the liberalization of abortion laws. This change among some Catholic laity, along with the friendliness of many mainline Protestants toward liberalization, and the lack of interest in abortion on the part of most evangelicals, meant that by about 1970 public opinion was no longer solidly in the pro-life camp. The nation was deeply divided on the issue, and has remained so up to the present.

The Catholic pro-life leaders knew that they needed to broaden their base to be more effective in public relations in the 1960s; therefore they leapt at any chance to recruit Protestants interested in the cause and put them into spokesperson and leadership roles. Another problem that was grasped too slowly, the author contends, is that pro-life advocates who spoke in legislatures and other public forums were usually male lawyers, doctors, or clergy; this played right into the hands of the rising feminist narrative that the opponents of abortion liberalization had sexist motivations and were afraid of granting women equality. The fact that the majority of the members of the pro-life groups were women was out of sync with the public face of the movement.

One aspect of Defenders of the Unborn that is likely to be surprising to many readers is the extent to which the debate over abortion was intra-party during the 1960s and early 1970s. Many Democrats were pro-life and many Republicans were pro-choice. During the 1968, 1972, and 1976 presidential campaigns, the abortion issue was a minefield for candidates from both parties, which led to strong pressures on presidential hopefuls. Particular words said to certain audiences in certain states could result in large swings of voting blocs for or against the candidates. It wasn’t until the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan that the current polarization of the parties on the issue of abortion was solidified, a story that is told at the end of the book.

Another key theme developed by Williams concerns the internal division of the pro-life movement between a left-leaning, social justice approach, and a right-leaning conservative sexual morality approach. Many of the early pro-life activists were socially liberal Democrats who saw the cause of protecting unborn children as being in tune with progressive government programs to provide assistance to the poor, increased civil rights for African-Americans, more just treatment of women in society, and resistance against the Vietnam War. Such activists saw the pro-choice position as deeply incoherent, because it struck them as using a violent means to advance a good cause: namely, advancing the equality of women. The conservative approach, however, was more concerned with combating the sexual revolution. They saw abortion as the logical outcome of the breakdown of traditional moral values. The process of the polarization of the abortion debate into Democratic and Republican factions was to great extent fueled by the entry of conservative evangelicals into the abortion debate in the late 1970s, led by figures such as Jerry Falwell. This process resulted in the current situation, in which “pro-life feminists” and “Democrats for life” are so few in number that many people are surprised to hear of their existence.

The major question raised implicitly by Williams, but not addressed because it is not within the book’s scope, concerns the moral lessons to be learned from slavery and World War II. Williams documents that many pro-life advocates were arguing before Roe v. Wade that the liberalization of abortion treats the inhabitant of the womb in the same way the Jews were treated by the Nazis. African-American pro-life voices such as Mildred Jefferson, Rosetta Ferguson, and Jesse Jackson compared Roe to the Dred Scott decision. Pro-choice advocates viewed these analogies as absurd and insulting. What was going on in the thought-processes of the members of the two camps that led to these drastically different takes on how the moral lessons of history should be learned and applied? This requires deep philosophical and anthropological analysis. In my opinion, the only hope for increasing the quality of the abortion debate in the future lies in that analysis.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel K. Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. He is author of God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.



Mark Caponigro

It is odd to see those most unsatisfactory terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" used throughout with never a word of explanation, let alone of apology. "Pro-choice" is a mischaracterization of the attitude toward the moral and legal status of abortion held by the more serious defenders of women's reproductive rights. Though it's true that many defenders of those rights did themselves adopt "pro-choice" as their sloganish epithet, that was a glib and not well thought-out response to the other side's use of "pro-life." "Pro-life," for its part, is evidently a grotesque piece of propaganda, a rhetorical trick, basically a kind of lie, inasmuch as the only "pro-life" value that the people who are united in adopting that epithet for themselves have in common is an opposition to abortion, or even more precisely, to the legal status of abortion; we should expect people who use that epithet of themselves, if they're going to be honest and to respect the meaning of words, to be committed to a whole list of causes involving life and death, such as opposition to the death penalty, opposition to militarism, opposition to inequities in standards of living, activism in the face of the biodiversity crisis, activism in the face of the climate crisis, and action taken to protect captive or hunted non-human animals from deadly exploitation in human enterprise, especially the food industries. That the "pro-life" people have little or no concern for such matters is proof of at least their manipulative cynicism.

Otherwise the reviewer Charles K. Bellinger presents the subject matter of Daniel K. Williams's book in a helpful and engaging way. And the new subjects he raises in the final paragraph are indeed very interesting. We might think, though, that the true "major question" is the specific development of the dialogue among women, with men's contributions put aside, on the nature of the relationship between the pregnant woman and the unborn undeveloped human being within her body. Just that one concept which Bellinger refers to, the evaluation by many women at one time of an abortion as an objectionable act of violence, for example, has a part in this developing dialogue, such that that earlier evaluation has hardly remained unquestioned and stable. And more generally in this regard, all people of good will ought to agree that the central discussion of this issue deserves to be conducted exclusively by women, with male observers sitting off to the side and remaining silent, if in fact they're interested at all. Fortunately the serious matter of male involvement as an effort on the part of men to retain control of women, keeping them as second-class citizens, does make an appearance in Williams's book, according to Bellinger's report. That such involvement on the part of men is usually unhelpful and always impertinent should definitely be included in the history of that "major question," the development of the dialogue among women. 



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