It always amuses me when a large magazine discovers something about the religious world or culture wars issues that many of us have known about for decades.
Recently, the Atlantic made the surprise discovery that the pro-life movement had some liberal founders. The piece, by Emma Green, is actually a book review of “Defenders of the Unborn,” by University of West Georgia professor Daniel Williams. You may remember Williams from his 2012 book “God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.” This time around, he’s come out with a tome reminding people that it was the left that first opposed abortion.
The Atlantic's treatment has considerable less snark than a similar New York Times review last month that assumed readers were liberals who can't imagine how someone reasonable could oppose abortion. But it does have some gaps. It starts thus:
Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater. George Wallace. These men probably won’t be featured on pro-choice pamphlets any time soon, but during at least some point in their political careers, the Moral Majority-era president, conservative stalwart, and infamous segregationist all favored the legalization of abortion. In the four decades since the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade, the political debate over abortion in America has become stale and polarized, with two sides utterly divided and little change in public opinion. But in the years leading up to Roe, many people’s views on abortion didn’t fit neatly into either liberal or conservative ideology. In fact, early anti-abortion activists viewed their cause as a struggle for civil and human rights, of a piece with social programs like the New Deal and the Great Society.
In a new book, "Defenders of the Unborn," the historian Daniel K. Williams looks at the first years of the self-described pro-life movement in the United States, focusing on the long-overlooked era before Roe. It’s somewhat surprising that the academy hasn’t produced such a history before now, although Williams says that’s partially because certain archives have only recently opened. But the gap in scholarship is also partly due to the difficulty of putting abortion into a single intellectual framework. “Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”
I checked her link supporting her stance that opinions on abortion haven’t changed much and actually, several of the surveys show opinions have changed quite a bit.
Whereas the pro-choicers were 20 points above the pro-lifers in a 1996 survey asking people to identify themselves in one camp or the other, 20 years later they are six points above the pro-lifers. That’s a 14-point drop in this supposedly intractable issue. And in a survey (in the same link) asking peoples’ opinions of Planned Parenthood, the abortion giant has slid downward in a major way. Whereas 4 percent viewed Planned Parenthood in a “very unfavorable” light in 1989, 23 percent felt that way in late 2015.
Even odder was a link a few paragraphs down to the Guttmacher Institute. When I clicked on it, I saw an article by the Daily Beast on how the GOP is backing off on abortion.
Folks at the Atlantic copy desk might want to double-check those links pre-publication.
I was a bit amused by the writer's question as to why the academy hasn't done much research on the liberal roots of the pro-life movement. Has she been on a campus recently? (I've taught at two state universities in the past five years, so I can ask this question). Faculty overwhelmingly lean left on campuses around the country, especially on moral and cultural issues, and quite a bit has been written about the lack of intellectual diversity among most academics. I'd guess most are not killing themselves to do research on something so counter cultural.
And does the Atlantic really have to stoop to the level of more biased media in calling the pro-life movement “self-described” while not doing the same for the pro-choicers? And why is “pro-life feminists” put in scare quotes later in the piece?
Those are my pet peeves. For the most part, the writer gives a pretty interesting summation of the book’s major points, but one major omission is any mention of individuals and organizations that have been saying for decades that the earliest pro-lifers were feminists. The author of "Defenders of the Unborn" is hardly unique. Groups like the Susan B. Anthony List is the best known and even though some disagree with their interpretation of history, their stance is no secret. Feminists for Life has also been saying this.
So, when she asks what happened to America’s progressive pro-lifers, well, check out the Facebook page of Democrats for Life.
She does bring up an interesting component of the early pro-choice movement; many of them were racists who wanted abortion and birth control used on blacks. But she mentions the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace in connection with this, not Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, whose eugenics statements about blacks aren’t exactly what goes on PP’s fundraising brochures.
So, I am glad when an academic -- whose work contradicts many popular assumptions about abortion -- gets a hearing in the MSM. I only wish that those reviewing such work would familiarize themselves with what's already out there.