Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. His book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement...

Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. His book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016) offers the origins of the pro-life movement not as reactionary and anti-feminist, but rather as a New Deal-inspired crusade for human rights and part of a progressive Catholic social agenda. Pro-lifers saw themselves as crusaders for the “right to life” appealing to natural law and the constitution of the United States. In the 1930s they stood against the utilitarian views of abortion liberalization promoted by secular doctors. After World War II Catholic doctors and lawyers were equating abortion with the holocaust and arguing for the fetus as protected by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In the early 1960s, the debate over abortion moved to legislative and constitutional battles. Restrictive state laws began to crumble and post-Vatican Catholic opposition to abortion continued to erode among the laity. The decade ended with a restructuring of the movement as it gained allies among young progressives, anti-war activists, Protestants and evangelicals. Pro-life women, expressing a feminism of difference, became visible in the leadership ranks in what had been a virtually an all-male public campaign. The pro-life movement’s legislative victories were short term. Roe v. Wade and change in public opinion interrupted the ascendancy of the pro-life movement and its bipartisan identity to become part of a larger cultural battle. Williams offers an important contribution by highlighting the progressive origins of the pro-life movement before it became a conservative evangelical cause and an issue that continues to divide the nation.


Lilian Calles Barger, www.lilianbarger.com, is a cultural, intellectual and gender historian. Her current book project is entitled The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation.

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