Pro-Life as Liberal or Backlash? A Critical Review of Daniel Williams’ Defenders of the Unborn

by Will Hogue

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump was questioned in a public audience about his position on abortion. Trump, who is known for frequent misogynistic comments, went on to say that not only was he pro-life, but that he believed women should receive “punishment” for an abortion procedure.1Lucia Graves, “Trump Once Said Women Should Be Punished for Abortion. Now, He’s Making It Happen,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 24, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/24/trump-once-said-women-should-be-punished-for-abortion-t. While many pro-life groups came out and rejected his statement, his sentiment is part of a growing, arguably reemerging, trend. A failed Texas bill which somehow made it into the legislature would have made abortion punishable by death.2Anna North, “A Texas Bill Would Allow the Death Penalty for Patients Who Get Abortions,” Vox (Vox, April 11, 2019), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/11/18304825/abortion-texas-tony-tinderholt-death-penalty-bill. These situations beg the question of why abortion is such a contentious issue, and is the fetus or the mother the object of concern or ire? With this current political climate, the history of the culture wars has seen a timely explosion of historical literature in recent years. With this, the history of Christianity, in particular the Christian right, has seen an enhanced interest from scholars. Within these histories, historians have begun to examine more closely the beginnings of anti-abortion activism sixty years ago. The critical question that Williams addresses is the age of the pro-life movement, which predates Roe v. Wade. Yet the framing of this creates an argument that goes against some of the classic literature in the field. 

 In her essential book on the subject, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker argues that the controversy over abortion is not so much about the fate of the embryo, but rather, motherhood as a source of meaning for women’s lives. Luker shows that the debate surrounding abortion is mainly concerned with abortion as an aspect of  the breakdown of traditional gender roles.[1] Similarly, Rebecca Klatch gives a nuanced perspective of the various motivations for women’s involvement in conservative politics in her book Women of the New Right.[2] Klatch argues that “laissez faire” and “socially conservative” women are the two main camps of the New Right. “Laissez faire” women are ideologically rooted in 19th century liberalism, while “socially conservative” women are influenced by religious traditions.[3] Another classic work, Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom by Rosalind Petchesky, more overtly claims that the battle over access to abortion was an issue of upwardly mobile women abandoning patriarchal norms (abandoning a strictly domestic life for the workforce). Those who do not support feminist advancement are part of the backlash politics of the pro-life movement.  In her essential work, Backlash, Susan Faludi lays out the fundamental argument that “backlash” occurred when women stepped outside of traditional gender roles. This backlash is, in part, connected to any shift in women’s traditional role as mothers, and is linked to their growing autonomy from reproductive labor. When this change takes place, no matter how minute it may be in reality, patriarchal values resurface through media, religion, science and popular culture.[4] These are but some of the essential texts which established an understanding of the abortion debate as something intrinsically connected to gender roles.


[1] Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

[2] Rebecca E. Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987).

[3]Debra Reneé Kaufman, “Book Reviews.” Gender & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 1990, pp. 118–120., doi:10.1177/089124390004001023.

[4] Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (London: Vintage, 1992).

Defenders of the Unborn, however, looking at the longer history of the largely Christian pro-life movement begining in the 1950s, takes issue with the idea of the pro-life movement as backlash to Roe v. Wade. The most recent proponent of framing anti-abortion activism as backlash politics is Robert O. Self in his sweeping history All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Religious historian Daniel Williams in his book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade rethinks both the ideas posited in Self’s book, and in Williams’ previous book on the religious right[1]. Defenders of the Unborn considers the longer history of the pro-life movement starting in the 1950s as a movement for which used a rhetoric of “human rights” for the unborn in a politics which Williams refers to as initially “liberal.” Williams, however, oversells his argument about the pro-life movement as an ecumenical “liberal” Christian movement across denominational lines. Indeed, he identifies little ecumenism or theological unity between Catholics and Protestants before at least the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. In this context, where Catholics were one of few denominations that opposed birth control or abortion, it is difficult to define something as broadly “liberal.” Indeed, Williams’ argument begins to fall flat when he acknowledges the differences in Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception, and almost universal Protestant support (mainline and evangelical) for abortion rights before the late 1970s. While he proves effectively that Catholics employed a rights-based argument to sell the pro-life agenda which he defines as “liberal,” he still admits that this did not reconcile with Catholic doctrine which had, at least since the nineteenth century, seen contraception, abortion, and sodomy as interrelated sins against nature.[2] Given that, doctrinally, the church’s abortion stance, and the idea of the “dignity of the human person” is rooted in a medieval understanding of social hierarchy, as Michael Rosen has shown, the politics of backlash may still be a valuable piece of the story even in respect to Catholicism.[3]


[1]Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] USCCB, “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching (USCCB),” accessed December 20, 2019, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/respect-for-unborn-human-life.cfm.

[3] Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Historians generally agree that the white male heterosexual was the de facto representative of the citizen, or the “universal subject,”3Robert O. Self, All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013), 4. and that civil rights, feminism, and gay rights proved a challenge to his dominance in the hetero-patriarchal order. Self argues that while the state has always been heavily involved in the regulation of bodies and sexuality through abortion law, sodomy law, and marriage, the nuclear family was so unquestionable that sex and sexuality were still culturally imagined to be private before the sexual revolution.4Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 4. This breakdown of the divide between public and private, both politically and socially, through Great Society programs and the new left eventually developed into an uneasy coalition of neoconservative Catholics and Jews, evangelicals, Southern Baptists and fundamentalists who believed in sustaining the traditional nuclear family. Self successfully connects the development of a neoconservative/conservative coalition with his idea of “breadwinner conservatism,” a political ideology which rejected Great Society social welfare programs and protected an idealized nuclear family from the “moral threats” of the new left.5Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 5. Self argues that for breadwinner conservatives abortion belonged within the umbrella of the new left’s promotion of immorality in the sexual revolution, feminism, and gay rights. Abortion, in Self’s view, is viewed as an issue that “challenged the conventional views of motherhood and the divide between public and private life in America.”6Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 134.

Here Daniel Williams suggests that the narrative must focus more on the origins of the pro-life movement rather than seeing it as appearing in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. While Williams usefully reminds us that the pro-life movement had origins far earlier than Roe, the idea that this movement is grounded in New Deal liberalism, while interesting, is really only an issue that pertains to Catholics, and even then, Catholics supported abortion liberalization in numbers only slightly lower than their Protestant counterparts.7T.W. Smith, “Catholic Attitudes Toward Abortion,” National Center for Biotechnology Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1984), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed. Throughout the 1970s, Catholics were only 10% less likely to support abortion liberalization than Protestants, and even today only around half of Catholics are pro-life. The focus on pro-life Catholics whitewashes the intra-denominational struggle taking place among Catholics after the Second Vatican Council and promulgation of Humana Vitae. Catholics for Choice, a pro-choice lobbying group in Washington D.C. could be a group to look to in order to see the division among Catholics. Catholics for Choice, like their pro-life counterparts and most Protestant denominations, set their advocacy in the language of human rights. In a 1974 statement they stated, 

Sinful and barbaric laws forbidding women their human, personal right to terminate an unwanted and impossible conception, were forced upon them, in and out of marriage, and deprived them of their human and spiritual inalienable right to their own souls, conscience, free will, and full personhood, reducing them to the unholy status of bondage, and slavery to a patriarchal mystique which insisted on the state and male ownership of every woman’s body and mind.8Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000)., 174.

Not only did pro-choice Catholics use the same rhetoric of rights as Catholic pro-lifers, this time for the mother, as well as discuss the inconsistent history of the dogma of “life at conception,” but they also framed their rights discussion in a private/public sphere discourse which resonates with Robert Self’s argument, that “private” had to be made public to see the injustices inherent in the system.9Robert O. Self, All in the Family. These Catholics are reflecting a liberalism which fits within the Great Society coalition even while critiquing it which is similar to most of their liberal protestant counterparts. 

The question of the “Right to Life” movement being grounded in liberal values is also a slippery argument. While Williams should be applauded for this insight, this argument needs a deeper discussion on the rise of Catholic neoconservatism, and a broader Christian liberalism had generally which been pro-choice. Christine Rosen points to a history of mainstream liberal support of not only what we would today conceive of as eugenics (race based forced sterilization, etc.) but also birth control and abortion in her problematic, yet insightful book Preaching Eugenics.10Rosen’s funding comes from a neoconservative thinktank, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and often blurs the lines between what we would normally consider eugenics and birth control. Much like Rosen, Williams does not define what is liberal and conservative distinctly, and blurs lines, even referring to the progressive era prohibition movement as ‘socially conservative’ while seeing pro-lifers as socially liberal.11Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3. Could not the Catholic stance on contraception and abortion be characterized as socially conservative as well? After all, at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 the Anglican Communion liberalized its rules on contraception, and it seemed as if the Catholic Church would follow suit after the Second Vatican Council.12The Anglican Communion, “Lambdeth Conference,” The Lambdeth Conference Resolutions of 1930 (Church of England, 2005), https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127734/1930.pdf. In fact, when Paul VI published Humana Vitae shortly after the Council, a lay member of the commission commented that, “It was as if they had found some old unpublished encyclical from the 1920s in a drawer somewhere in the Vatican, dusted it off, and handed it out.”13Lisa McClain, “How the Catholic Church Came to Oppose Birth Control,” The Conversation, October 31, 2019, https://theconversation.com/how-the-catholic-church-came-to-oppose-birth-control-95694. Williams’ other claim that these liberal Catholics clashed with second-wave feminists, while true, implies that earlier liberals and “liberal” Catholic pro-lifers may have been of one accord, but further investigation suggests this is not so.14Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women’s History in the Law and Politics of Abortion , 36 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1 (2012). 

While the Catholic Church has prohibited abortion at any stage under the penalty of immediate excommunication since 1869, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant body in the country) only began to debate abortion officially after their schism in 1979.15J. T. Noonan, “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence 12, no. 1 (January 1967): pp. 85-131, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajj/12.1.85. In her dissertation, “The Spiritual is Political,” Laura Foxworth contends that after the 1977 International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Houston, Texas, connection between the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and homosexuality threw the Southern Baptist Convention into a tumult.16Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014), https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3760&context=etd., xii. Foxworth contends that the inclusion of provisions for lesbians at IWY was the tipping point for conservative Southern Baptists. Before this point, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention was moderately liberal and supported the ordination of women and much of the Second Wave Feminist platform. However, conservative Baptists began to coalesce in the mid-70s, and by the end of the decade were able to elect a fundamentalist president, taking the Southern Baptists into the rhetoric and politics of Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly.17Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014), https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3760&context=etd., 125. Williams usefully points out that Catholic Right-to-Lifers’ opposition to the ERA only came after reports from STOP-ERA that abortions would be paid with taxpayer dollars.18Williams, Defenders of the Unborn, 239. However, Schlafly worked to relate the issues of feminism, gay liberation and abortion in a way that greatly shaped some of the rapidly growing Catholic and opposition to ERA and abortion.19Greenhouse, Linda and Siegel, Reva B., “Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (2012).” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 257. Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2131505. While the Catholic reaction to abortion may be a mix between backlash and a movement that was shaped around a language of rights, for Southern Baptists and the Moral Majority (a conservative Christian political coalition), backlash was a key component to opposing abortion. 

Nevertheless, Williams makes a critically important point about the Catholic Church’s efforts to create an institutional movement to lobby and promote grassroots activism against abortion which proved essential for the creation of the movement as it exists today. Despite the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and contraception being rooted in patriarchal theology which connects abortion, contraception, and sodomy as against nature, the framing of the pro-life movement as a movement for the rights of unborn people was a distancing from the politics of motherhood. However, other denominations still seem to have only joined in response to advances in the feminist movement, and in particular the “breakdown” of the family with its connection to abortion on demand and the rights of lesbians. Williams gives us excellent food for thought, and we should consider the staying power of abortion politics and the nuances that affect it.

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