An Outstanding History of the Pre-Roe Pro-life Movement

Michael J. New, Ph.D.  

The history of the pro-life movement has received precious little attention from either journalists or academics.   In 2014, Dr. and Mrs. John C. Willke published Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement: An Inside View which is the first truly comprehensive history of the modern pro-life movement. Their book first explores the history of pro-life activism before Roe v. Wade and then devotes a chapter to every year after 1973.  This year, Daniel K. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, published Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, a helpful augmentation to the Willke’s book.


Williams provides a first-rate history of the pro-life movement prior to 1973.  He gives well deserved recognition to many early pro-life leaders like Father James McHugh, Father Paul Marx, Mildred Fay Jefferson, Ellen McCormack, and Marjory Mecklenburg. Williams also does important work describing many of the internal debates within the pro-life movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed there were debates — some of which continue to this day —  as to whether pro-lifers should link abortion with contraception and other morality policy issues.  Similarly, after Roe v. Wade there were another set of internal debates. Some thought pro-lifers should focus on legislation limiting abortion while others thought it was more important to find ways to assist women facing crisis pregnancies.


However, Williams’ most important contribution is highlighting the ideological diversity of the early pro-life movement. Up until the mid-1960s Catholic physicians and lawyers were very effective at preventing the expansion of legal abortion in many states. However as support for legal abortion increased during the late 1960s, pro-life leaders realized they had to change their approach. As such, many pro-lifers began to frame abortion as a human-rights issue.  This allowed them to attract a number of political moderates and liberals. Indeed, many political liberals saw opposition to abortion as a human-rights issue, consistent with opposition to the death penalty and the Vietnam War. All of a sudden, the most visible pro-life spokespersons were suddenly liberal antiwar activists, college students, and feminists.


This book should interest scholars, journalists and activists. By compiling a very thorough history of the early pro-life movement and presenting it in a readable form, Williams has done an exceptional service for his readers. (For my full-length book review, please see here.)


Michael J. New is an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. 


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