The Left does not understand why we and our movement don’t implode, collapse, or otherwise dry up and blow away.
Daniel K. Williams, in his stunning new book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade answers that question in 365 pages of carefully documented (96 pages of footnotes and index!) research and highly readable prose.
In the eyes of the mass media (and the current pro-choice movement), the alliance between the pro-life movement and the Republican Party seems set in stone.
For the pro-life movement, however, the relationship with the Republican Party remains in the courtship phase. Both are still trying to figure out whether their worldviews are truly compatible. The reality is that the family tree of the pro-life movement does not share many roots with the Republican Party—and prior to the late 1970s, very few branches.
Williams’ thesis is that the pro-life movement did not emerge in 1973 but in 1937. It began, he argues, as a human rights movement—what it is rediscovering itself to be today. That is why it has survived against all odds.
The movement, as Williams describes it, was founded by Catholics. To understand how this happened, one must know something about Catholics in America in the first half of the 20th century. Most of them were children or grandchildren of immigrants who had no cultural loyalty to the upper classes they perceived the Republican Party to represent. Many of these immigrants, indeed, had been victims of laissez-faire economic policies that compelled their emigration.
Case in point this Saint Patrick’s Day: There should have been no famine in Ireland in 1845-52. Only the potato crop failed. Ireland continued to export grain and livestock throughout those years—even as well over a million people were starving to death and another million were emigrating. The potato was the food that almost alone had sustained millions of Catholic peasants. Now their landlords, looking to invest in the more profitable livestock business—and to clear their land of what they viewed as an inferior race—were happy to buy them tickets to America.
The upper classes in England felt no obligation to help the starving. Indeed, Rev. Malthus maintained that the failure of the potato crop was the hand of Providence seeking to restore a proper balance of population and land. Others maintained that the blight was a sign of God’s displeasure because Parliament had legalized “Popery” in 1829.
When the Irish reached the promised land of America, few had any fondness for absentee landlords, aristocracy, or wealth. Nor did their children and grandchildren who, like other Catholic immigrants, had to fight religious discrimination in the largely protestant country.
Meanwhile Catholic social teaching about labor and capital was articulated and formalized, notably by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, and this resonated with Irish Catholics, who were mainly blue-collar workers—and Democrats. They were among the most enthusiastic supporters of FDR’s New Deal, which they saw as providing jobs and food to the hungry.
Born and nurtured in the heart of the Democrat Party, “the pro-life movement succeeded because it drew on the same language of human rights, civil rights, and the value of human life that inspired the struggle for African American freedom, the feminist movement, antiwar protests, and the campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians,” writes Williams.
It was to defend human dignity that Catholics in the 1920s opposed eugenics laws that led to mass involuntary sterilizations in America—long before Adolf Hitler. It was why they supported New Deal programs in the 1930s and joined the civil-rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s.
Republicans were on the opposite side of most of these issues.
When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down on January 22, 1973, government lawyer Nellie Gray assumed her heroes in the Senate would quickly remedy what was obviously a mistake. I remember hearing her describe the utter shock she felt when she discovered that it was Republican senators (Jim Buckley and Jesse Helms in particular) who would listen to her when she visited them.
Gray founded the March for Life because, well, that’s how liberals launched protest movements and human-rights campaigns. But this one didn’t work out the way earlier campaigns had because the fundamental consensus about the intrinsic value of every human life had disappeared when no one was watching—well before 1973.
As pelvic politics gained control of the Democrat Party, its common ground with Catholics evaporated. Individual rights (of women who wanted abortions) trumped the human-rights focus that had previously defined the party. When the party wrote abortion into its platform at the 1976 convention, the pro-life cause became politically homeless.
Meanwhile, Paul Weyrich had been busy grafting the pro-life issue onto the Republican agenda. The son of an urban blue-collar Catholic immigrant, Weyrich knew how to use shoe-leather politics to win elections—something Republicans did not know how to do. But he would only help candidates who agreed to support a Human Life Amendment.
Ronald Reagan endorsed the Human Life Amendment in 1975; it was written into the GOP platform in 1976. By 1980, an engagement was announced between the pro-life movement and Republicans as “Reagan Democrats” surged into the party. Ever since, it’s been an ongoing, mostly happy, relationship – but this year’s so-far-from-typical presidential campaign may determine whether a wedding date can be set.
It is possible that the 2016 election may provoke yet another realignment, one that only a novelist can imagine right now.
In Williams’ words, historians have “mischaracterized both the chronology of the pro-life movement and its ideological origins.” Thanks to his book, the pro-life movement has no excuse for ignoring its own philosophical geneaology as it heads into the future.
Connie Marshner is a commentator and researcher on life and family issues in the Washington, D.C., area.