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Roe v. Wade and the remaking of the pro-life movement

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Daniel K. Williams shares an excerpt from Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade on how pro-life groups reacted to the Supreme Court ruling.

On 11 January 1973, members of the North Dakota Right to Life Association braved the frigid temperatures in Bismarck to convene their first annual convention. Having won a sweeping victory at the ballot box only two months earlier, they were optimistic about the future and were ready to move on to the second phase of pro-life activism—campaigning for social welfare legislation that would give women facing crisis pregnancies the help they needed to carry their pregnancies to term. The conference program included sessions on “Health Insurance for Unwed Mothers,” “Subsidized Adoption,” and “Day Care Centers.” It was not enough to keep abortion illegal, they thought; they needed to create a compassionate society in which abortion would seem unnecessary and unthinkable.

But that new phase never came. Less than two weeks after the North Dakota Right to Life Convention met, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade. A right-to-life movement that had just begun to think about expanding its goals and moving on to new campaigns suddenly had to focus all of its energy on one central task—overturning Roe. It was a task that would transform the movement and ultimately lead pro-lifers to make alliances with politicians who had very different goals from the ones that the right-to-lifers in Bismarck had promoted.

Roe v. Wade fell like a bombshell on the pro-life community. During the previous two years, pro-lifers had won victories in dozens of state legislatures, but in one moment, the Supreme Court had eviscerated all of them. Even worse, the ruling explicitly deprived the fetus of personhood and constitutional protection. For years, pro-lifers had compared the repeal of abortion laws to the policies of Nazi Germany, and they had warned of a coming holocaust for the unborn. It seemed to them that the moment had now arrived, and they feared for their nation. “The horrible truth is, the Court’s decision put our nation officially in favor of killing by law,” National Review writer J. P. McFadden declared. It was “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s genocide.”

Protests against Roe v. Wade continue in the present day, as seen here by a photograph of the 2010 March for Life, which occurs on the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling each year.
“Pro-life rallies continue in the present day, as seen here by a photograph of the 2010 March for Life, which occurs on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade each year” by Forstle. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Court’s denial of personhood to the fetus reminded pro-lifers of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which the Court deprived African American slaves of the same right. “As it did in 1857, our country shall surely suffer and suffer terribly for this decision,” Lena Hohenadel, co-chair of the Lancaster County chapter of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, predicted. In order to symbolize the connection, 30,000 pro-lifers gathered in November 1973 at the St. Louis courthouse where Dred Scott had been tried, and listened to Mildred Jefferson, the most prominent African American in the movement, give a fiery denunciation of Roe. “We are determined that the Supreme Court decision on abortion shall not stand,” she said. Politicians “pandering for abortion shall find our judgments harsh,” she declared. “We will consider they are bargaining in blood and will not vote for them.”

Other pro-lifers invoked the Vietnam War. “It is ironic, and profoundly tragic, that a nation which has just concluded a prolonged and unbelievably destructive war in Southeast Asia should now turn to the large scale destruction of its unborn children,” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life declared. It called Roe “a declaration of war against the unborn—a declaration which, unless reversed or overturned, will mean 500,000 to 1,000,000 fetal deaths per year in the United States. . . . With the possible exception of atomic weapons, no instrument of modern warfare can rival the destructiveness of the abortionist’s arsenal.”

American Catholic bishops told the faithful that they must refuse to comply with the decision. “We have no choice but to urge that the Court’s judgment be opposed and rejected,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared on 24 January 1973. “Doctors, nurses and health care personnel” must “stand fast in refusing to provide abortion on request, and in refusing to accept easily available abortion as justifiable medical care.”

Pro-life Catholics’ willingness to defy the Supreme Court en masse was unprecedented, but so was the Supreme Court ruling. In Catholics’ view, the nation’s highest judicial institution had directly defied the Declaration of Independence and the law of God, and they were shocked. Catholics who had come of age in the mid-twentieth century had grown up in an era when the American Catholic Church had identified its goals with those of the nation. Baby Boomer Catholics grew up hating communism, loving baseball, and cheering when John F. Kennedy, one of their own, was elected president. They had seen close ties among church teachings, New Deal liberalism, and the Democratic Party. The Supreme Court’s decision called all of this into question. It appeared that the law of the state was now diametrically opposed to the law of God, and that the Supreme Court, the institution many liberals of the 1960s and 1970s looked to as a guarantor of civil rights, might be an enemy of the most fundamental human right of all—the right to life. Fr. James McNulty told the national convention of the Knights of Columbus that “the comfortable meld of Catholic and American has been disastrously upset.”

But it was not only Catholics whose faith in the nation was shaken. Some pro-life evangelicals also felt the same way. Christianity Today declared in an editorial on Roe that “Christians should accustom themselves to the thought that the American state no longer supports, in any meaningful sense, the laws of God, and prepare themselves spiritually for the prospect that it may one day formally repudiate them and turn against those who seek to live by them.” . . .

Outraged by the Supreme Court’s disregard for unborn human life, thousands of new recruits—most of whom were women—joined pro-life organizations. By May 1973, Michigan Citizens for Life (formerly Voice of the Unborn) had increased its membership to more than 50,000, up from 10,000 only six months earlier. Three years later, the organization had 200,000 members, 75 percent of whom were women. In contrast, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had only 30,000 members nationwide in 1973.

Image Credit: “The Supreme Court photographed by Ken Hammond for the United States Department of Agriculture.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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