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  • Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade by Daniel K. Williams
  • Sidney Callahan
Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade. By Daniel K. Williams. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 400 pp. $29.95.

Daniel K. Williams has written a superbly researched work of historical retrieval. He recounts the untold story of progressive pro-life efforts to defend the unborn that began decades before Roe v. Wade. It was embodied in a New Deal-Catholic alliance to support the health and welfare of women, children, families, workers, and the poor. The pro-life struggle grew and developed into a saga that enlisted many: physicians, legislators, Catholic clergy, volunteer lay groups, Protestant leaders, lobbyists, and legal professionals. The players interacted in efforts to shape public opinion and change the laws.

Williams’s stated purpose is to detail the ins-and-outs of the pro-life movement, and it’s obvious that his own sympathies are engaged. Yet he is fair minded and objective in his treatment of all parties and occurrences. He regularly describes the ideals of the varied abortion-rights movements and is careful to use unbiased historically appropriate language in his characterizations. The unsettling events that framed the struggle are duly noted: the nuclear threat, the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, the Second Vatican Council reforms, the civil rights movement, and most centrally, the emergence of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution. Throughout, the Catholic defense of human life from the moment of conception remained a constant, but the theoretical justifications and practical strategies employed shifted. The issue of abortion was separated from the ban on contraception. This uncoupling opened up collaborations with Protestants and other prolifers [End Page 89] who accepted the morality of birth control. The laity were enlisted as preferable leaders of independent ecumenical groups and women were enthusiastically welcomed for their effective work at every level of the pro-life movement.

The moral grounding of pro-life efforts was expanded from the traditional Catholic theology of creation to a defense of the unborn human’s right to life found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Rights of the Child were cited. The pro-life campaign to protect the most vulnerable of all humankind was recognized as a “civil rights movement for the unborn.” As a struggle for civil rights, a newly ecumenical movement embraced ballot initiatives, letter writing campaigns, marches, vigils, graphic images, videos, and other means to inform, persuade, and convince voters. Common cause was made with African-American groups who feared elective abortion as an anti-black and eugenic move against the poor.

After Vatican II, a liberal, Catholic, non-violent peace and justice movement developed as a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life.” This inclusive pro-life movement worked against all threats to human life as in war, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and poverty. A Catholic-inspired, pro-life feminist movement also emerged. Non-violent solutions for women’s development and crisis pregnancies were endorsed as pro-woman, pro-life. Alliance with other pro-choice feminists could often be forged. The feminist movement throughout history has had many incarnations, but the second-wave Feminism that emerged in the 1960s was committed to elective abortion and the autonomous liberty of the sexual revolution.

Previous reform movements to liberalize abortion laws for the sake of women’s health and relief of suffering were judged to be morally inadequate by many feminists. Now women must morally be granted the right to elective abortion “on demand,” in order to control their own bodies and reproductive choices. The moral right to autonomous individual abortion decisions was claimed as guaranteed by the constitutional right to privacy and equality. Fetal claims to personhood were dismissed – at least until viability. Ironically, this moral claim to a woman’s right to abortion appealed to the same inalienable rights of equal personhood as those made for the fetus. It also could be seen to relieve women’s mental and physical suffering and endorse the individual’s pursuit of happiness.

Public opinion was evenly split when the 1973 Roe...


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pp. 89-91
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