When liberals were pro-life

Cradle My Heart Radio welcomes historian of the pro-life movement the week of March 7

Daniel K Williams, PhD

Daniel K Williams, PhD

Abortion rights advocates today cast the pro-life movement as a war on women at its worst. or at best a hopeless effort to stall the force of progress and personal freedom.

What is missing in that assessment is the historical root of pro-life activism.

Historian Daniel K. Williams argues pro-life activism preceded legalization, and that knowing this history re-frames the discussion entirely. His research finds that in the years prior to legalization as national policy, as states attempted to liberalize abortion for extreme cases, the early pro-life movement succeeded in halting liberalization by pressing the issue of human rights. Defending the unborn was a progressive and liberal cause, and one that was claiming victory in every state where the cause was pursued. But with legalization, the cultural tide shifted, carried along by women’s rights advocates, mainline churches, medical and legal experts, and the media–and leading liberals.

So, what happened? According to Williams:

“The Democratic Party chose to officially oppose a Human Life Amendment in its 1976 party platform because of pressure from the pro-choice feminist movement to endorse abortion rights. At the time, public opinion polls showed that Democrats were evenly divided on the abortion issue – as were Republicans – so the party’s approach to the abortion issue during the mid-1970s was quite cautious. Democratic Party leaders during the 1970s viewed their party as the party of human rights, which is why the party endorsed the civil rights cause, the Equal Rights Amendment, environmental rights, and eventually the gay rights movement. However, on the issue of abortion, both sides in the debate claimed to be supporters of human rights, which made the abortion issue a difficult one for the Democratic Party. Pro-choice feminists argued that reproductive rights were an essential component of the women’s rights movement, while pro-lifers claimed that abortion restrictions were necessary to protect the right to life for the unborn.

“Before 1973, the Democratic Party attempted to balance these competing rights claims by refusing to take an official position on abortion, but after Roe v. Wade, party leaders acquiesced to the large contingent of pro-choice women’s rights advocates in the party by claiming that the Supreme Court had settled the issue and that the country should therefore not rescind that decision through a constitutional amendment. In the mid-1970s, several prominent Democrats who had once been opponents of abortion switched sides and became pro-choice, but for years, the party continued to harbor a large, vocal pro-life minority. As late as 1992, more than one-third of Democrats in the US House of Representatives had pro-life voting records, according to the National Right to Life Committee. But by that point, it was obvious that no Democrat with presidential ambitions would be able to secure the party’s nomination without endorsing abortion rights, and by the early twenty-first century, it was hard to find any prominent pro-life Democrats left in the party. In the contest between two competing rights claims, the Democratic Party decided to endorse the cause of women’s reproductive rights at the expense of the fetus’s right to life.”

Could a return to the early effective tactics using fetal images and defending the unborn point to a winning strategy today? And would such a strategy unite those who are torn by the false dichotomy of women in need and children at risk?

Join us as Cradle My Heart Radio looks at the history of the pro-life movement in a way that could re-set the course for the future as well.

From  his bio:

Dr. Daniel K. Williams (Ph.D., Brown University, 2005) is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.


PLEASE NOTE: Cradle My Heart, Finding God’s Love After Abortion provides affirmation and hope after abortion from the Scriptures. Here are more resources for help and healing. If you are pregnant and need free, confidential help call 1-800-712-HELP. If you’ve had an abortion and need immediate help call 1-866-482-LIFE.

Join us on Cradle My Heart Radio! Call 1-800-811-3003 LIVE from 9:30-10 pm ET Sundays on Faith Radio or voicemail 24/7. Send your question to kim @ kimketola. For a list of radio stations or for live streaming, go here. Podcast on iTunes and archived here.

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Kim Ketola

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