When pro-lifers were progressives

Most of us only know the pro-life movement after Roe v. Wade. But there's a fuller history—with surprising turns.

In her first speech after clinching the Democratic nomination for president, Hillary Clinton spoke to one of her core constituencies—supporters of Planned Parent­hood. As she reaffirmed her support for legalized abortion, Clinton faulted the critics of Planned Parenthood for being concerned more about prenatal life than postnatal life. “The same politicians who are against safe and legal abortion,” she observed, “are also against policies that would make it easier to raise a child . . . They are for limited government everywhere except when it comes to interfering with women’s choices and rights.”

Clinton’s complaint may not be fair to every opponent of abortion, but she’s mostly right. In recent decades, the voices most opposed to abortion are generally the ones most reluctant to support—much less expand—the health and welfare programs that serve mothers and children.

But it was not always so, says Daniel K. Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia. He argues that the pro-life movement that emerged in the mid-20th century was at root a liberal one. It viewed protecting the unborn as entirely consistent with New Deal and Great Society efforts to support low-income families. That’s how most Roman Catholics viewed the matter, and the pro-life movement from the 1950s into the 1970s was overwhelmingly Catholic.