Unconventional Women: Documenting the Diversity of the Pro-Life Movement

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Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida.

The past five years have seen a welcome increase in the number of books on the history of the pro-life movement. Dr. and Mrs. Jack Willke's Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement: An Inside View provides a thorough history of recent political efforts to end abortion, and Daniel K. Williams's Defenders of the Unborn admirably chronicles pro-life activism prior to the Roe v. Wade decision. Additionally, the memoirs written by Monica Miller and Joe Scheidler have each provided important historical information about the direct-action wing of the pro-life movement.

Still, the history of the pro-life movement is not complete. After decades of politicization, the pro-life movement is often portrayed as monolithic and uncooperative, but nothing could be further from the truth. In this regard, a welcome new addition to the literature is Karissa Haugeberg's Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century. By chronicling the experiences of five women who each took a unique approach to pro-life activism, Haugeberg, an assistant professor of history at Tulane University, sketches a diverse pro-life movement, debating and adopting a range of strategies, around the time of Roe v. Wade and afterward.

Narrating the Lives of Five Pro-Life Women

The interested reader will learn about Mildred Fay Jefferson, the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, who went on to be President of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) in the 1970s. Unlike other pro-lifers, Jefferson spoke about abortion as a form of racial genocide. She was concerned that policymakers opposed to welfare would pressure black women to have abortions, just as public health officials coerced thousands of African American women to be sterilized during the twentieth century. Jefferson was able to draw on her work as a physician and her experiences as an African American woman to offer unique arguments about the racial consequences of legal abortion.

The book also narrates the activism of Joan Andrews, a conservative Catholic from rural Tennessee. Frustrated with her parish priest's tepid response to the Roe v. Wade decision, she felt that pro-lifers needed to adopt more aggressive strategies to stop abortion. Eventually becoming involved with Operation Rescue, Andrews was arrested approximately 120 times. In 1986, her five-year jail sentence for trespassing and violating multiple injunctions received nationwide attention.

Haugeberg also presents the history of Marjory Mecklenberg. After the Roe v. Wade decision, Mecklenberg became convinced that, as far as reducing the abortion rate was concerned, providing material assistance to women facing unintended pregnancies was a better strategy than enacting pro-life laws. Accordingly, she left the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) to form American Citizens Concerned for Life (ACCL), which prioritized the formation of pregnancy resource centers. Mecklenberg was also appointed by President Reagan to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. There she steered federal funds toward abstinence-based sex education programs and supported requiring Title X health care providers to notify parents before distributing contraceptives to minors.

Then there is the pro-life work of Juli Loesch. Loesch had a long history of involvement with a number of social justice causes. She registered African American voters in her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, and even travelled to California to learn about non-violent activism from Cesar Chavez. During the late 1970s, she became interested in abortion and, along with three other pro-life women, founded Prolifers for Survival, a group opposing both abortion and nuclear proliferation. Loesch reached out to social justice movements and tried to get anti-war and anti-nuclear activists interested in pro-life activism, but she appeared to have more success getting pro-life activists interested in various peace movements than vice versa.

Finally, there is Shelly Shannon. Shannon became involved with Operation Rescue after attending a pro-life meeting in Oregon and watching a video of an abortion being performed. During the 1980s, she travelled around the country to participate in clinic blockades and was arrested nearly 50 times. Two events led to the downfall of Operation Rescue in the early 1990s. First, in 1993 President Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. This resulted in harsher penalties for individuals who engaged in clinic blockades. Second, Operation Rescue, along with other pro-life groups, was prosecuted by the federal government for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

After Operation Rescue disbanded, Shelly Shannon and other radical members of the rescue movement felt persecuted by both the abortion industry and the federal government. This tragically led Shannon to engage in a pattern of abortion clinic violence. In 1993, she made the reprehensible decision to shoot late-term abortionist George Tiller. In 1994, a jury found her guilty of attempted first degree murder and she was sentenced to serve eleven years in prison.

The information that Haugeberg provides is both interesting and accurate. Histories of the pro-life movement often emphasize judicial rulings and electoral politics, and less has been written about other forms of pro-life activism. This is one of the first books to provide information about the history of pregnancy resource centers and of pro-life attempts to reach out to liberals and social justice groups. Furthermore, individuals who engage in unconventional forms of political activism are often ignored by historians and journalists. By chronicling the history of these women, Haugeberg's book helps to fill a void in the existing literature.

Putting History to Ill Use: Some Shortcomings

While Haugeberg's history is accurate, the same cannot be said for all of the lessons she wishes to draw from it. One of her main theses is that women often had a difficult time achieving leadership roles in mainstream pro-life organizations. Haugeberg describes a press conference that Operation Rescue held after a week-long protest in New York City in May 1988. The stage full of men contrasted with the press corps, two thirds of whom were women. Furthermore, the "Men Talk: Women Listen" impression was not lost on the journalists in attendance. Haugeberg argues that the lack of opportunities for professional advancement is an important reason why many pro-life women pursued other, less conventional forms of pro-life activism.

It is certainly true that opposition to legal abortion prior to Roe was often spearheaded by Catholic professional organizations consisting mostly of men. Additionally, the leadership of Operation Rescue during the 1980s consisted of evangelical pastors. But this is not the whole story at all. Haugeberg fails to acknowledge the women who have always played—and continue to play—a very prominent role in numerous mainstream pro-life organizations.

For instance, Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that Haugeberg fails even to mention, was founded in 1992 to fundraise for female pro-life political candidates. Since then the number of pro-life women serving in elected office at both the state and federal levels has increased dramatically. Susan B. Anthony List was founded by three women: Marjorie Dannenfelser, Helen Alvaré, and Rachel MacNair. Dannenfelser remains the group's president to this day. The recent presidents of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) have included Wanda Franz and Carol Tobias. Charmaine Yoest recently served as president of Americans United for Life (AUL), and AUL's current president is Catherine Glenn Foster.

Haugeberg expends little effort in concealing her ideological views. She takes considerable pains, for example, to portray pregnancy resource centers as manipulative and deceitful. She argues that they often inaccurately present themselves as full-service medical clinics. She also claims that they mislead women about the health risks of abortion—even though there is a significant body of peer-reviewed evidence indicating that abortion can lead to a range of both physical and psychological health problems. Finally, she uses anecdotal evidence to accuse pregnancy resource centers of delaying giving women the results of pregnancy tests, so that their counselors will have more time to dissuade women from seeking abortions.

Haugeberg is skeptical of testimonies, circulated by pro-life groups, of women who regret their abortions. She is also very critical of mainstream pro-life groups for not doing more to confront violence and extremism. Similarly, she is critical of law enforcement and policymakers for not doing more to punish pro-lifers who engage in clinic blockades. Finally, Haugeberg insists, without citing any studies or data, that sex education and contraception programs are the best strategy for reducing abortion. While this slanted approach may earn Haugeberg plaudits from feminists and liberal academics, it definitely limits the appeal of the book to pro-life audiences.

Despite these flaws, Women Against Abortion is an important book. The pro-life movement has always been very diverse and nuanced. Since Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers have pursued a variety of strategies to protect the unborn. Legal and political efforts have been more visible than outreach, education, street-level activism, and providing for women facing unintended pregnancies, and consequently these efforts have not received much attention from researchers or scholars. But that does not mean that they have not been an essential part of the pro-life movement. By detailing the history of female pro-life activists who have pursued these less conventional forms of pro-life activism, Haugeberg has performed a valuable service for her readers.

Originally posted at The Public Discourse

Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New