Seeking a Sociologically Correct Name For Abortion Opponents

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Early Abortion History

Seeking a Sociologically Correct Name
For Abortion Opponents

James R. Kelly


From Abortion politics in the United States and Canada: Studies in public opinion

Edited by Ted G. Jelen and
Marthe A. Chandler

(Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994. pp. 15-40.)

HQ 767.5 U5 A267 1994

ISBN 0275945618


There is little doubt that the movement that arose in the mid-1960s to defeat efforts to make abortion legal was and is a social movement. All serious students of the abortion controversy agree that the label “social movement” fits (Leahy, 1975; Kelly, 1981; Luker, 1984; Francome, 1984; Spitzer, 1987; Cuneo, 1989). But what kind of social movement is it, how should we describe it, and—for this is also relevant to naming it—what are we to think of it? “Naming,” “describing,” “explaining,” and “judging” are distinct but interrelated acts wherein what we think about a movement decisively affects our scholarly descriptions. In not always apparent ways, the undertow of moral judgment deeply affects our descriptions of all social phenomena but especially of social movements. For as McAdam and his colleagues (1988:727) astutely note, most sociologists are interested in social movements because they are interested in their outcomes as “an important force for social change.” Probably all judgments about the appropriate name of a social movement involve some anticipation of final outcomes. By “final outcome” I mean the scholar’s guess as to whether future generations will think of the movement as representing human progress, human loss, or some complex combination of both.

It is also worth noting that when labels are contested, the winning label can tell us something about the interests of society’s most dominant sectors and groups. Although the general public remains ambivalent,1 the media labeling of the movements promoting and opposing legal abortion, and the evaluation of each, has just about been decided. Promoters of legal abortion have won and abortion opponents have lost.

In a November-December 1989 memo sent out electronically to its news service subscribers, The New York Times informed inquiring editors that the Times‘ policy is to describe opposition to abortion not as prolife but as antiabortion. Regional and local practice have come to imitate the elite media’s acceptance of the term “prochoice” and its rejection of “‘prolife” or “right-to-life” (see Sipe, 1989). In his three-part series on abortion reportage, Los Angeles Times Pulitzer award winner David Shaw (1990b) concluded that major print and television media almost always report about abortion in terms favoring those who defend it. Ethan Bronner of the Boston Globe told Shaw that “opposing abortion, in the eyes of most journalists, is not a legitimate civilized position in our society.”

It’s likely that editors think of their use of these terms as value-neural. Gans (1979:191-92) astutely observes that the majority of elite journalists consider themselves non-ideological. Even more astutely, he adds, ‘”At the same time, the journalists’ definition of ideology is self-serving, if not intentionally so, for it blinds them to the fact that they also have ideologies, even if they are largely unconscious.” For example, the following appears in the New York Times (1989) memo sent around the country about the use of fair terms in abortion reporting, “WE DO USE: women, not mother, in reference to a pregnant woman. Everyone agrees she’s a woman; some say she isn’t a mother until she gives birth. WE DO USE: fetus, not baby, in reference to the embryo [sic] she carries. There’s agreement that it’s a fetus, no agreement that it’s a baby.” Needless to say, these choices are not morally innocent. Critics could point out that they prejudge the entire moral debate in subtle ways and, in effect, settle it.

Indeed, legal abortion activists knew from the start how important it was to avoid or to neutralize any reference to the object of abortion. Faux (1988:235) reports that the coordinator of amici curiae pro-Roe briefs promoted the term “prochoice” in the briefs and “cautioned brief writers never to use the word ‘baby’ [or] the strident, hackle-raising expression ‘abortion on demand.’ “

More than most social movements, the ones that emerged around abortion have dealt with conflicts about “correct naming.” What do we call the object of abortion? Abortion opponents speak of unborn babies, while proponents prefer “fetal tissue” or ”the products of conception.” Science has not helped, for those with acknowledged scientific credentials can be produced by protagonists to describe the object of abortion as “human life” or as merely “potential human life.” See, for example, the extensive testimony given on April 23, April 24, and May 20, 1981, during the hearings before the Subcommittee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate on S. 158, called “The Human Life Bill,” whose section 1 declared: “The Congress finds that present day scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that actual human life exists from conception.”2

Gans (1979:184) makes the interesting observation that “although journalists may not be aware of it, they are perhaps the strongest remaining bastion of logical positivism [the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless] in America.” In reporting on the controversy about abortion, media elites have adopted language that suppresses the very moral conflict that abortion opponents claim has prompted their activism. What about sociologists? Do social scientists show more reflexivity than elite journalists?3 The few sociological studies of the abortion controversy with comprehensive aims already show clear tendencies, like the national media, to confidently reject the movement name chosen by abortion opponents themselves. Petchesky (1990:chap. 7), Staggenborg (1991: 188), and Davis (1985:237) describe the movement opposing legal abortion not only as “anti”-abortion but also as “anti”-feminist. Davis (1985:15, 12) adds, “She could not ethically” study the movement “that calls itself ‘right-to-life’ ” and acknowledges that she writes from “the point of view of abortion partisans.” In their authoritative chapter “Social Movements” for Neil Smelzer’s Handbook of Sociology (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1988:711) McAdam and colleagues characterize the opposition against legal abortion as a “reactionary movement” that “emerged in opposition to the feminist movement.” Their momentarily authoritative academic appraisal probably reflects the sentiments of large numbers of sociological professionals. Even the more sensitive scholars show strong tendencies to judge abortion opponents as perhaps sincere but morally limited by their “traditional ethic” regarding abortion (Luker, 1984:207).


Among the defining characteristics of social science are the search for phenomenological accuracy and objective analysis, elusive goals that are severely tested in the continuing conflicts raised by abortion. Here especially studies conducted over time by women and men of different cognitive and moral orientations will be necessary for the complex understandings sought by scholarship. As a start, it makes some sense to begin with the terms and approaches in the social movement literature that seem more unproblematically to fit what is empirically known so far about abortion activists. Then we can move to issues of naming, which, as I have already mentioned, involve questions of evaluation and even anticipations about the future. My argument will be that it still is not clear what label appropriately fits abortion opponents and that any worthy resolution of the labeling issue hinges on whether most remain an antiabortion countermovement or continue to evolve more fully into a prolife social movement. This evolution, in turn, greatly hinges on the movement’s continuing capacity to enter new coalitions, including some that are prochoice but not pro-abortion.

Some Social Movement Perspectives

Technical definitions aside, for scholars and others the main point of using the term “social movement” is to quickly communicate something of the flavor of many thousands of people who feel strongly and certainly about something in a situation where “politics as usual” fails them and who, despite many differences and obstacles, form an evolving collective consciousness prompting them to create new organizations. The social identity of a movement links together the individual motivations of each activist, creating bonds among them far deeper than the transient alliances among political actors. For this very reason, the internal politics and the shifting trajectories of movement strategies are even less predictable than conventional politics. The very term “movement” suggests the fluidity that defeats, or at least thwarts, the intellectual mastery scholars seek. While the category of an “authorized” biography makes sense, an “authorized study of a social movement” is a nonsense term precisely because a social movement (as long as it remains one) has no single authorized voice.4 Which of the competing, indeed warring, social movement organizations would accept as authoritative any analysis other than their own current version? Indeed, an authoritative account would signify that the movement had ended, either by a final defeat or by assimilation into a contemporary stage of “politics as usual.” Till their demise as victors or forgotten losers, social movements remain mostly messy and unpredictable, especially since they seek innovative approaches to counter the failure (for them at least) of politics as usual.

Even after their emergent stages, “social movements” have no central address, no one official spokesperson, no single zone of activity that the investigator can approach for a definitive account of exactly what is happening and why. A social movement will appear unitary and coordinated only to its ideological opponents. It is no surprise that in the conclusion (1988:728-29) of their overview for the Handbook of Sociology, McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald note that while there are many studies of the emergence of social movements, “we know comparatively little about the dynamics of collective action over time.” Social movements are too messy, too much in flux, and they take too long. Social movements with any vitality follow centrifugal forces of moral and strategic analyses and outlive the intellectual career of any scholar or even generation of scholars, if the reason for the movement touches deeply some central dimension of the meaning of community and the worth of the mostly ordinary people who live within it.

Defining a Social Movement

In their overview of social movements for the Handbook of Sociology, McAdam and his colleagues never actually define a social movement. While not explicitly apologetic, they do note the difficulties of even describing “the range of phenomena lumped together under the heading of social movements” (1988:695). Still, definitions of social movements abound. In fact” two of the three authors of the Handbook sans definition overview have elsewhere (Zald and McCarthy, 1987:20) defined social movements as “a set of opinions and beliefs in a population representing preferences for changing some elements of the social structure or reward distribution, or both, of a society. A counter movement is a set of opinions and beliefs in a population opposed to a social movement. As is clear, we view social movements as nothing more than preference structures directed toward social change, very similar to what political sociologists would term issue cleavage.”

Especially since it embraces the notion of “counter movement,” this contemporary definition of social movements can serve as our starting point. As McAdam and his colleagues (1988:772) note, a necessary task hardly begun by students is “to map the chesslike interaction that characterizes movement-countermovement relations.” It might even be the case that the terms “movement” and “countermovement” cannot be univocally, much less permanently, applied to social movement protagonists. Unsurprisingly, McAdam and his colleagues acknowledge there is no theory of “movement development,” “no real theory of the effect of movement participation on the individual,” (1988:729) and little knowledge of what happens “in between” the emergence of a social movement and its social outcomes. This caution is especially worth remembering when we discuss both abortion opponents and supporters, and I will return to it in my conclusion.

But most nonspecialists, such as myself, turn to the social movement literature more pragmatically, as a source of terms, perspectives, and insights formed by the many scholars who have studied the many different kinds of people who shared a catalytic experience when elites dismissed their moral claims and in response formed the fledgling organizations and searched for the arguments to change what they had come to see as an intolerable state of affairs. For the study of the controversy over abortion it makes sense to conjoin the more contemporary emphasis on “resource mobilization” with the older scholarly tradition—characterized as the “hearts and minds” approach—that gave more explicit emphasis to the moral grievances experienced by activists. Besides, the controversy over abortion is likely to outlive the momentary emphases of contemporary fashions in social movement analyses.

Some Applicable Social Movement Terms

Gamson (quoted in Zald and McCarthy, 1987:6) has warned that in “resource mobilization” perspectives “the meanings that participants give to their involvement in collective action are made to seem largely irrelevant.” In explaining the origins of social movements, resource mobilization perspectives stress the role of structural factors (such as the availability of time, money, expertise, organizations, government support) rather than, as in past studies, the grievances held by a segment of the population. Zald and McCarthy (1987:337-38) respond that while it makes sense to note that in a culture stressing equality and rights there will always be large pockets of “grievances” waiting for mobilization (and so speak of moral entrepreneurs and the bureaucratization of social discontent), they wish to correct, not replace, the earlier emphasis on the consciousness of social movement activists. The study of the abortion controversy especially shows the need to link “resource mobilization” perspectives with the earlier focus on motivations. Studying the movements originating in the dispute about legal abortion solely in terms of “structural resources” would be analogous to the critic analyzing interpretations of Hamlet solely in terms of the differences in Elizabethan and Broadway production costs. Above all, collectively shared moral sentiments are precisely what “moves” social movements, which is precisely why they cannot easily be assimilated into politics as usual. Indeed, politics as usual typically reproduces social order by masking moral disputes with the neutralizing language of efficiency and management. The inattention of contemporary “resource mobilization” perspectives to the motivations and arguments of movement activists, and thus to their moral claims, means that it can only partially serve in an analysis of the abortion controversy. But we can begin with it, for both protagonists.


Both the term “grass roots” and the term “social movements” apply
far more to abortion opponents than to proponents. Staggenborg (1991) has shown,
both before and after Roe, the difficult and often failed attempts [of
abortion legalization advocacy groups] to maintain a grass-roots presence and
the local activities characteristic of authentic social movements. McCarthy
(1987:33) describes the pro-choice movement in terms neatly fitting the core
premises of the “resource mobilization” perspective. Groups supporting legal
abortion are characterized by paid functionaries, formal bureaucracies, and
philanthropic funding. “Its relative lack of usable social infrastructures compared
with the pro-life movement leads it to depend far more heavily upon modern mobilization
technologies in order to aggregate people and resources.” McCarthy (1987:33)
concludes that it “can be safely said that pro-life is more dense in numbers,
more grass-roots in nature, more variegated in organizational form” than pro-choice
organizations. McCarthy found (1987:59) that the membership of a main abortion
rights social movement organization, the National Abortion Rights Action League
(NARAL, originally the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws),
were highly educated (55 percent with some graduate training), rarely active
in local chapters (only 13 percent, and 60 percent explicitly said they would
not join), and most (77 percent) did not know if any of their friends were members.
Indeed, McCarthy describes the membership of each of the major groups associated
with the protection of legal abortion — the American Civil Liberties Union,
the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, and Population
Control groups — as comprised of large numbers of isolated members whose involvement
is limited to paying dues and receiving newsletters. Their isolated members
can only be mobilized for “one shot emergency appeals which can be elegantly
coordinated with legislative and movement struggle” (1987:60).

Pro-choice attempts to create stable grassroots groups have been
generally unsuccessful. Both pre- and post-Roe, legal abortion groups
had and have, in McCarthy’s phrase, “thin infrastructures”. A cofounder of the
National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (Lader, 1973:vii) recalled
that until the late 1960s their movement was a “lonely” one consisting of “only
a few clusters in a few states”. Staggenborg (1991:57) writes that it was Roe
itself that “created legitimacy for the movement”. Rubin (1987:1) characterizes
the legal abortion movement not as a “grass roots” campaign but as a “litigation
campaign”, where pressure group activity was “tailored to fit the format of
a lawsuit but specifically designed to produce broad social change rather than
to vindicate the private rights of the parties”. Litigation campaigns originate
not with grass-roots groups but with elites who control significant economic
and social resources. Rubin points out (1987:3) that litigation campaigns are
extremely costly: “To control, organize, and manage a carefully selected sequence
of cases, it is also necessary to have sizable resources in money, legal talent,
and experience. Funding is especially important, for litigation is expensive.”
In litigation campaigns, the characteristic resource is not grass-roots volunteers
but routine access to elite networks. Ordinary people start social movements;
elites start litigation campaigns.

Litigation campaigns are relatively new. Faux (1988:233-36) describes what
she calls, for that time, the novel strategy of the “Association for the Study
of Abortion” which, with an active membership of only 20 (Staggenborg, 1991:15),
solicited and orchestrated “amici curiae briefs” from medical, professional,
academic, religious, and women’s groups. The only failure was the attempt to
organize briefs from black women and from prominent American women who had had
abortions. Faux (1988:234) recalls that the coordinator “felt the idea died
mostly because abortion was still enough of a taboo in the United States to
dissuade women from taking so personally revealing a stand”. (It was not until
eighteen years after Roe that a book — Angela Bonavoglia’s The Choices
We Made
[Random House, 1991] — was published in which public personalities
discussed their own abortions.) Faux does not offer any explanation why the
brief by black women failed, though elsewhere Fried (1990:Introduction) suggests
that the mainstream pro-choice movement — specially NARAL and NOW — failed to
“mobilize women of color” on the grass-roots level because it narrowly serves
the interests of white middle class women.

Abortion Opponents Had Mostly People, Abortion Reformers Had Mostly Connections

The Association for the Study of Abortion obtained forty-two briefs,
a record at the time, showing that abortion movement activists, in Staggenborg’s
phrase (1991:13, 17), were “‘in no way outsiders” to national and local centers
of power. Their abortion opponents lacked this movement centralization and commanded
no similar elite support. The Supreme Court received only four pro-life briefs:
Americans United for Life, National Right to Life, LIFE (the League for Infants,
Fetuses and the Elderly), and “certain physicians of the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists”. While very few Americans would recognize the
three groups signing pro-life briefs, signers of pro-Roe briefs included
well-known and prestigious professional groups, such as the American Medical
Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Women’s Association,
NOW, the National Board of YWCAs, as well as many prominent women. Staggenborg
(1991:37) describes as especially important resources for legal abortion proponents
the American Civil Liberties Union and the Law Center for Constitutional Rights.
She acknowledges that legal abortion lacked widespread grass-roots support:
“It was important that the victory was achieved by movement participation in
an arena in which the counter-movement was comparatively weak.”

Lader, a cofounder of NARAL, recalled that the elective abortion
found constitutional in Roe “came like a thunderbolt.…It was even more
conclusive than any of us had dared to hope”. In short, the evidence strongly
supports Rubin’s description of legal abortion activists as conducting a “litigation
campaign” (1987:1) rather than starting a “social movement”. Staggenborg (1991:33)
reports that when the “National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws”
began in 1969 they had no more than five hundred individual contributors and
only eighteen “organizational members,” who planned strategy and tactics without
consulting even their small membership. A member of the first abortion activist
group, the “California Society for Humane Abortion” (1961), told Staggenborg
(1991:47), “Really, our major accomplishment was in talking about abortion,
saying the word out loud rather than using euphemisms”. At that time abortion
lacked the moral legitimacy necessary to generate a vital grass-roots movement.
Staggenborg’s (1991:29) informants recalled that “the word ‘abortion’ could
barely be mentioned in public when the movement began”.

But while abortion was still considered disreputable (Davis, 1985:xiii),
and thus outside conventional politics, legal abortion activists had routine
access to powerful political support. The immediate bridge was the growing government
interest in population control and the putative threat to American national
security posed by a growing Third World population (Donaldson, 1990:25, 27).
Donaldson (1990:32) recalls that in the early 1960s “worries about the Soviet
Union and the possibility of Communist inspired revolutions in the Third World
were widespread in government and foreign-policy circles”. Funding for population
control in the Agency for International Development began with a modest $2.1
million dollars in 1965 and quickly reached $185 million by 1980 (also Back,
1989:107). The founders of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion
Law (Staggenborg, 1991:25) were mostly “single-issue activists with backgrounds
in the family planning and population movements” who later added a women’s rights
framework to their campaign. These single-issue activists had ready access to
wealthy donors and (Staggenborg, 1991:33) they “routinely received large donations”.
Back (1989:108) reports that by 1969 global population had become such a salient
issue that “even the question of domestic overpopulation started to arouse concern,
prompting Congress to establish a Commission on Population Growth and the American
Future which included among its recommendations legal abortion and its public
funding for poor women”.


The abortion activists’ ties (Staggenborg, 1991:3) to the population
movement were especially important for fund-raising. Staggenborg (1991:19) found
a large overlap in the memberships of NARAL and Zero Population Growth (ZPG),
noting that “the movement for legal abortion was very small during this period
and so needed ZPG’s help”. Lader, a cofounder of NARAL, was a ZPG board member
and author of (1971) Breeding Ourselves to Death. Lader also persuaded
Betty Friedan that the newly formed National Organization for Women should endorse
legal abortion, which NOW did in 1967. Tribe (1990:44) observes that while legal
abortion now “virtually defines the women’s movement”, in her 1963 classic work
The Feminine Mystique Friedan does not even mention abortion. Staggenborg
(1991:20) reports that Friedan’s decision committing NOW to abortion advocacy
provoked considerable conflict within NOW and did not necessarily represent
a majority position. Clarke Phelan, coordinator of NOW’s task force on abortion,
recalled, “There was no networking [about the decision]. There were phone calls
for those that could afford them, but no regular communication” (Staggrenborg,
1991:20). When NOW endorsed legal abortion, many delegates resigned (Tribe,

Even later, some chapters tried to remove abortion from NOW’s “Bill
of Rights for Women” because it made their work on other issues in their own
communities more difficult. In fact, in 1972 two former members of NOW, one
expelled because she objected to including legal abortion in NOW’s bill of rights,
founded Feminists for Life of America (FFL). The inside cover of the FFL quarterly
Sisterlife explains that “FFL continues the work of over a century of
pro-life feminism, working for a society in which women are enabled to make
life-affirming choices for themselves and their children. Feminists for Life
of America is a member of the Seamless Garment Network, and supports the Network’s
mission of opposing the violence of war, abortion, poverty, euthanasia, and
the death penalty”.

Abortion Brakes the Feminist Agenda

Because the pro-choice movement remained highly dependent on the
population control organizations, grass-roots feminist groups were not able
to successfully contest its increasingly single-issue focus (Back, 1989:154ff;
Davis, 1985:121, 2; Staggenborg, 1991:110). Staggenborg (1991:44) reports that
while “some of my informants confessed a bit of embarrassment in looking back
at their own rhetoric, at the time they thought of themselves as part of a larger
movement that was challenging basic social, economic, and political institutions.
Legal abortion was simply a part of the larger revolution they thought was near.
Their goal was to create participatory democratic institutions that would serve
human needs rather than corporate interest”. More specifically, they wanted
to create a nonprofit, high-quality health care delivery system. But those interested
primarily in a single-issue population control approach rejected any feminist
linkage of legal abortion with political and economic reforms. Before Roe,
differences between single-issue abortion movement groups and feminist groups
were often intense. After Roe, feminist groups had trouble sustaining
any linkage between legal abortion and a more comprehensive approach that ensured
that women with problem pregnancies and in difficult circumstances had more
choices than abortion.

No longer were there prominent pro-choice groups expressing concerns
about the misuse of abortion as a way of controlling the welfare costs of minority
and poor populations. For example, after Roe, the Committee for Abortion
Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse and the Reproductive Rights National
Network had difficulty attracting either funds or members, and both became defunct.
Feminists seeking to promote legal abortion within a “multilssue approach,”
especially for “women of color,” were told that a comprehensive approach was
a luxury and were accused of having a “holier than thou attitude” (Staggenborg,
1991:120). Davis (1985:19-20) more pointedly contrasts feminist approaches to
abortion with the “anti-poverty ideology that pervades” the “population control
enterprise”. Within the “population control enterprise”, Davis includes demographers,
epidemiologists, public health bureaucrats, drug companies, family planning
counselors, and abortion clinics as well as explicit population control groups.
These groups, she claims (1985:19-20), share a dominant metaphor of “control
by technology” and “a narrow belief in the salvation of rationality, of limiting
births as a necessary and sufficient tool of progress”. Back (1989:154) warns,
“If the principles of family planning and population control are carried to
their ultimate logical conclusion, then they will inevitably conflict with many
of the principles of other movements who generally support family planning aims”.
He cautions that population control elites do not openly oppose social welfare
policies that encourage childbirth among the poor (such as welfare, maternal
benefits, free education) only because at present “this would be tactically
unwise” (1989:l54). Since supporting legal abortion is not synonymous with supporting
“pro-choice”, perhaps sometime soon someone will write “Seeking a Sociologically
Correct Name for Abortion Proponents”.

Are the Adjectives “Progressive” and “Retrogressive” Forever Fixed?

Francome (1984:210) has observed a worldwide pattern where economic
elites quickly come to support abortion as a way of controlling births among
the “unproductive” classes. In the United States the great disparity in elite
status between pro- and anti-abortion groups can be quickly shown by a breakdown
of the amici curiae briefs filed in the July 3, 1989, Supreme Court decision
Webster v. Missouri Reproductive Services which, because it partially
returned abortion legislation to the state legislative level, represented a
new stage in the controversy. There was massive professional activity against
Webster, from organizations that include the American Medical Association, the
American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatricians, the Population Council, Planned
Parenthood Federation of America, the Sierra Club, and many more (see Kelly,
1990:692-93). In contrast, pro-Webster briefs came from few professional
groups (and only from those formed specifically to dissent from parent organizations,
such as the American Association of Pro-Life Pediatricians).

Although there is presently a pronounced tendency within the social movement
literature to describe the movement opposing abortion as a “counter-movement”
driven by “antifeminist” sentiments (Staggenborg, 1991:188), this judgment stems
more from presuppositions than from actual historical or social survey evidence
(Cook, Jelen, and Wilcox, 1992:76ff., “Abortion and Gender Role Attitudes”).
Besides, an early theoretical closure prevents scholars and others from noting
the increasingly complex coalitions sought by some in the movement. It will
be some time before the final outcome of the abortion controversy will safely
allow commentators to decide which aspects of the social movement organizations
it gave rise to warrant the adjective “counter” and “antifeminist” and which
warrant different descriptions entirely. T’o begin, we must first briefly review
the history of thc movement and its shifting emphases over time.


True enough, the first grass-roots opponents of abortion were almost entirely reactive and limited to efforts to maintain the existing abortion laws. While the first public opponents to legal abortion were lawyers and doctors, the grass-roots organizations that began around 1956 attracted more ordinary people. More than half were women, almost always mothers with small children at home (Kelly, 1981:655; Leahy, 1975:51; Luker 1984:138; Spitzer, 1987:58,84). While many were active in local voluntary organizations (especially church-related) ones, few had any political experience. Spitzer (1987:58) describes the founders of the Right-to-Life Party (now mostly New York-based) as previously “apolitical.” Edward Golden, the first president of the primary social movement organization that opposed abortion, The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), had to take a course in public speaking. Undoubtedly a majority of the first activists were Roman Catholic, and from the start prochoice leaders exploited this fact. One of NARAL’s first projects was “to train local activists and to expose the Catholic Church’s backing of the anti-abortion movement” (Staggenborg,1991.48). “Naral was constantly urging the formation of Catholics for Abortion Repeal” and adopted a policy of support for Catholic legislators favoring repeal” (Staggenborg , 1981:39). Nathonson (1983:173ff.), cofounder of NARAL, reports that the description of opposition to abortion as financed by the American bishops as a conscious distortion by NARAL. It is likely that histories of abortion law changes in particular states will replicate Morrison’s (1982:iv) finding that Washington State that legal abortion advocates consciously masked the widespread opposition to abortion by “focusing on Catholics as the source of all opposition.”

Yet even the first activists included many Protestants and some Jews (Kelly, 1981:655; Luker, 1984:196; Cuneo, 1989:6). A major reason why Protestant presence in the movement was so delayed was the mistaken Protestant leadership belief that abortion reform would comprise only the so-called hard cases of incest, rape, and severe threats to health and that it would specify that procedures be performed early in pregnancy. Only after Roe were arguments publicly advanced defending elective abortion throughout pregnancy.

The accounts given by the first activist themselves differ greatly from those promoted by NARAL and other legal abortion activists. The activists were self-financed and often complained that they received little help from their local clergy. They argued against abortion in purely secular terms, claiming that it offended the foundational principle of the social order, the right to life, and, by eroding the respect for vulnerable life, in time would lead to further erosions, such as infanticide and euthanasia.

Studies of the first grass-roots opponents of abortion describe them as spontaneously experiencing a quick and powerful sense of moral repulsion to legalized abortion (Kelly, 1981:659; Leahy, 1975:45ff .; Luker, 1984:146ff.). They claimed that biology (giving clear evidence that abortion stopped a developing human life) and not theology or sectarian teaching was their determinative frame of reference. The movement’s main recruitment tactic was not church teachings but pictures of fetal development and of aborted fetuses, especially from late-term abortions. Dr. Jack Wilke, president of the NRLC during the 1980s, credits the massive distribution of these graphic photos for the defeats of the 1972 Michigan and South Dakota referenda on legal abortion. Activists found it significant that supporters of legal abortion agreed to debate them publicly only after they promised not to exhibit the pictures that they called “proof” but their opponents called “emotional.”

The Early Role of American Roman Catholicism

Studies of these activists uniformly find high levels of commitment, time (Luker, 1984:218 ; Leahy, 1982:68), and self-financing (Luker, 1984:223; Burtchaell, 1982:124-26). But the Roman Catholic Church played an important role in stabilizing antiabortion sentiment. Since 1956 the American Catholic Church monitored the efforts to make abortions legal (first through the Family Life Bureau of the United States Catholic Conference and after Roe with an explicit Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities). These offices functioned as a center of information about national trends and arguments, and it was only after the 1973 Roe decision that an autonomous and clearly secular national social movemenr organizarion called the National Right to Life Committee was formed. Catholicism’s contribution to the movement opposing abortion was simultaneously crucial and limiting. Crucial because from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s no other widely recognized institutional presence lent its direct support to abortion opponents. Limiting because Roman Catholicism’s teachings that all directly intended abortions were immoral and that “artificial” forms of contraception violated its moral teaching created tensions with many Protestant opponents of abortion. In 1974, a separate national organization, American Citizens Concerned for Life (ACCL), formed to take a more flexible approach to legal abortion, accepting restrictive rather than prohibitive laws and, unlike the single-issue National Right to Life committee, supporting social policies that might lessen the social and economic pressures on women and families who otherwise might think of abortion as the sole way of dealing with unwanted pregnancies (Kelly, 1988:708-11). While the National Right to Life committee took no position on contraception, ACCL explicitly supported family planning funding and sex education as well as increased welfare benefits and employment training programs. But by 1987, ACCL had found little national attention or interest in its comprehensive approach to abortion, and ceased its activities.

Liberal Protestants opposed to permissive abortion laws found early antiabortion strategies too absolutist, too narrow, too innocent of social realities. It was not easy to place the liberal Protestant conscience within the movement where the Catholic presence was so pervasive. But liberal Protestants opposed to permissive abortion laws could not easily form their own organizations, for by the end of the 1960s the major mainstream Protestant leadership had identified their churches with what they mistakenly took to be the modest reformist goals of those seeking to change the laws. Especially important was the sensitivity of these Protestant leaders to feminists who argued that a ban on all non-life-threatening abortions—the position of Catholic leaders—seemed to regard a woman’s future as morally less significant than fetal life (Kelly, 1989b).

The Influence of the Reagan Embrace

The Reagan administration’s support politically strengthened the movement opposing legal abortion but obscured its internal divisions, in particular, the existence of the movement’s prolife or consistent ethic approaches. Still, the prolife response to legal abortion was present from the start, and after the 1992 defeat of President George Bush, the Republican heir of the Reagan antiabortion legacy, it is becoming increasingly pervasive. There are powerful populist and egalitarian sentiments that animate the movement, sentiments that have always characterized its rhetoric, if not its politics. In the September 1974 edition, the National Right to Life News editor, Janet Grant, characterized legal abortion activists as mostly wealthy, upper-class elites whose notion of equality, she observed, stopped at equal access to abortion: “The rich want to ‘share’ abortion with the poor. But ‘sharing’ stops when it comes to wealth, clubs and neighborhoods.”

The 1989 Webster decision has increasingly made evident the long-standing cleavages in the movement that I describe as antiabortion, right-to-life, and prolife (or consistent ethic) wings. Or, to put the argument in more general social movement terms, after the sudden (albeit contested) legitimation given to abortion by the Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the countermovement opposing legal abortion slowly but perceptibly moved toward becoming a more proactive social movement (Kelly, 1991:159-61). There have been (with much overlap) several stages in the movement, and more stages undoubtedly will follow (Kelly, 1993b). ln the beginning the movement was primarily reactive, but a proactive social support wing quickly followed. It is of some significance that the first national prolife groups to form were in the service wing. These groups immediately realized the inadequacy of simply opposing legal abortion without trying to help women who were pregnant and did not want to be. In 1970 Louise Somerhill founded Birthright to provide counseling, financial assistance, medical help, and even private “birthright” homes for women whose futures were threatened by an unwanted pregnancy. In 1971 Lori Maier founded Alternatives to Abortion International, which provides similar services. Since then, other groups, such as the Christian Action Council, have started similar services. There are now more than three thousand such centers in the United States.

The term “prolife”—preferred by most abortion opponents—itself suggests the move from reaction to proactive approaches. Quite soon important parts of the movement explicitly moved from a volunteer-based social welfare response to an explicit structural approach based not on “charity” but on “justice.” By 1971 the phrase “consistent ethic” referred to efforts to deal with the causes of abortion rather than merely providing a social work type of outreach to women with problem pregnancies (Kelly, 1991:154). But with the Reagan-Bush 1980-1992 embrace, the mistaken belief that political power could effectively halt abortions resuscitated the pre-1973 antiabortion reactive aspects and obscured the internal growth of the movement’s explicit “prolife” elements. So too did the rather late entrance of fundamentalist Protestantism into abortion politics in the mid 1970s (Kelly, 1991:158). Since the late 1970s, important parts of the movement saw less reason to break with the earlier National Right to Life Committee position that a single-issue focus on abortion (and euthanasia) was essential to movement unity and to political success. But with Webster, the fragile ties between the movement and the fiscal conservatives of the Republican party began their public unraveling, and the earlier development toward a prolife or consistent ethic approach to abortion is now receiving renewed attention.

Fiscal Conservatives Slowly Abandon the Movement

Because the dominant women’s rights organizations define elective abortion as an essential requirement for equality, the strong egalitarian sentiment characteristic of abortion opponents is overlooked. But it is pervasive and central to the vitality of the movement. The central philosophical argument of the movement is strikingly simple and central to core Western moral categories: each human life is singularly important and cannot be morally subordinated to the self-interests of those who are more powerful. Arguments based on equality have never been appealing to economic conservatives, and it has become increasingly obvious that policies favoring childbirth and disfavoring abortion, especially among the troubled poor, are economically costly. For example, at the end of 1989 New York State health officials predicted that the cost of the medical intensive care alone, not including long-term welfare costs, for New York State babies born to crack-addicted mothers (which comprised 10 percent of all nonwhite births in 1987) would exceed $1 billion by 1995. A later study (New York Times, 1991:B-4) estimated the additional costs of hospital care for babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers as $5.04 million per year. While about 14 percent of American women fall below the poverty line, about one- third of women obtaining abortions do (Henshaw and Silverman, 1988:158-60), and among all women the second most common reason women give for aborting was that “she couldn’t afford the child” (Torres and Forrest, 1988:169). In other words, among other results, Webster began to show that fiscal conservatives and moral traditionalists opposing abortion do not share compatible positions. Opposing abortion will certainly increase welfare costs and require governmental support, positions rejected by fiscal conservatives. The antiabortion position adopted in the late 1970s by Republican party strategists seeking to expand the party’s electoral base visibly weakened. Soon after the 1989 elections, the chairman of the National Republican Committee announced that the “Repubiican umbrella” included those who explicitly rejected the Republican party platform’s endorsement of a Human Life Amendment. Six months after Webster, three distinct Republican political action committees were formed specifically to raise funds for Republicans who supported federal funding for abortions.6 Post-Webster Republican strategists openly questioned whether the party could afford to maintain what Phillips (1991:221) described as “their highly effective alliance of economic and religious conservatives.” Within days of President George Bush’s November 3, 1992, loss to Bill Clinton, leading Republicans launched the Republican Majority Coalition, which they announced wouid be “inclusive” on social issues. R. W. Apple (1992) of The New York Times observed that no abortion opponents were among its founders. There’s a logic to that exclusion, for the tactical political coalition partners had different primary worries. While prolife moral conservatives held the rather costly proposition that all human lives, even those just beginning, were intrinsically important and had claims on community resources, fiscal conservatives worried more about the growth of a nonproductive underclass.

The right-to-life component of the movement, best represented by the National Right to Life Committee, has made tactical alliances with the Republican party since the Reagan administration. But NRLC has supported all opponents of abortion from both parties and has remained constant in its single-issue approach to the “life” issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. In this respect, NRLC has attempted to separate what it calls the “foundational” principle of the right of life from all conceptions of the “quality of life.” NRLC has practiced a “principled pragmatism’” supporting laws that restrict abortion but do not prohibit all abortions” hoping to keep open possibility of gaining in the future greater legal protection for the unborn. This gradualist approach involves support for parental notification laws, the prohibition of abortions performed for reasons of gender, and informed consent statures. Polls show strong public support for restrictions such as these, but not for laws making most abortions illegal. Laws highlighting the seriousness of abortion and its distinction from other surgeries would begin to make American law more similar to the abortion laws of other Western nations, which typically describe fetal life as human, encourage childbirth, and severely restrict late-term abortions (Glendon, 1987).

With the rapidly eroding political support of fiscal conservatives, the long-range vitality of the movement opposing abortion is likely to come from its publicly ignored component, the prolife, or consistent ethic, wing. This sector has always been present in the movement, but obscured by the alliances between the single-issue social movement organizations and the Republican party. The media has ignored it. Four years before Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s 1983 Fordham address, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic Dialogue” (Bernardin, 1988:1-11), Judy Loesch formed Prolifers for Survival, whose members argued that their opposition to military spending, capital punishment, and abortion all stemmed from the same root value, respect for human life. The Seamless Garment Network formed at the last convention (March 1987) of Prolifers for Survival. The network’s June 1990 publication, Consistent Ethic Resources (San Francisco: Harmony), lists fifty-five member organizations, eleven pages of available speakers, and the titles of five consistent ethic journals and newsletters (Sisterlife, Harmony, Justlife, Sojourners, and Salt). lt is significant that the consistent ethic wing of the movement opposing abortion has roots almost entirely within some respected groups on the religious left—such as Pax Christi, Sojourners, and Evangelicals for Social Action. The linkages among opposition to legal abortion, support for government assistance to women and children, support for antipoverty programs, and opposition to the arms race and capital punishment is the official position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1975).

Some Anticipations

I have argued that the eroding tactical political alliances between presently dominant social movement organizations opposing legal abortion and fiscal conservatives dominant in the Republican party makes likely only those abortion restrictions congruent with the actual ruling of Roe (protection after viability) and congruent with what appears to be stable public sentiment (regulations ensuring informed consent, parental notification, prohibition of abortion based on gender, restrictions on late-term abortions) and raises to larger moral and cultural significance the prolife sector of the movement and its development of the consistent ethic. The prolife / consistent ethic component defines itself as publicly guarding the foundational principle of all authentic humanisms, namely that each human life, with no regard to its real or potential achievements, has an intrinsic worth and thus has moral claims on the community. This moral insight, dramatically and energetically present throughout the movement, resists all conceptions of a social order based on either meritocracy or radical efficiency, and thus can be appropriately described as “radical.”

While the attempt to frame abortion in a consistent ethic framework has thus far evoked little sympathy from the far more diffuse American Left or from mainstream liberalism, the long-term post-Webster unlinking of moral and fiscal conservatives can slowly alter this inattention, at least to some degree. One can find signs, if not clear trends. There is increasing recognition among influential feminist authors that the promotion of abortion rights abstracted from critiques of poverty makes abortion less a “choice” and more a desperate necessity (Davis, 1985:121; Fox-Genovese, 1991:81-84). The career penalization of women who desire to begin families is well known, and coercive pressures to abort exerted by management have already been documented (Martin, 1989).

Some even question whether the term “prochoice” fits all sectors of the legal abortion movement. Hartman (1987:120) notes the class bias among population control groups and their willingness to use coercive incentives and even force to limit births among populations they fear will destabilize existing wealth and power distributions. Hodgson (1991) has documented the powerful influence of eugenics, social Darwinism, and Malthusian notions of poverty on the first generations of population experts in the United States. Hodgson notes that the theme for the 1933 dinner meeting of the Population Association of America was, “Who shall inherit America?” Topics discussed included “ls the quality of our population on the downgrade?” and “Which racial types will predominate in the future?” (Hodgson, 1991:27). lt should not be presumed that some kind of progressive enlightenment has forever removed such racist and class biases from American culture or its economic elites. Almost immediately after the announcement of the availability of a contraceptive in which the small tubes implanted in a woman’s skin release a pregnancy-preventing hormone over a five-year period, an editorial (December l2, 1990) in the Philadelphia Inquirer appeared with the caption, “Poverty and Norplant—Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” Indeed, Back (1989:127) in his history of the population planning movement chronicles its contemporary status as part of the political and cultural “establishment” and notes the “transformation of the movement beyond its original goals of removing social barriers to contraception and providing freedom of choice to seeking enforceable norms of birth control.” Tribe (1990:238) acknowledges that “it is an uncomfortable truth that the pro-choice movement draws its support disproportionately from various privileged elites, the ‘upper echelons’ of American society.”

The direction anticipated here is that the long-term effect of the Webster decision will include the disengagement of the movement opposing abortion from alliances with fiscal-conservatives. The prolife components of the movement, gradually winning greater allegiance from right-to-life groups increasingly politically stranded, will assume more prominence as the moral density of opposition to abortion in American culture increases. Following the consistent ethic of life approach, they will slowly create cautious but tactical links with those on the Left, especially the feminist Left (as described by Fox-Genovese 1991, especially 81ff.), increasingly alert to the economically driven pressures to make abortion the preferred solution to pregnancies among the very poor.7 It will become apparent not only that the equality sought by women does not end with equal access to abortion but that access to legal abortion is slowly becoming the preferred way of dealing with the vast social challenges created by pregnancies among the-poor, minorities, and the young. Toubia (1991:7) bluntly observes that “those who control economic resources at both the national and international levels are more interested in investing in family planning programs than in other health or development needs. We will not be able to change their motives to some abstract egalitarianism in which they never believed.”

These anticipations of new post-Webster coalitions should not be viewed a priori as naive, although the media framing of abortion politics must make them seem so. Shared concerns have already prompted some unexpected coalitions among abortion foes. In New Jersey the National Organization of Women and the American Civil Liberties Union joined with New Jersey Right to Life, Citizens Concerned for Life, and the New Jersey State Conference of Catholic Bishops (and others) to unsuccessfully protest the “additional child provision” of New Jersey’s 1992 Family Development Act, which dramatically altered the state’s welfare program. The additional child provision stipulated that henceforth any child born to a parent on welfare will bring no additional AFDC funds to the family, thus forcing poor pregnant women to choose between abortion or deeper family poverty. Since other states are actively considering a New Jersey-type approach to welfare costs, other prochoice-prolife coalitions are likely. (For other examples, cf. Kelly, 1993b, “Two Landmark Dates in Abortion Politics,” Commonweal.)


In short, the opposition to abortion will neither succeed nor fail. It will not entirely disappear, after the fashion of the prohibition movement, because most Americans continue to regard abortion as fundamentally different from contraception and do not wish to see elective abortion viewed merely as an indifferent matter of choice. Besides, the continued development of fetology roots the moral disapproval of abortion not merely in religious sentiment but increasingly in direct observation. Readers of the mass media can now learn that (Newsweek, 1991) “by the start of the last trimester the brain’s neural circuits are as advanced as newborns, capable of paying attention and discriminating new from old.” Photos by Lennart Nilson show four-month old fetuses frowning, turning their heads, squinting, and moving when touched. Some researchers have demonstrated that during the last trimester fetuses “heard and learned something about the acoustic structure of American English” (New York Times 1990, “Recognition of Language May Begin in the Womb”).

The opposition to abortion that began in the mid-1960s as a reaction to efforts to make some abortions legal will be slowly transformed from a countermovement to a social movement, seeking to lower abortion rates less through legal changes and more by alerting the social conditions—such as poverty and employment practices—that in effect favor abortion over childbirth.8 Coalitions between principled prolife and prochoice activists are no longer unthinkable. This evolution will ensure a continued vital presence in American culture, especially through the religious Left, but will achieve only limited success with regard to the legal and political status of abortion. In all likelihood, the legal restrictions on abortion will simply make American law more congruent with Western abortion law more generally, prohibiting (except to save the mother’s life) late-term abortions and ensuring (through waiting period and consent legislation) that abortion is freely chosen and with information about social and medical services for the poor.

Back has suggested (1988:3) the term “permanent nascence” to characterize the possibility of a social movement that cannot be described as either successful or unsuccessful. His oxymoronic neologism appropriately describes the opposition to abortion, which began as a countermovement seeking legal success and slowly and incompletely developed into a social movement with increasing numbers of activists gradually realizing the full implications of their own preferred description as “prolife.” The movement will remain on the margins of American power, but this is true of all truly populist movements premised on substantive notions of equality rather than on an equal opportunity animated by meritocratic sentiments, which still characterizes dominant feminism. The continued acknowledgment that abortion stops a developing human life, the concern that the increasing legitimacy given to assisted suicide and euthanasia pose dangers for the incurably sick and the elderly, and the failures of legal abortion alone to appreciably aid the cause of women’s equality, along with other factors, will ensure a persisting importance for the prolife movement. In time, the still latent progressive egalitarianism that pervades the movement should be increasingly recognized. While the movement’s more explicit linkage between the rights of the unborn and women’s rights will not stop the majority of abortions, it will make more luminous its moral center.

It will be some time before the movement opposing abortion can be unambiguously labeled and evaluated. This observer anticipates that the future social movement literature will describe it as a single-issue countermovement that evolved into a permanently nascent multi-issue prolife movement. Single-issue social movement organizations survive only as long as there are clear indications that they can slowly win the allegiances of political elites. With the loss of Republican patronage, this possibility has permanently retreated. But the energy of any persistent social movement rests on a charismatic core of beliefs, principles, and visions that by definition must be comprehensive and thus involve multi-issues, for the anticipate changes in society that acknowledge and promote more human dignity and greater equality. As the movement itself more clearly understands that it is prolife rather than antiabortion, its latent egalitarian principles will become increasingly manifest as fiscal conservatives irrevocably withdraw from even tactical alliances with the movement’s moral traditionalists.

At the very least, this author doubts that the next generation’s version of the Handbook of Sociology will describe the movement opposing abortion simply as a “reactionary movement” that emerged “in opposition to the feminist movement” (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zaold, 1988:711).


1. The battle of labels hasn’t yet been settled among the public. The survey commissioned by Americans United for Life found that most Americans identify strongly with neither a “prolife”, nor a “prochoice” label. Overall, 42 percent of the Gallup poll described themselves as prolife (but only 26 percent “strongly”), while 33 percent said they were prochoice (and only 17 percent said “strongly”). The Wirthlin poll commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that roughly the same percentage—40 percent—were willing to describe themselves as prolife as prochoice. But it is significant that Wirthlin found that 68 percent agreed that “the central issue in the abortion debate is who decides—the woman or the government.” Wirthlin remarks, “If the battle is framed in terms of ‘who decides and not by what is right or wrong, the abortionists win” (in Kelly, 1991b:311).

2. The revised bill introduced by Senator Helms on January 19, 1981, on the Senate floor and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary read (Hearings on the Human Life Bill [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982], 117-18; 1117-19):

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that title 42 of the United States Code shall be amended at the end thereof by adding the following new chapter: Chapter 101.

SECTION 1. The Congress finds that present day scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that actual human life exists from conception. The Congress further finds that the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States was intended to protect all human beings. Upon the basis of these findings, and in the exercise of the powers of the Congress, including its power under section 5 of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the Congress hereby declares that for the purpose of enforcing the obligation of the States under the fourteenth amendment not to deprive persons of life without due process of law, human life shall be deemed to exist from conception, without regard to race, sex, age, health, defect, or condition of dependency; and for this purpose “person” shall include all human life as defined herein.

SECTION 2. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no inferior Federal court ordained and established by Congress under article 111 of the Constitution of the United States shall have jurisdiction to issue any restraining order, temporary or permanent injunction, or declaratory judgment in any case involving or arising from any State law or municipal ordinance that (1) protects the rights of human persons between conception and birth, or (2) prohibits, limits, or regulates (a) the performance of abortions or (b) the provision at public expense of funds, facilities, personnel, or other assistance for the performance of abortions.

The Human Life Bill (HLB) was criticized not only in terms of the arguments about the humanity of the result of conception but because, in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words (p. 159), “This legislation would tell the Court what is a person, and would commence for the first time in our history a serious invasion by the legislative branch of the judicial branch.” Among other reasons, the HLB was defeated because it was seen as endangering constitutional process by prohibiting the Supreme Court from interpreting the application of the Fourteenth Amendment. But the substantive core of the bill did not refer to the “personhood” of the fetus but simply said it was a form of human life. Opponents of the substance of the bill adopted a social constructionist perspective, arguing that since “humanity” is not a scientific term, it must necessarily be a subjective term without scientific validation. At a minimum, it is clear that abortion opponents take no refuge in any irrational flight from biological evidence but argue that the most contemporary data of biology reveal the cogency of opposing legal abortion because it stops a human life. On the very first morning of the hearings, April 23, 1981, scientific testimony supporting the HLB was given by Dr. Jerome Lejeune, professor of fundamental genetics at the Medical College of Paris, Professor Hymie Gordon, Chairman, Department of Medical Genetics, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, and Dr. Micheline M. Matthews-Roth, Principal Research Associate, Harvard University Medical School. Lejeune testified that (pp. 8-10):

as soon as the 23 paternally derived chromosomes are united through fertilization to the 23 maternally derived chromosomes, the full genetic information necessary and sufficient t to express the inborn qualities of the new individual is gathered. … [Each conceptus receives an entirely original combination which has never occurred before and will never again. Each conceptus is unique and thus irreplaceable. … To the best of our actual knowledge, the prerequisite for individuation—that is, a stage containing three fundamental cells—is the next step following conception, minutes after it.… To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.

Professor Hymie Gordon testified (p. 11) that the zygote meets all criteria for living human matter:

Thus, from the very moment of conception, the organism contains many complex molecules; it synthesizes new, intricate structures from simple raw materials; it replicates itself. By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.… [W]e can say, unequivocally, that the question of when life begins—is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or the purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.

Dr. Matthews-Roth testified (pp. 13-17) that:

organisms reproducing by sexual reproduction always arise from a single cell and that they are always of the same biological species as their parents—this fact—that a life begins at fertilization—is universally accepted and taught at all levels of biological education.… No study or experiment has ever refuted these scientific facts, and no competent scientist denies them. Thus, one is being scientifically accurate if one says that an individual human life begins at fertilization or conception.

Under friendly questioning from the chairman of the subcommittee on separation of powers, Senator John P. East, Dr. Lejeune noted that “When people say that this [the scientific fact that human life begins at conception] has metaphysical connotations, they are perfectly correct, if they wish; but the scientific fact that it is a human being cannot be disputed.” Later, Lejeune observed, “We are sure its own life has begun when it has been conceived. There is no scientific escape to that. The only escape could be a theological one.” Dr. Matthews-Roth added, “It is a scientific fact, and we have to live with it…. I think a function of law is to help preserve the lives of our people, and I think you want to base the laws on scientific fact.” Gordon observed, ” I have never encountere in my reading of the scientific literature—long before I became concerned with abortion, euthanasia, and so on—anyone who has argued that life did not begin at the moment of conception or that it was not a human conception if it resulted from the fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm. As far as I know, there has been no argument about these matters.” All three (p. 23) answered affirmatively when Senator East asked, “Are the three of you saying that to pick a point other than the point of conception is arbitrary?”

The afternoon testimony—all substantially agreeing with the scientific testimony given that morning—was given by Dr. Watson Bowes (Division of Perinatal Medicine, University of Colorado) and Dr. McCarthy DeMere (a surgeon and a law professor at Memphis State University). But Bowes observed that while conception>marks the clear beginning of human life (p. 25), “the definition of ‘the word person in biological terms’ … is, on the other hand, a far more difficult and imprecise task.” He added, (p. 26) “If we are to use the philosophical definition which is, ‘a self-conscious or rational being,’ then a human being, biologically speaking, may not become a person for months, perhaps even years, after birth.”

On April 24, 1981, the committee heard from two physicians, Dr. Alfred M. Bongiovanni, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and Dr. Jasper Williams, Williams Clinic, Chicago, as well as Dr. Leon Rosenberg, Professor and Chairman, Department of Human Genetics, Yale University Medical School, who alone testified against the bill. Rosenberg informed the committee that “a great majority of the American clinicians and scientists in this country would support my side of this argument despite my distinct minority before you in the past two days” (p. 60). Rosenberg (pp. 49- 51) did not dispute the scientific points made by the first five witnesses: “There is no reason to debate or to doubt the scientific evidence indicating that conception is a critical event in human reproduction. When the egg is fertilized by the sperm, a new cell is formed that contains all of the genetic information needed to develop ultimately into a human being.” But Rosenberg called this not “human life” but ”potential for human life” because “I know of no scientific evidence which bears on the question of when actual human life exists. … the notion embodied in the phrase ‘actual human life’ is not a scientific one, but rather a philosophic and religious one.” Rosenberg added that he could not scientifically answer the question of when he might assert that human as opposed to potential human life begins:

As a scientist I must answer I do not know. Moreover, I have not been able to find a single piece of scientific evidence which helps me with that question.… I have no quarrel with anyone’s ideas on this matter so long as it is clearly understood that they are personal beliefs based on personal judgments and not scientific truths.… [S]cience, per se, doesn’t deal with the complex quality called humanness any more than it does with such equally complex concepts as love, faith, or truth.… I maintain that concept such as humanness are beyond the purview of science because no idea about them can be tested experimentally. (p. 50)

And later he asserted (p. 56): “There is no question in my mind that the fertilized ovum is a living cell, but the concept of human life is not a scientific one.” For good measure, (p. 51) Rosenberg added that “I believe that those who have preceded me have failed to distinguish between their moral or religious positions and their professional scientific judgments.” In short, Rosenberg conceded that a fertilized ovum is a living cell of human origins with a human future but that science allows him to call it only “potentially human” because the term human involves a “moral” or “religious” judgment. He might have, but didn’t, add that not to call this living cell human life must also involve a moral or religious judgment. He did, however, give reasons for refusing to use the term “human life,” referring to “adverse clinical implications.” More plainly he feared that the bill would require the prohibition of birth control pills and intrauterine devices, which prevent implantation. Perhaps even a ban on the aborting of defective fetuses: “Moreover, this bill will protect the conceptus that has no possibility of realizing its human potential” (p. 51). To Senator East’s question (p. 58) of when law might consider “potential” human life to be “actual,” Rosenberg said he “would protect at the point of viability. I would protect at the point that the human being can exist on its own outside of the uterus.” When East responded, “Viability is elusive, isn’t it?”, Rosenberg agreed: “I am sure there would not be consensus as to the precise point at which viability lies, but I think there is some greater consensus about what we mean by the word ‘viability’.… However, I cannot help you, Senator East, with the clarity. You are asking me for something that l do not have.”

East pressed further:

I am a little troubled about viability being the criterion by which you determine the right to life. Actually, once born, there is not viability if by viability one means the capacity to exist independently. Viability, for example, does not exist then [at birth]. The child is totally dependent upon mother and parents and family. Why, indeed, if we want to expand into a philosophical understanding. no man or woman stands alone. No one is viable in the ultimate moral and ethical sense that we live freely and totally autonomously. Then I think ultimately at the other end of the continuum of the old, the senile, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, the afflicted. If I let loose the concept into the world that viability is the ultimate criterion by which you determine the right to life, I am profoundly troubled with that as a matter of moral and ethical implication, and as a policy position I would have to disassociate myself from it. It would produce all kinds of perverse results, wouldn’t it?

But Dr. Rosenberg had nothing more to say: “Senator East, I do not think I have anything more that I can say on the matter” (p. 59).

3. In 1981 Sociologists for Women in Society (then numbered at 1,500) submitted a statement supporting Roe v. Wade to the Committee on the Judiciary considering the Human Life Bill from April 23 to June 18, 1981 (ibid., appendix, 231). Their statement claimed “the science of sociology” had shown the necessity of abortion for women’s full participation in modern society. The statement also enlisted social science in support of the position denying that fetuses were “humans” possessing rights:

Sociological research has shown that the extent of a woman’s involvement in economic and political life outside the home is directly linked to her ability to control her fertility. Drastic limitations on the right to choose when and if to bear a child would severely diminish our members’—and every woman ‘s—potential for professional and political participation. Another major premise of sociology which S. 158 affects is the definition of personhood. A person is not defined by biological viability but by social relationships with people. S. 158 would protect fetuses with coercive social relationships, sacrificing the rights to privacy…in the interests, not of bits of living tissue, but of a state-imposed morality.

4. Zald and McCarthy (1987:31) describe the total array of social movement
organizations as comprising a “social movement industry.” These various social
movement groups are “normally differentiated by conceptions of the extremity of
solutions required, strategies of goal accomplishment.” In Chapter 7, “Social
Movement Industries: Competition and Conflict among Social Movement Organizations,”
they note that mergers among social movement organizations are rare
and that social movements and countermovements are characterized by high degrees
of internecine conflict (1987:176): “Organizations may wish death on one
another; they may want to absorb the other, take over its domain, squash the
competition. As we have noted, the greater the commitment to a zealot’s view of
the proper state of the world, the more one can expect illegitimate, violent, and deadly interorganizational relations.”

5. Confusion about the range of abortions made legal by Roe continues decades later. Gallup (see Kelly, 1991b:311) found that only about 10 percent realized that, since health can be interpreted as including psychological and economic factors, Roe permitted elective abortion. More than 80 percent acknowledged that they were “not familiar” with Roe. Only 24 percent of those who believed they were “very familiar” with Roe were able to accurately state its outcome.

6. The chairwomen of the National Republican Coalition for Choice and Republicans for Choice, Ann Stone and Mary Dent, respectively, told reporters (Gwen Ifill, “2 Republican Factors on Abortion Gird for Battle on Party’s ’92 Platform,” The New York Times, Sept. 30, 1991, A15) that while they did not expect Bush to reverse Reagan’s successful identification with abortion opponents, they did expect that he would “become less publicly identified with it.”

7. For those who affirm a “consistent ethic of life,” there will be a tendency to focus attention elsewhere than on changes in the law. Antonia Malone, a member of Pax Christi, a Catholic pacifist group officially opposed to legal abortion, makes these points (“Dialogue on Abortion, Continued,” Pax Christi USA [Spring, 1990]: 28-29): The Second Vatican Council affirmed “the primacy of conscience” and taught “that even when the conscience errs from ignorance it must be respected.” She questioned whether legislation would solve the problem of abortion. She noted that in their 1983 pastoral letter entitled Acrobat fileThe Challenge of Peace, the bishops appealed “to men and women in military service” to examine their choices, to consider the alternatives, to ask how their experience affects society, while promising to support them in facing the challenges. And then, she wondered, “Why not a similar approach for abortion?” Finally, she observed that “the Catholic church, while affirming that human life is a continuum from conception to death, has never taken an official stand on when individual personhood begins. That is because there are some things we don’t know.”

8. The passage of laws protecting the unborn and prohibiting abortions would not signify the complete success of the prolife movement. It cannot not succeed unless it also persuades women not to have abortions. The movement has long recognized this, but probably has not developed truly convincing answers to questions about illegal abortions and their safety. In other words, the movement must be actively concerned with the question of “civic virtue” in ways that those who seek only to regulate sexuality do not. If law prohibited all nontherapeutic abortions there would certainly reemerge many nonlegal groups performing abortions. Jane, also known as The Women’s Liberation Abortion Counseling Service, formed in 1968. In Jane women learned how to perform abortions by assisting at abortions (see Staggenborg, 1991:49). Davis (1985:179) reports that during a four-year period, Jane volunteers performed over 11,000 abortions, many performed by self-taught abortionists. Davis describes the abortion methods as easy and safe but notes that for security reasons, no records were kept. RU-486 will certainly have an impact on the ease of obtaining illegal abortions. Besides, there are now nonsurgical alternatives to hysterectomy called “endometrial ablation,” which, by destroying the lining of the uterus, acts as a form of birth control by making the womb inhospitable to newly fertilized eggs. Still, the long-term safety of RU-486 and of endometrial ablation are not known (Sandra Blakeslee, “Nonsurgical Means Used as Alternatives to Hysterectomies,” The New York Times, July 31, 1991, C10).