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In light of recent events, outcry, and misinformation surrounding New York’s Reproductive Health Act over the last month, I’ve been reflecting on an incident I came across while doing research for my dissertation. The story goes like this:
At the tail end of the 1970s, things were looking increasingly grim for Jimmy Carter and Democrats, feminists nearly a decade into the fight for the ERA, and many moderate and left-wing right-to-lifers. The debate over abortion was still raging, and the nation’s evangelicals had recently started paying attention to the issue.
Evangelicals were a boon to a movement up to this point dominated by Catholics and a handful of mainline Protestants. At the same time, the New Right eyed abortion as a way to coalesce a growing conservative movement and win the presidency. As each side of the abortion debate took even firmer stances on the issue, opportunities for dialogue seemed to be fading away.
A Day of Discussion
It was somewhat surprising, then, when in early 1979, the National Organization for Women (NOW) proposed a day of discussion with the right-to-life movement just a few weeks after the March for Life—a march where the new favorite refrain for many pro-lifers had been “No Compromise!” But NOW was adamant that the two sides needed to meet for the sake of all American women.
Many right-to-lifers viewed the invitation with suspicion. Some saw it as a media stunt to take attention away from the March for Life. Others thought the pro-choice side was trying to expose divisions over contraception among right-to-lifers in order to weaken the movement. Several refused outright to have any association with those “baby-killers” in NOW.
Nevertheless, a few pro-lifers accepted the invitation. During a time of crystallizing political polarization over abortion, there were still a number of pro-life activists who considered themselves moderate or even left-wing. These right-to-lifers held liberal views on contraception and sex education and promoted government programs meant to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Most importantly, these moderate and left-leaning right-to-lifers still hoped there was a middle road for their movement to take, despite increasing evidence that right-wing activists were poised to co-opt the issue.
It ended up being a productive discussion. After a day of dialogue, the groups held a press conference to share the agreements they’d reached and express their mutual concern for women, especially the poor women and young women they felt were most vulnerable.
Eleanor Smeal, the president of NOW, stepped up to the podium to address the gathered press corps. But as she began speaking about what the groups had accomplished, several pro-life activists interrupted her. Weeping and loudly condemning abortion, they also carried what they claimed to be an aborted fetus.
The gathered crowd was horrified. The pro-lifers in attendance were particularly distressed. In the days and weeks following, they expressed their profound apologies and “shame and sorrow” to NOW and disavowed the actions of the other pro-lifers.
The End of Middle Ground
Despite the many apologies for the incident, the damage was done. The activists who’d interrupted the press conference called it their “one shining moment,” but others lamented that any remaining middle ground on the abortion issue was quickly eroding. As one activist later recalled, “The dialogue between prolife and pro-abortion leaders was aborted that day, and buried at an unsuccessful follow-up meeting two months later.”
This episode has always struck me as particularly poignant, a sort of last gasp of a more moderate right-to-life ethos. It’s a reminder that there was a time not so long ago when dialogue on abortion was possible, when a contingent of pro-lifers held more moderate views and even openly embraced some of the same proposals as the pro-choice side. The right-to-lifers in attendance at the meeting, those horrified by the events that transpired, would do their best to sustain dialogue between the two sides. Many were hostile to an overt conservative approach to abortion, and some would go on to oppose the New Right’s involvement on the issue outright. Yet their actions and apologies were not enough to halt the growing fixation on the total criminalization of abortion or the marriage of the abortion issue to a host of conservative social issues.
On some days, I find myself wondering what if.
What if this meeting, forty years ago this month, hadn’t ended in disaster? What if these moderate and left-wing pro-lifers had been allowed to sustain ongoing dialogue with NOW and other pro-choice organizations on practical measures that could be enacted to help, protect, and empower women? What could have been accomplished and what might the dialogue surrounding abortion look like today?
Instead, this incident was a harbinger of what was to come: hardening divisions over abortion, an eroding middle ground on the issue, and the willingness of many pro-lifers to go to horrifying lengths for their cause.