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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:

President Carter, in 1978, signs a bill to extend the ratification deadline for the ERA

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

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.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Allison. I too wish for good conversations on this issue, shorn of the shrill extremes. But it seems never to happen. On a Facebook discussion chain recently I was assured (by a man I don’t know) that “hundreds of thousands” of abortions occur daily in the US and that every single abortion is the equivalent of shooting a 5-year-old Mexican child through the head at the border. When I pointed out to this person that his stats on daily abortions was off by a factor of at least 50 and that 67% of abortions happen in the first 3-4 weeks (and 91% in the first 7-8) when most miscarriages also happen–but for which few even Christian parents ever suggest holding a funeral for the lost embryo–this person was moved not at all and I was once again called a pro-abortion murderer for having anything other than a zero tolerance view. There we are.

  • Kent says:

    Scott and Allison,
    Regardless of how “extreme” the “other side” is, what is it that keeps the remaining constituencies from continuing the dialogue? Why not meet without “them” and agree on solutions and action steps that they and the rest of the country can embrace?

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for this perspective. I see many parallels to the abolitionist movement of the mid-19th century. That ended in the worst most costly war ever to engulf the Americas. One wonders if that war could have been avoided if the hard liners had not been so “hard”?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    The conjecture that Eleanor Smeal and NOW would have been willing to come to some sort of accommodation with Pro-Lifers if only those pesky activists hadn’t unturned the apple cart seems a bit Pollyannish and naive. A little more research on Smeal may be appropriate for you to pursue.

    I do agree with you that shock activism rarely works. It often signifies that your group is unwilling to do the hard work of using reasoning and arguments to win over people. Currently, pink hats and sculptures made from melted purity rings are good examples of uncontrolled emotional outbursts being employed in place of more mature ways to dialogue. Sober, rational people get the creeps from these kind of antics.

    Here’s a moderate suggestion regarding abortion in US: repeal Roe, and let each state decide their own abortion laws. Roe should never, ever, have been a Constitutional issue. What if the Supreme Court never found emanations and penumbras? We may have avoided much of the Culture Wars.

  • RLG says:

    Or here’s a better idea Marty. Let’s not repeal Roe v. Wade and let individuals make their own decision in regard to abortion. That way the Church (Christians) can impose their own Christian view on the church (where the pro-life impetus mainly comes from). As with homosexuality, churches (like our Reformed denominations) do not allow those who practice a homosexual lifestyle to be full members of the church. If the pro-life movement is so important let them impose a pro-life position on themselves, rather than on those who believe differently. After all it is a Christian tenet that people are created in God’s image, which is the main tenet behind the pro life movement. Why impose Christianity on a society that believes in a separation of church and state?

    • Kirk Vanhouten says:

      One need not be a Christian to oppose abortion. Most of Europe is far more secular than the U.S., but most European countries have stricter abortion laws.

  • Tom says:

    First, put me in the group that hopes (not optimistically) for some moderation on this issue because a “take what you can get” on the part of pro-lifers is more likely to move the needle and some restrictions on abortion are better than none.

    That said, I find it interesting that you note the “willingness of many pro-lifers to go to horrifying lengths” without noting the same about the pro-abortion side of the argument. A few weeks ago the governor of Virginia described making a living child comfortable while the parents and physician discuss what to do – the options on ‘what to do’ being to kill the child or let the child live. If that’s not horrifying, I don’t know what is. And he is far from the only one to hold that position. That the US Senate at this moment is meeting opposition in passing a law that says a child that has been born and is alive has a right to remain alive is, frankly, horrifying.

    Re: RLG’s comment, the standard pro-abortion line, that we should let individuals make their own decision, I’m all for that one – there are two individuals impacted by this decision, so put it to a vote, and seeing as only two people are voting, it will need to be unanimous. The ‘my decision’ argument makes the assumption there is no child until after birth, so please be honest and state that. The esteemed Rev Hoezee states, correctly, that few Christian parents ever suggest holding a funeral for the ‘lost embryo’ after a miscarriage; however, he just also know that these parents often grieve that loss because they know in their hearts that there was a life there. I’d encourage reading this piece from a few years back (hopefully the link works):

    Last, Marty is correct – Roe should never have been decided as it was. take it out of the courts and let it be hashed out politically by debate and compromise. The result will be much closer to what the American people believe – nobody complete happy, but much better than the ‘horrifying’ present.

    • Mars says:

      One needs to talk to a mom who has experienced a miscarriage. I know many greive for the lost child indefinately.

    • RLG says:

      Tom, we are presently in the throws of a mayoral election in Chicago. Voting age is 18. Allowing children to vote would be wrong for so many reasons. Adults are encouraged to vote because they perceive both the narrow and broad perplexities of Chicago’s situation. Such is the reason mothers are given primary responsibility when facing the decision to abort or not. How about a reality check. How many decisions are made for children by their parents because children have no idea what is really in the best interests of them or others.

      • Tom says:

        You are correct on voting in an election. I hope, though, you see a difference between allowing a parent to vote for who will govern a child’s city and whether that child will be allowed to exist.

        • RLG says:

          The reality is that fetuses (or unborn babies if you prefer) do not have a vote. They have no ability to reason or to make decisions. That doesn’t mean that a parent’s informed decision is easy or that there isn’t remorse afterward. Making the right decision, either way, doesn’t necessarily bring joy.

  • Ann says:

    Abortion has unfortunately become a very effective wedge issue. It serves a purpose for politicians that has nothing to do with abortion at all. But I do think there is great potential for productive dialogue and movement. The reason I believe that is because of the amazing support our family received by conservative, Pro-Life, Reformed folks when we conceived our son using in-vitro (and a surrogate). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that in-vitro is problematic for Pro-Life folks. Drawing a hard line of right/wrong is becoming more and more complex as science is making the impossible possible again.

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