In early 1979, the National Organization for Women (NOW) called for a day of discussion with the right-to-life movement. It was a somewhat surprising move, given the growing animosity between the two groups, but a few right-to-life organizations accepted the invitation and ended up having a productive discussion with the members of NOW. After a day of dialogue, the groups held a press conference and shared their mutual concerns for women, especially the poor and young women the groups agreed were most vulnerable.
But as NOW’s spokesperson talked to the press, she was interrupted. Antiabortion activists burst in, carrying what they claimed was the body of an aborted fetus, weeping, and yelling about the evils of abortion. Despite apologies from right-to-life groups, the damage was done. One activist later lamented, “The dialogue between prolife and pro-abortion leaders was aborted that day, and buried at an unsuccessful follow-up meeting two months later.”[i]
This episode in right-to-life history has always struck me as particularly powerful and poignant—a harbinger of what was to come and emblematic of the growing disconnect between the women’s and antiabortion movements. But the disconnect was not inevitable. Though we tend to assume that these two movements were mortal enemies from the start and that polarization over abortion has always existed, in the 1970s, this was far from the case. In fact, as the NOW episode shows, right-to-lifers understood the arguments and goals of the women’s movement and were willing to engage with feminists to a certain extent whether in collaborative forums or on shared legislative goals. Unfortunately, a growing conservative contingent in the antiabortion movement viewed the women’s movement as an existential threat to their larger goals and actively sabotaged and undermined attempts by right-to-lifers to work with feminist groups.
This outright rejection and sabotage of right-to-life and feminist collaboration fits in the broader story of how the abortion issue has been used to consolidate conservative power in the last 40 years. One of the longstanding questions about American politics is why abortion has been such a divisive issue and why it’s a litmus test in conservative politics. An argument I’ve found compelling in the last few years is that abortion is central because it lets conservatives make a claim about their own moral standing even when their real goal is consolidating conservative power and propping up white supremacy and Christian nationalism.[ii]
But it hasn’t always been this way. Many of us know by now that conservatives, and white evangelicals in particular, were late to the game when it came to opposing abortion. Many evangelical denominations supported legal abortion in some capacity well into the 1970s. Moreover, there were segments of the right-to-life movement that actively collaborated with the women’s movement during this time. Right-to-lifers self-identified as feminists, talked to activists in the women’s movement, collaborated with them on legislation to support women, attended forums together, and more.
Yet as conservatives built a powerful political movement in the early 1980s, they could not stand for any compromise or collaboration that might dilute their control of the right-to-life movement. As they embraced a politics of morality and used abortion as moral cover to further a broader conservative agenda and cover up the racist roots of their movement, conservatives silenced right-to-lifers who dared to disagree.
It can be surprising now to look back and find all the ways the right-to-life movement was not tied to conservative politics in the 1970s. During this time, there was collaboration between right-to-lifers and other movements, including the feminist movement, and crossover with liberal and even left-wing politics.
One group, American Citizens Concerned for Life (ACCL), provides a particularly instructive example of this wide-ranging collaboration. In the mid-1970s, ACCL had broken away from the National Right-to-Life Committee (NRLC), the main national right-to-life group at the time. While the NRLC focused on undoing Roe v. Wade and ending legal abortion, ACCL and its members spent most of their time and energy working toward alternatives to abortion and legislation to promote family planning, adoption, maternal health insurance, and better workplace protections for pregnant women. Led by two of its founders, Marjory Mecklenburg and Judy Fink, ACCL made this a deliberate strategy, and Mecklenburg framed a more moderate approach: “less militant than the National Right to Life Committee and more persuasive.”[iii]
ACCL was doing things that are now largely unheard of in the right-to-life movement. They supported expanding access to birth control and family planning services. They thought teenagers and young adults should be educated about sex and the use of contraceptives. They wanted to improve material conditions for pregnant women and supported legislation that provided resources, healthcare, and protection against discrimination for women in the workplace.
ACCL also helped foster a consensus among a contingent of right-to-lifers that the only way for the movement to succeed was for it to be broad-based. This meant that they wanted the movement to include people with a range of religious and political beliefs and prioritized diversity in these areas in their recruitment efforts. They were also open to working with other social movements such as the labor, antinuclear, antiwar movements, and others. And for many this emphasis on collaboration and broad-based activism was one of their main goals—they believed the right-to-life movement could only succeed if it appealed to a broad swath of Americans.
Their willingness to support legislation not directly tied to abortion and the emphasis on building a broad-based movement meant that ACCL ended up working with some interesting allies, including the labor and feminist movements. In 1977, for example, the organization became involved in a case in which a woman lost her insurance benefits when her employer found out she was pregnant. In cooperation with “a broad-based coalition of labor, human rights, and women’s groups,” ACCL supported legislation that would require companies to offer pregnancy benefits in their insurance plans and protect pregnant women in the workplace.[iv] Mecklenburg explained that ACCL’s goal was to “save as many babies as possible each day” even if that meant compromising with those who supported reproductive rights.[v]
And it wasn’t just ACCL. Overall, liberal and left-wing antiabortion activists tended to situate abortion in a broad constellation of other issues in a way that forced them to work together with other social movements and activists. These activists often approached abortion as it related to their activism in the antiwar, antinuclear, labor, and feminist movements. In 1978, for example, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, an antiwar group formed in response to the Vietnam War, held its annual conference with the theme, “Nuclear Disarmament and Right to Life,” to discuss the connections between the two movements.[vi] Juli Loesch, who founded the antinuclear/antiabortion group Pro-lifers for Survival, was an outspoken feminist, arguing that activists could support both the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the right-to-life movement.[vii] And SOUL, an organization of college pro-lifers founded in the early 1970s, also incorporated feminism into its work. In September 1975, its newsletter featured articles on the United Farm Workers, feminism, and direct action, and by the end of the 1970s the group’s members were distributing literature on feminism and nuclear war in addition to their right-to-life work.[viii]
So right-to-lifers, feminists, and other activists worked together in a range of ways in the 1970s. While they might have disagreed on the legal status of abortion, right-to-lifers and their feminist collaborators agreed that pregnant women needed more support, women needed more protections in the workplace, and the government needed to provide families with additional help caring for their children. This spirit of collaboration was focused on improving the lives of women. There was an understanding of the other side’s approach to reproductive rights and an acceptance that, even though their stances on abortion might differ, feminists and right-to-lifers could still work together to support women. Mecklenburg summed up their commitment to collaboration: “We do not condemn people who may have different ethical or moral views; on the contrary, we work with them and have often found them to be effective allies.”[ix]
With this context in mind, we can return to the opening scene of our story. ACCL, feminist right-to-lifers, and others were working to expand the right-to-life movement. They were making connections with the feminist, labor, and peace/antinuclear movements. But it wasn’t long before conservative right-to-lifers grew critical of ACCL’s approach and of the cooperation between right-to-lifers and movements they deemed undesirable or dangerous. And when ACCL and other activists decided to meet and dialogue with NOW in 1979, other right-to-lifers deemed it unacceptable and chose to forcibly end the discussion.
This was due in part to the growing influence of an anti-feminist, conservative cohort in the movement. These right-to-lifers argued that feminism was simply a cover for legalizing “abortion on demand,” as they called it, and undermining the traditional family. Perhaps most well-known, Phyllis Schlafly emerged as a leading voice and outspoken critic of feminism and the ERA. She had been building a conservative campaign against the ERA since the early 1970s, making it her goal to connect the ERA and feminism to abortion. In the mid-1970s, she became even more vocal about her concerns and warned right-to-lifers, “The women’s libbers expect E.R.A. to be the constitutional means to assure and make permanent their goal of unlimited abortion on demand.”[x]
In addition to the open hostility toward feminism, there were efforts to undermine the work of right-to-lifers who collaborated outside of the movement. Conservative activists were critical of this approach and argued it would dilute their effectiveness and detract from the fight against abortion. An article written by one right-to-lifer exemplifies this position in many ways. In the early 1980s, she wrote a vitriolic critique of right-to-lifers involved in the peace and nuclear disarmament movements, arguing that the pro-life movement should not link abortion to other causes because “those who really have the best interest of the pro-life cause at heart do not wear any other hat while spreading the pro-life message.”[xi] This message resonated through the movement, and more liberal and left-wing right-to-lifers started to get the sense that they were “not ‘pure’ enough for many conservative pro-lifers.”[xii]
When right-to-lifers weren’t criticizing more liberal activists in their ranks, they were sabotaging any attempts at cooperation outside of the movement. This is why it’s so significant that a group decided to disrupt NOW’s day of discussion in such a shocking way and shut down an attempt at collaboration with a well-known feminist organization. The incident is just one of the more explicit examples of this history. Much of it happened in subtler ways—the critiques of movements perceived as “too liberal,” the callouts of right-to-lifers deemed not committed enough to the cause, and the increasing insistence that opposition to abortion was solely a conservative issue. Conservative right-to-lifers were aware of how moderate, liberal, and left-wing right-to-lifers approached abortion and why they worked together with feminists. They identified this activism as a threat, claimed abortion as a conservative issue, and rejected any attempts to broaden the scope of the right-to-life movement.
The growing conservativism of the movement and the influence of the New Right and religious right were impossible to ignore. In 1979, a reporter observed the energy that abortion leant to the right and wondered about a new name for the right-to-life movement: “Should it be called Life for the Right?”[xiii] And while the movement began to embrace right-wing politics more openly, some right-to-lifers sounded the alarm. In the fall of 1980, Marjory Mecklenburg alerted ACCL members to the growth of the New Right and its “close association” with the right-to-life movement. The situation was so dire that she believed her organization must shift its focus to “capture the leadership and direct pro-life energies toward positive activities.”[xiv]
In many ways, this conservative takeover was a calculated move. We now know that right-wing political operatives saw abortion as a way to rally conservatives to their cause and recruit Americans into political activism. Since then, right-to-lifers have deliberately misconstrued and misrepresented feminist arguments for reproductive rights. From wild claims about the ERA to conspiracy theories about Planned Parenthood, the antiabortion movement and conservatives have spent decades making outlandish claims about the goals of the feminist movement. Looking back at their history in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s clear that this is not necessarily because right-to-lifers didn’t know or couldn’t grasp the arguments feminists were making. They would have had some familiarity with these arguments because there were feminist right-to-lifers in the 1970s and 1980s, activists who were working with feminists on a range of women’s issues.
Instead, right-to-lifers mischaracterized and dismissed feminism because feminists were a threat to their power, and within the right-to-life movement, because moderate and liberal activists jeopardized conservative control of the movement. Conservatives couldn’t cede control of the abortion issue as it was key to the rise of the New Right and the religious right during this time. As many scholars have pointed out, abortion became central to the conservative project of defending the “traditional” family and “traditional” gender roles in the 1970s and 1980s. Making abortion the main issue also helped cement the relationship between conservative Catholics and evangelicals and the Republican Party. Unfortunately, this meant that right-to-lifers who were not conservative in their religion and politics or who were willing to collaborate with feminists, peace activists, and others were largely silenced or forced out of the movement in the 1980s.
But this isn’t the full picture of why conservatives were so keen to have total control of the right-to-life movement. As Randall Balmer and Anthea Butler have observed, it was really racism that motivated conservatives, including many white evangelicals, to become involved in politics—abortion, then and since, has served as a useful moral cover for more nefarious political stances. Though she writes about evangelicals specifically, Butler’s observations are broadly applicable here: “Morality isn’t a religious issue for evangelicals, but a political tool they hide behind that allows them to obscure the racist and sexist pronouncements and laws they often back and promulgate.”[xv] Right-wing activists needed abortion because it was more palatable than forming a movement around openly supporting segregation.[xvi] Conservative involvement in the right-to-life movement, then, was a calculated move to protect conservative power and grow the conservative movement.
Despite their emphasis on improving women’s lives, right-to-lifers who held more liberal or left-wing views were a threat and had to be forced out because they challenged the conservative consensus on abortion. Rejecting feminist arguments and embracing a conservative approach to abortion wasn’t about protecting women or the family, as conservatives claimed. It was simply another way for conservatives to use the politics of morality to disguise their pursuit of power.
[i] John O’Keefe, Untitled History of Sit-ins, n.d. Box 2, Folder 2, John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Madison, WI (hereafter cited as Cavanaugh-O’Keefe Papers).
[ii] Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021); Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico.com, May 27, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
[iii] Marjory Mecklenburg to George H. Williams, October 24, 1974, Box 2, Folder 1, George Huntston Williams Papers, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (hereafter cited as Williams Papers).
[iv] ACCL, Press Release, April 29, 1977, Box 27, Folder 4, American Citizens Concerned for Life, Inc., Records, Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, MI (hereafter cited as ACCL Records).
[v] Marjory Mecklenburg to Mrs. James R. Hartzell, May 25, 1977, Box 16, Folder 1, ACCL Records.
[vi] Catholic Peace Fellowship, “Nuclear Disarmament and the Right to Life,” 1978, Bo 4, Folder 2, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe Papers.
[vii] Juli Loesch, “Pro-life, Pro-E.R.A.” America, December 9, 1978, Folder 2, Save Our Unwanted Life, Inc. Records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN (hereafter cited as SOUL Records).
[viii] SOUL, Newsletter, September 1975, Folder 2, SOUL Records; Juli Loesch, “Pro-life, Pro-E.R.A.” America, December 9, 1978, Folder 2, SOUL Records; Sidney Callahan, “Feminist as Antiabortionist,” Chicago Times, 1977, Folder 2, SOUL Records.
[ix] Marjory Mecklenburg to John Mitchell, October 2, 1979, Box 15, Folder 11, ACCL Records.
[x] Phyllis Schlafly, “E.R.A.’s Assist to Abortion,” The Phyllis Schlafly Report, December 1974, Box 25, Folder 1, ACCL Records.
[xi] Virginia Evers, “Real Babies and Phantom Bombs” American Life Lobby About Issues, September 1983, Box 3, Folder 1, Williams Papers.
[xii] Christopher Anglim, “Loaves and Fishes: A History of Pro-life Activism in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District 1968-1981” (unpublished manuscript, 1981) Minnesota Historical Library, St. Paul, MN, 154.
[xiii] Jon Margolis, “Should it be called Life for the Right?” Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1979, Folder 6, Box 15, Williams Papers.
[xiv] Marjory Mecklenburg to Friend, Fall 1981, Box 74, Folder 2, George Gilmary Higgins Papers, Catholic University of America University Archives, Washington, D.C.
[xv] Chrissy Stroop, “I’m Not Here to Fix Evangelicals, but to Show Them Who They Are: An Interview With the Author of ‘White Evangelical Racism,’” Religion Dispatches, March 10, 2021, https://religiondispatches.org/im-not-here-to-fix-evangelicals-but-to-show-them-who-they-are-an-interview-with-the-author-of-white-evangelical-racism/
[xvi] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.”