Politics & Policy

The Politics of Life

Past, present, and future.

Since the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court last year, many in the pro-life movement have given serious thought about how to proceed if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Indeed, many in the pro-life movement are pleased with the incremental progress that has been made in recent years. However, others are dismayed by the fact that few states would likely enact substantial restrictions on abortion should Roe be reversed. Anne Hendershott’s The Politics of Abortion gives these pro-lifers some useful advice. Indeed, by providing a history of abortion politics and detailing the expansion of abortion rights, Hendershott is able to make a number of useful insights about effective pro-life strategies for the future.

In the book, Hendershott gives a political history of abortion dating back to the days before the Roe v. Wade decision. In particular, Hendershott spends a considerable amount of time describing the shift of the Democratic party on abortion. At one point the Democratic party was the natural home to a number of pro-life Catholics. However, in the span of just 30 years, much of the Democratic party now inflexibly supports abortion rights. Indeed, the book neatly details the long list of prominent Democrats who were once pro-life including Vice President Gore, Richard Gephardt, and Jesse Jackson.

How did this happen? The story may surprise you. Many prominent liberals in the Democratic Party saw Catholic opposition to abortion as a problem even before the Roe v. Wade decision. Hendershott even mentions that in 1964 the Kennedy family hosted a retreat with several liberal Catholic theologians, including Father Robert Drinan, to see if Catholic politicians could expand abortion rights in ways that were consistent with Church teachings.

Still many Democrats were reluctant to support abortion, evidenced by the large contingent of pro-life Democrats that remained in Congress well into the 1980s. What ultimately turned the tide was that the pro-choice position became considerably more lucrative for Democratic candidates. As such, starting in the 1980s, Democrats with serious aspirations of running for national office invariably began to take a position in favor of abortion rights.

Hendershott’s analysis, however, goes far beyond electoral politics. She extensively documents how supporters of abortion rights have worked with clergy, academia, the civil-rights movement, and the media to give abortion greater cultural acceptance. For instance, Hendershott also talks about how a number of liberal foundations fund letterhead groups like Catholics for a Free Choice in an attempt to confuse Catholics about official church teaching on sanctity of life issues. She also describes how many colleges, even Catholic colleges, honor pro-abortion public figures while ignoring pro-life perspectives.

However, one heartening aspect of the book is Hendershott’s vivid description of how pro-lifers are effectively fighting back. She cites extensive activity by pro-life students at a number of top schools including UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania. In particular, American Collegians for Life, now Students for Life of America, merits special recognition for their yeoman’s work in recruiting and organizing pro-life college students around the country.

One criticism of this book is that some readers may find certain aspects to be somewhat superficial. For instance, Hendershott spends almost no time discussing internal divisions within the pro-life movement. This is unfortunate. Disagreements between incrementalists and purists in the early 1980s crippled attempts by the pro-life movement to enact a human life amendment. While tensions have cooled somewhat in recent years, the differences in strategy between various pro-life groups merited greater discussion.

Regardless, the most valuable chapter in the entire book is the last one where Hendershott looks toward the future. Both politically and rhetorically, many pro-lifers have tried to emulate the abolitionists. However, Hendershott cautions readers that this may not be the best parallel for pro-lifers to draw. It is true that ultimately the abolitionists did succeed in ending slavery. But slavery ended only after a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of millions. Hendershott argues that Americans may not have the stomach for a protracted political battle over legalized abortion.

Instead, Hendershott argues that pro-lifers should focus their efforts on reducing the need for abortion. This would include greater support for crisis pregnancy centers, more abstinence education for young people, and easier provisions for adoption. Hendershott argues that these things can best be handled by pro-lifers at the local level. Indeed, the long term success of the pro-life movement will hinge upon their ability to build a culture of life, and instill in people values and attitudes that will make abortion less necessary. Wise words to consider as pro-lifers continue to their decades-long struggle against legal abortion.

– Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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