The Corner

Christine Stansell’s Slanted History

Michael, you are quite right to challenge the received view of the politics of abortion pre-Roe. I have now read the Christine Stansell essay (sub. req’d.) to which you linked, though, and see that you have only scratched the surface of its questionable points. Refuting them in detail would take a book, but here are a few points and counterpoints.

The politics of abortion are suddenly moving fast again, and they are taking us back to the 1980s, when anti-Roe forces thought they could undo the central tenet of modern heterosexual life, the separation of pregnancy from sex, and edged up to taking on contraception along with abortion.

Evidence presented in the essay for the contention that pro-lifers in the 1980s “thought they could undo” contraception: non-existent. Explanation of how “the separation of pregnancy from sex” could be undone without “taking on contraception”: also absent.


Well before Roe, anti-abortion politics were drummed up and driven by self-interested right-wing elites, not by deep-seated outrage. Abortion reform moved with majority opinion, not against it; and mainstream approval was strong enough that there was good reason to think that a Supreme Court decision such as Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, which effectively legalized contraception for married people, would settle the issue, and legal abortion would slip into the mainstream of American life as contraception had. It did not turn out that way—but not because Roe provoked revulsion from an aroused public. The opposition was drummed up, exacerbated, and orchestrated by elites at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and the right wing of the Republican Party.

One of the central points of Stansell’s essay is that vigorous opposition to abortion predated Roe, and thus that it is incorrect to suppose, as some supporters of legal abortion do, that Roe was regrettable because it inflamed the issue. She proves the first half of this claim, but of course the second half does not follow from it: It could be that Roe made it easier for the opponents to organize, made their arguments more resonant with a larger group of people, etc. At no point does she consider this possibility, let alone refute it.

In this passage, she attempts to present the movement against abortion as the work of “self-interested right-wing elites” while the movement for it was merely the work of “majority opinion.” The falsity of this portrait should be nearly self-evident to anyone familiar with political life or propaganda about it. “Elites” are always involved in the formation of political movements, and rarely succeed if they cannot persuade masses to get behind them. For example: While it is surely the case that public opinion was the main reason that by the mid-1960s laws against contraception were rarely enforced against married couples, taking the issue to court to constitutionalize this settlement was the work of elites.

Abortion might have ended up as legal, available, something seldom discussed as a personal matter in public—like what contraceptive you use—and tacitly accepted as what it has always been for women historically: a method of birth control used when other measures failed.

Joseph Dellapenna has made the case that for most of human history abortion was too dangerous for pregnant women to be employed often. If anyone has presented a convincing counter-argument, I haven’t seen it.

The ethical and moral arguments need not have disappeared; in fact, they could be fuller, freed from the need to support partisan positions. And with the insights that feminism has given us, those arguments would also be more complex, not beginning and ending with the ontological status of the fetus but expanding to consider the dignity and the liberty of conscience of the pregnant person.

Yes, imagine a world where the debate over abortion included arguments about the “dignity and liberty of conscience of the pregnant person.” Too bad nobody in our world has ever thought of this.

Abortions ran in the hundreds of thousands (the estimates were from 200,000 to more than a million) [in the late 1950s].

It is obviously difficult to come up with solid numbers given that abortion was illegal everywhere at the time, but I would not trust this range of estimates given that the upper bound implies that the number of abortions was substantially higher in the late 1950s than it was in the years right after Roe in the early ’70s.

Botched abortions created a public health crisis [after World War II], with whole wards in big city hospitals given over to women suffering from blood loss and septicemia. By 1962, abortion-related deaths had more than tripled from the Depression; the statistics from New York City that year show abortion accounting for nearly half of all maternal deaths.

Again, statistics are hard to come by. Bernard Nathanson, one of the leaders of the movement to end abortion laws during the 1960s, later became a pro-lifer and claimed that the movement had simply made up numbers of maternal deaths. Here we are supposed to believe that the number of botched abortions increased even during a period that saw the development of modern antibiotics and general improvements in maternal mortality rates.

The feminist position [in favor of legal abortion] was certain, exact, and—as it turned out—enduringly persuasive to millions.

It certainly was enduringly persuasive to millions. So was the opposite position. Stansell’s unwillingness to acknowledge that tells you a good deal about the kind of essay she has written.

Critics today argue that an incremental strategy would have worked better than Roe. . . . But as Greenhouse and Siegel show, it was clear well before Roe that their half-a-loaf strategy had run aground. By 1970, twelve states had indeed passed some version of a therapeutic law, but every relaxation of the ban, even the mildest, brought out virulent opposition. That opposition came from a single source: an organizing effort by the Catholic bishops that descended to the parish level. In state after state where change was pending or had passed, Catholic lobbyists and protesters pounced on errant legislators, threatening them with reprisals in the next election. Indeed, the vulnerability of state legislators was a major reason that the repealers wanted to move the action away from the electoral arena to the courts, where Catholics had no overt influence.

“Catholic lobbyists and protesters” could not have threatened politicians “with reprisals in the next election” unless they influenced or spoke for large numbers of voters. As always, Stansell does her best to deny the existence of large numbers of people who opposed abortion. It is interesting, to say the least, that this sympathetic chronicler of the movement for legal abortion says that it went to the courts to keep “Catholics”–here, at least, she dispenses with the fiction that only “elites” and “bishops” were marginalized–from having a say over government policy; and that she appears to approve.

Why did the Church dig in on legal abortion and not on legal contraception? Why Roe and not Griswold?

Stansell discusses this question at length, without ever pausing to consider the obvious: that Catholic teaching considers abortion a far graver evil than contraception because it amounts to unjust killing.

The question is never asked, but the answer is critical to understanding the “pro-life” movement and its many self-serving manipulations of debate.

Imagine! A political movement trying to “manipulate” a debate! And in its own interest, as opposed to the interest of its opponents! These pro-lifers–sorry, “pro-lifers”–are a dastardly bunch. Note, incidentally, that Stansell signed a brief of historians to the Supreme Court urging it to re-affirm Roe: a brief that contradicted the published work of many of the signatories and falsified the sources on which it purported to rely. (There’s a chapter on it in my book for those interested in the dismal details.) What was that about “self-serving manipulations of debate”?

For most of the twentieth century, the Vatican focused on contraception, and abortion was an afterthought.

Might this have had something to do with the fact that contraception was a bigger issue than abortion for much of the century? Thus couldn’t the Vatican’s change of emphasis have been a response to the rising threat of abortion rather than a doctrinal change? Or should we ignore this obvious possibility and breeze along with our narrative?

The fetus, for so long a silent partner in debates about the morality of abortion—in 1968 the bishops were still talking about marital duty, and only incidentally about the “human person” in utero—was about to come on stage, a new protagonist who would take on many guises: a silenced innocent seeking protectors; a litigant in a legal class; a unique, feeling individual; and an icon to rally believers at a crucial moment when a crisis in the Catholic Church conjoined with American political party realignment.

In 1968, “the bishops”–she actually seems to be referring to a papal encyclical–were talking primarily about contraception, so of course they were not talking a lot about fetuses. The historical evidence that a concern for fetal life motivated American anti-abortion statutes from the nineteenth century onward is plentiful (see the Dellapenna book, and my own).

Roe was not the problem: on this point the documents furnished by Greenhouse and Siegel are abundantly and unequivocally clear. You cannot read these materials and not see that an implacable Catholic opposition was up and running well before 1973. It was aroused not by radical change but by the possibility of any change at all. It was an expression of the conservative laity, and it was orchestrated by the Church hierarchy—and, it turns out, by the White House. The material in Before Roe about how the Catholic vendetta played into Republican Party strategy is crucial for understanding how and why the issue turned into the constant of national politics we live with today.

She then explains how Richard Nixon took the pro-life side of the argument about abortion legislation in New York. At no point in her essay does Stansell mention pro-life Democrats of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Dick Gephardt, Dick Durbin, and many others. Nor does she mention that Democratic voters were more likely than Republicans to hold pro-life beliefs. The existence of these Democratic pro-lifers would complicate her narrative and are thus ignored. (At one point she even complains about pro-lifers “anti-democratic tactics.” This, from a woman who thinks it perfectly okay to go to the courts to reduce Catholics’ influence over public policy.)

Liberal rights rhetoric was one way to appeal to non-Catholics, but the unwillingly pregnant woman seemed to have a monopoly on rights. The solution lay in the discovery of a new victim of discrimination: the fetus.

The use of civil-rights language was new, sure–the civil-rights movement itself was relatively new–but again, the argument that abortion unjustly victimized human beings in the fetal stage of development had deep roots in American history.

[Pro-life] ideologues in the early 1970s analogized abortion to slavery, Indian genocide, America’s “faithless abandonment of women and children,” and the neglect of the poor; they hauled out the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Yes, and one of those “ideologues” was Jesse Jackson, not that you’d ever guess it from Stansell’s description of the ’70s. She goes on to identify the pro-life movement with the reaction to forced busing in that decade, a reaction she portrays as racist. No liberal smear campaign is complete without the race card, I guess.

That [pro-life] coalition has gained much from its heterogeneous character, but it has remained religious to the core, despite its attempts over the years to use ersatz science (and now, with the Pence Amendment, fiscal conservatism) to create an aura of secular authority.

Pro-lifers do indeed largely tend to be religious, but there is nothing “ersatz” about the science behind our claim that human organisms in the embryonic and fetal stages of development are members of the human species. Just because we’re religious doesn’t mean we’re wrong about the science.

Still, it is striking how constant legal support for abortion has remained. In the weeks after Roe was announced, polls showed roughly two-thirds of the public approving the Supreme Court decision; and the percentage has remained more or less the same since. The statistics waver, depending on how the polling questions are phrased and what permutation of legal abortion is at stake. But the numbers soon settle into the same adamantine fact of political life. Most Americans, male and female, want abortions to be legal, and have wanted the same thing for more than forty years.

This is a vast oversimplification. Gallup has long found that most Americans believe that abortion should be available in few or no circumstances. Asked whether abortion should be legal in all cases, legal only in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life, or never legal, majorities almost always pick the two options advocated by contemporary pro-lifers. Now these numbers aren’t the end of the story either: The public really does have a lot of ambivalence on this subject. It’s fine not to share that ambivalence; I don’t. Trying to write it out of a description of American attitudes toward abortion is something else–something sadly typical of Stansell’s essay.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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