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Losing the history wars

A recent slate of pro-abortion history books shows pro-life authors are ceding important ground

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Losing the history wars
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“Who controls the past controls the future,” George Orwell wrote. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun constructed his 1973 Roe v. Wade decision with historical rebar provided by an NYU law professor, Cyril Means, who just happened to be the lawyer of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

Blackmun cited Means seven times in his Roe opinion, even though abortion proponents knew the falsity of his contention that abortion prior to the mid-19th century was legal. David Tundermann, one member of the legal team that brought us Roe v. Wade, noted in a memo that Means’ “own conclusions sometimes strain credibility, [but] where the important thing is to win the case no matter how, however, I suppose I agree with Means’s technique: begin with a scholarly attempt at historical research; if it doesn’t work, fudge it as necessary.”

In the 1989-1992 period, when the advent of new justices raised hopes for an overturn of Roe v. Wade, several hundred historians rallied to the pro-abortion cause and signed amicus briefs in the Webster and Casey cases that claimed 19th-century pro-life laws did not stem from the belief that unborn children were human beings. The presence on the court of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh is now raising pro-life hopes—but will these new justices rely on the same faulty history?

I recently found on Amazon.com 20 books published in the past three years that include aspects of abortion history. It turns out that all come from a pro-abortion perspective. On other controversial issues, such as LGBT status and the evolution-creation debate, books with Biblical perspectives continue to emerge. In abortion publishing, Christians and other pro-lifers are badly losing the history war.

One result: The New York Times just last month (Dec. 13) could blandly assert the fake history consensus that “in the 17th and 18th centuries, abortion was legal under common law” through the first 16 weeks and “not considered immoral or murderous.” Even in the late 19th century a focus on the rights of the unborn was purportedly “a view at odds with much of public sentiment at the time.”

We need to challenge such falsehoods, as well as statements that in recent decades pro-life Americans have shown themselves to be liars or terrorists with smiling faces but pistols up their sleeves. Advocates sometimes complain about oppressive workplaces for minorities, but these books certainly contribute to an unwelcoming environment for pro-lifers in many companies and campuses.

Here are a few examples, starting with the most prestigious academic publisher, Harvard University Press, which offered up Mary Ziegler’s Beyond Abortion. In a previous Harvard book, After Roe, she had done a drive-by maligning of 19th-century pro-life leaders who purportedly had “financial motives” for advocating “harsher laws.” Her new book claimed, “By the mid-1990s, the debate about the limits of conscience seemed settled. … When protestors claimed to act for reasons of conscience or to interpret the law, few believed them.” Which few are those?

The University of California Press put out Reproductive Justice by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, which contends that until the mid-19th century “contraception and early abortion were entirely legal, but 19th-century doctors wanting more status and money “stamp[ed] out women’s traditional prerogative.” (Twenty-five years earlier I showed the falsity of that historical judgment in Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, readable for free here.)

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

The University of Illinois Press published Karissa Haugeberg’s Women Against Abortion, which claimed pro-lifers “maintained thousands of pseudo-medical clinics” or were “violent extremists who were willing to commit arson, bombings, and murder. … The various wings of the movement worked in tandem to collect taxpayer money for privately run crisis pregnancy centers, to offer meeting space for covert operations, and to provide cover for those who torched clinics and terrorized providers. … Pro-life activists demonstrated how ruthless and unflappable the movement had become.”

Some authors seem to have ignored their own evidence in order to provide pro-abortion conclusions. Rutgers University Press published Lost: Miscarriage in Nineteenth-Century America, in which University of New Mexico history professor Shannon Withycombe wrote, “Women and doctors in the nineteenth century did not view pregnancy as inclusive of another person.” And yet, she shows how Lucy Garrison, three months pregnant, named her child Katherine and wrote notes to parents in the voice of her unborn daughter.

For example, “Katherine” wished “a Happy New Year to her kind Grandparents” and promised to knit them something in a few years, but not immediately because she did not yet have working fingers. A generation later, Katherine herself was pregnant and described in a letter to her cousin “the presence of a little Norton which (since it won’t be a ‘who’ until December) makes any more traveling than is absolutely necessary rather risky.” Withycombe’s interpretation: “Women like Katherine Norton still did not think of their pregnant bodies as containing a person.” Really?

My wife started the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center in 1984, so I know something about the recent decades of abortion in Texas: A Johns Hopkins University Press book, Abortion Across Borders, edited by Christabelle Sethna and Gayle Davis, describes the state as a land of “crisis pregnancy centers, essentially fake clinics providing free ultrasounds and misinformation [that have] wreaked havoc upon millions of reproductive-age women. … Texas serves as a frightening wake-up call to the rest of the country.”

Many of the most distorting books come from university presses, including those of NYU, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Cornell. One reason may be that the publishing industry sees books on abortion history as unlikely to sell well, so most emerge from nonprofit or taxpayer-supported publishers rather than commercial ones. The rationale for university press independence from some financial pressures was their traditional publication of scholarly work designed to create light rather than heat. Now, though, the university presses, like their faculty, overwhelming tilt left.

Some professors published their work with general academic publishers rather than ones with specific college connections—but I found no evidence of increased truth-telling there. Polity Press published Lehigh sociology professor Ziad Munson’s Abortion Politics, which argued that in the 19th century “most people thought about abortion” the way people today view a urinary tract infection: Abortion “was not a question of principle, or of good and bad,” but became important only because doctors used the abortion debate to “accomplish their goal of improving their status in society and monopolizing control over medical care.”

As a believer in telling books by their covers, I was hopeful about Critical Perspectives on Abortion, edited by Anne Cunningham for Enslow Publishing, which provides books for school and public libraries: The cover had a photo of a blue “Keep Abortion Legal” sign and a red “Stop Abortion Now” sign. Only four of the 22 essays in the book were pro-life, though. A headline typical of the rest read, “Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless.” Author John Messerly concluded, “No doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex.”

No doubt. And what of the four pro-life essays? After each essay, the editor listed two questions designed to elicit critical thinking. After a reprinted National Review article by Ryan Anderson, the editor asked, “Despite its extreme conservatism, do any of the author’s views, such as limited federal government and states’ rights to experiment with democracy, have any merit, in your opinion?” The lead question after an article by Clarke Forsythe of Americans United for Life asked, “Can you identify any distortions of fact in this piece? If so, what?”

Questions after articles by abortion proponents were different: “How does evidence in this article contradict some of the claims of abortion-rights opponents? … How does the author make the case that U.S. abortion restrictions specifically target women of color? … With so many potential risk factors facing pregnant women, do you think that the legal system has any business regulating the specifics of abortion? Or should that be left to doctors?”

Academics and arguments

Two books from early in this decade fulfill the function of an academic press, publishing scholarly work that would otherwise go unpublished. Wolfgang Müller’s The Criminalization of Abortion in the West: Its Origins in Medieval Law (Cornell University Press, 2012) isn’t exactly a page-turner, but it is a work of valuable scholarship about the interface of theology, law, and medicine. Justin Dyer’s Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013) looks at the dehumanizing of two classes of people in American history, law, and political philosophy.

Three pro-abortion authors during the past three years have recognized potent pro-life arguments—the existence of post-abortion syndrome, the desire to protect baby humans at least as well as we protect baby animals, and the personhood of the unborn—and suggested ways to defeat them.

In Scarlet A (Oxford University Press), Katie Watson recognizes the reality of post-abortion syndrome but trivializes what she calls “abortion regret. … The possibility of regret doesn’t distinguish abortion from the rest of medicine. … A well-informed patient might later wish he or she had not chosen back surgery, a kidney transplant, or a panoply of other procedures. … A patient who chooses knee replacement instead of joint pain might regret choices he made years before on the football field.”

I’ve told animal rights activists that I’d sympathize with their battle if they supported human baby rights. In Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf try to show why animal rights activists should not lift a finger to protect tiny fingers. Their rationale: Adult animals can perceive and feel things that humans at early stages of gestation cannot. Colb and Dorf admit the argument weakens as the child moves closer to birth, but they fall back on calling anti-abortion laws a form of gender-based exploitation.

In Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should Be Legal—Even If the Fetus Is a Person (Oxford), University of Colorado philosopher David Boonin says personhood doesn’t matter because laws that protect the unborn involve letting a person “who has no right to use it” use another’s body. There’s where believers in God can take a stand. A baby has the right to use a mother’s body because that’s the way God made us.

But the best way to understand how the other half thinks might be to go back 20 years to Vincent Genovese’s The Angel of Ashland: Practicing Compassion and Tempting Fate, a biography of Robert Spencer. As the title suggests, it’s a positive look at the man recognized as “The King of the Abortionists” for—from 1919 to 1969—killing close to 100,000 unborn children at the rate of almost 2,000 per year, or eight for every working day.

David Boonin says laws that protect the unborn involve letting a person ‘who has no right to use it’ use another’s body. There’s where believers in God can take a stand. A baby has the right to use a mother’s body because that’s the way God made us.

Genovese shows how Spencer went to Penn State and grew dubious about his parents’ Methodist beliefs: “As a science major he was naturally introduced to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. The direct conflict of the theory of evolution assaulted the religious beliefs he held so dubiously, further eroding his faith.” Spencer wrote, “You have two choices—religion which is a myth or science which deals with facts. The religionist believes we were created by a god. The evolutionist believes we evolved. … I am an evolutionist, hence I am an atheist, it is impossible for me to believe in the God as described in the Bible.”

Genovese shows how “within this worldview, Spencer began in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s to perform abortions.” By the 1960s Spencer was fixating on “the population problem”: Killing unborn children was his way of dealing with “the growing problems of pollution, diminishing resources, the soaring costs to keep pace.” Spencer’s “simple equation [was] more people equals more poverty.” He even saw medicine generally as a problem: “By overcoming countless fatal diseases and conditions it gave society a low death rate along with unheard-of longevity. The result was wall-to-wall humanity.”

Spencer went on trial for abortion in 1955, 1959, and 1965, each time escaping imprisonment in part through good lawyering and community regard for the financial benefits Spencer’s Ashland, Pa., practice brought. Ashland became known nationally and internationally as a place of maternal safety, so girlfriends of the rich and powerful flocked there, along with celebrities whom author Genovese describes elliptically: “One of the major trade publications in 1956 has this blonde, green-eyed actress listed as the number-one box-office attraction. This sometimes moody and insecure actress found her way to Ashland, Pennsylvania.” —M.O.

—Please read the other features in this issue’s Roe v. Wade special section: “Buildings with baggage” and “Abominable enterprise.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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