The Christian right didn't used to care about abortion — until they did

Even the Catholic Church didn't have a lot to say about abortion until fairly recently. Here's why

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 18, 2021 10:00AM (EST)

Anti-Abortion activists gather in oppostion in front of the supreme court during the annual Women’s March October 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Women's March and other groups organized marches across the country to protest the new abortion law in Texas. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Anti-Abortion activists gather in oppostion in front of the supreme court during the annual Women’s March October 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Women's March and other groups organized marches across the country to protest the new abortion law in Texas. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

There is an intriguing parallel between the right-wing's opposition to abortion rights and its crusade to prevent gun control, at least when it comes to the history of those movements in the United States. Most Republicans are reliably anti-abortion and pro-gun — and depend on specific historical narratives to vindicate those positions. Gun rights advocates regularly cite the Constitution, pointing to a modern interpretation of the Second Amendment that they present as the only "correct" view. In the case of the anti-abortion movement, they operate from the premise that contemporary moral arguments against terminating a pregnancy are simply part of a continuity with longstanding political and religious traditions.

The realities are much, much more nuanced. With regard to abortion rights it begins, as sociologist and reproductive rights activist Carole Joffe told Salon by email, with a "determined minority" in the second half of the 20th century — one that was bent on stigmatizing abortion. As states continue to roll back abortion rights and the Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision in 1973 that limited government restrictions on pregnant women's bodily choices — it is valid to ask how the anti-abortion movement has managed to be so successful, and so closely tied with the right.

"My answer to this question goes back to the social movements of the 1960s — feminism, gay rights, civil rights, anti-war — and the backlash to these movements from conservatives," Joffe explained. Feminists and other liberals were calling for a change to the status quo on abortion policy, where individual states' patchwork approach to regulating the practice made it unsafe. Countless women suffered from incompetent procedures, being injured or even dying in the process. Yet there was a faction of radical conservatives who regarded women getting abortions as evil, and argued terminating a pregnancy was literally the same as murder. 

When conservative leader Paul Weyrich and evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell created the Christian Right in the 1970s, they noticed that the abortion issue engaged right-wing Christians who might otherwise be uninterested in politics. What's more, they found that many conservative Catholics were willing to join forces with conservative Protestants — a group around which they might have been suspicious, historically speaking — when it came to this social issue.

In her book "Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church," Religion Dispatches senior correspondent and author Patricia Miller describes how conservative Catholic religious figures infiltrated the anti-abortion movement in response to challenges on their positions about not just abortion, but also contraception. Bishops influenced the anti-abortion movement to specifically appeal to Catholics by characterizing abortion as antithetical to Catholicism, even though the issue had not been prominently discussed by the church prior to the mid-to-late 20th century. (Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament say anything directly about abortion, despite having all kinds of things to say about women's bodies; moreover, scholars of Abrahamic religions have long debated the exact nature of the stance on abortion from 2,000 years ago.) This created conditions in which politicians had to define themselves as either pro-choice or "pro-life," the term used by the anti-abortion movement to imply their opponents wanted to murder babies. As the pro-life movement was well financed and well organized by both the church and wealthy religious donors, they were able to make abortion into a defining issue on America's political landscape.

The 1980 presidential election, which established the current conservative order in American politics, was particularly important for abortion rights.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"This new movement worked very hard for the election of [Ronald] Reagan in 1980, and when he won, were given prominent posts in his administration, and the tradition of 'litmus tests' of judges and others on their support for or against abortion was born," Joffe explained. "The political attacks on abortion, via state and some federal regulation (e.g. Hyde Amendment) was joined by ever-increasing violence and harassment at the site of clinics." Joffe added that after a 1972 episode of the TV show "Maude" depicted choosing to have an abortion as an acceptable medical choice, advertisers boycotted the show, further demonstrating that this would be a major touchstone in the culture wars. (For perspective, the landmark abortion decision 'Roe v. Wade' came out one year later.) After Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, it became practically impossible for any Republican to run for president while being pro-choice.

It is worth noting that, from a strictly medical perspective, Roe v. Wade was a success. It is estimated that the number of illegal abortions fell from 130,000 in 1972 to 17,000 in 1974, with associated deaths likewise plummeting from 39 to five. In subsequent years Roe v. Wade saved thousands of lives by guaranteeing that women who wished to terminate a pregnancy could do so in a safe environment with qualified medical professionals. The ruling also made it easier for states to regulate abortion, as they would any other medical procedure. There is additionally the under-documented but undeniable positive effect that it has had on women who were able to empower themselves by being able to make an important, life-altering decision free from government interference — even though the pro-life movement has spuriously claimed that women who have abortions often suffer from mental health issues as a result of having had the procedure.

"There is the misconception that abortion causes mental health problems; science shows this is not the case," Julia Renee Steinberg, a family science professor at the University of Maryland, told Salon by email. Steinberg added that "rigorous reviews by academic and professional association[s]" had all reached the conclusion "that abortion does not increase women's risk of mental health problems or cause mental health problems." She added that the pro-life movement began to erroneously claim that abortions caused mental health problems in the 1980s as a way to win converts to their cause.

Scientists also remain unclear about when a fetus can be considered "alive." Part of the problem is that "life" itself, as conventionally conceived, requires consciousness — and scientists have unsuccessfully struggled to quantify the intangible entity known as consciousness for millennia. To the extent that anything is understood about the "personhood" of a fetus, it strongly suggests that they are not conscious. Evolutionary development biologist and historian of biology Scott F. Gilbert explained in his 2008 article from the journal "Birth Defects Research, Part C Embryo Today: Reviews" that there is no scientific consensus on when life begins, although there is plenty of research indicating that fetuses would not have what we consider to be consciousness for quite some time into a pregnancy. For instance, if one believes life is indicated by the presence of the cerebral EEG pattern (which is how countries like the United States legally define the end of human life), that would put it around 24 to 28 weeks into a pregnancy. Gilbert also noted that there are threats to fetuses that do not receive public attention, such as fetotoxic chemicals.

That last fact brings us back, again, to the comparison between the pro-life movement and the pro-gun movement. After all, studies have shown that policies like mandatory delays in gun purchases can save lives, just as the research indicates that allowing abortions is healthier for women. In both cases, however, there are groups which depend on specific narratives to make it more difficult for politicians to implement public health policies like protecting women's bodily autonomy and regulating guns. The narratives themselves are, objectively, misleading — not outright wrong, in the sense that one can definitively prove every Founding Father would have opposed the NRA or every early Christian would have supported abortion rights. They are misleading because they imply the matter is closed, and in such a way that indisputably favors the conservative argument, when in fact that is not the case.

Regardless of the policies that one prefers, the narratives should at least be accurate.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Catholic Church Christian Right Conception Contraception Deep Dive History