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Losing the history wars

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

Losing the history wars

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

“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 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

(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 Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  • not silent
    Posted: Sat, 01/04/2020 01:16 pm

    It seems to me that there are a number of factors involved in why pro lifers are "losing the history wars."  Some are our fault and some are not.

    Back in the 1980's when there was a lot of pro life hope and fervor, I stood on a street corner holding a sign that said, "Abortion kills children." There were others who were much more radical than I was: they blocked the entrances to abortion clinics and yelled at women who were entering and some even advocated violence against abortion providers.  I get that these people felt very strongly about abortion, but I personally never agreed with their tactics.  Since they did get a lot of attention in the media, it was easy to distort what was happening and to act as if all pro lifers were angry and hateful and wanted to oppress women.  

    If I could go back in time, I would want to hold a sign that said, "Abortion hurts women" because every woman I have ever met who admitted to having an abortion expressed pain about the experience, and that was true in secular groups as well as Christian ones.  I think this pain is largely denied by society, but I think the abortion industry uses it as a weapon against pro lifers.  Furthermore, rape and abuse, which are situations that DO take away a woman's choice, are now being unfairly linked with saving the unborn.  This is what I mean: Scenes of pro lifers yelling at pregnant women outside abortion clinics reinforced the view that pro lifers are hateful and want to oppress women. Now the media uses shows like The Handmaid's Tale and others to exploit the fear all women have that men will take advantage and exploit their bodies and to turn that fear onto the pro life movement.  Don't even get me started on how the pro choice side stirred up women who had been abused and used their very real pain as a political weapon during the latest Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but they managed to make it look like pro lifers were causing the pain. 

    Even today, a lot of people I know who are pro choice believe that pro lifers only care about the unborn and don't want to help poor women who are pregnant.  That is not true of ALL pro lifers, but it's not completely inaccurate. I have had debates with Christian friends who don't think the government should be responsible for helping the poor.  That would be fine-if the church stepped in and helped them!  But even when I voluteered for the largest pro life group in the country, which provided many free services to clients, we couldn't provide support for our clients through their pregnancies-instead, we gave them a list of government agencies that could help including the exact room number and person they should talk to.  If those benefits hadn't existed, I don't know what our clients would have done.

    I have to admit that the outrage about the latest case in which a group recorded video about Planned Parenthood and the sale of fetal tissue really gets to me because, when I was volunteering for a large pro life organization, women who were pro choice pretended to be pregnant and went into our clinics then later claimed they were given inaccurate medical information and pressured to convert to Christianity.  No one was outraged about their deception-in fact, the press was largely silent about it-but, as a result, a law was passed that forced us to post signs outside our clinics saying we did not provide abortions. 

    Unfortunately for pro lifers, most of the media and most universities are strongly biased towards abortion. We can't change that right now.  However, I've seen that both sides tend to seize on the worst of their opponents and to present that as if it represents anyone who disagrees. This is why it's bad: Pro lifers sometimes act as if everyone who is pro choice favors making abortion legal throughout a woman's pregnancy, but the people I know who are pro choice only think it should be legal during first trimester. To us, abortion is abortion; but those who are pro choice see this as a case of pro lifers misrepresenting them and their views-and I think it keeps us from figuring out how to work with people who disagree in part but not in whole.  People I know who are pro choice have said to me that pro lifers would ban all abortions even when necessary to save the life of the mother and even arrest someone who had a miscarriage if they couldn't prove it wasn't an abortion. This keeps THEM from working with US on anything. So now we stand on opposite sides of a huge gulf and no one will help the other. 

    I have been distressed by what seems to be a general disregard for the importance of telling the truth vs using biased information to shape policy-and I've seen it on both sides. If we, as Christians, are willing to compromise the truth, then who WILL present it and who will ever believe us?  The only way I see for us to combat these things is through prayer, continuing to present the truth, and demonstrating compassion and love for those who are suffering on both sides of the issue.  May God make us wise as serpents and as harmless as doves and may he have mercy on us all!

  • Janet B
    Posted: Wed, 01/08/2020 06:37 pm

    What do we do, Mr. Olasky?  How do we fight these lies when the liars have the big guns (MSM, major universities, etc.)?

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 01/12/2020 04:19 pm

    Also when the "lying" is so pervasive.  Look at what sociologist said about the effects of divorce on children (later concluded to be wrong) and what they, psychologists and others are saying about living an LGBT lifestyle and growing kids up in SS"M" families.  The truth (and evidence) is trampled, twisted and distorted.  To prayerfully and potently approach this issue the church needs to become more spiritually literate, recognising and engaging in the spiritual battle of which the action of these liars are but a manifestation.

  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 01/16/2020 01:47 pm

    While we might be losing the history war, at the moment, I think it is the last straw for the Backers of Murdering Pre-Born Babies, (the BMPBB’s).  The BMPBB’s stopped using science as a defense because advances in science have become pro-life, in showing the reality of the baby.  Sonogram machines were a huge step forward in showing the individual mother the “thing” inside her was a real human baby not a lump of cells. The only thing the BMPBB’s have left, is to argue about competing rights between the mother and the pre-born baby.  Lies are lies no matter how big the BMPBB’s guns are. Since the death rate of pre-born babies is going down, the real war is now going in the right direction. Obviously the Bible is right, the truth will set you free and the next generation is becoming less enslaved to the lies of the Backers of Murdering Pre-Born Babies.