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Culture Q&A

Birth of a movement

A look back at the first two decades of pro-life work after Roe v. Wade

Birth of a movement

(Illustration by Michael Morris)

Connie Marshner was executive vice president of the Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s and chair of Ronald Reagan’s Family Policy Advisory Board.

In 1972, if you were told one party would become the pro-life party and one party the party of abortion, which would you have selected? The Democrats would be pro-life. Lots of Republicans favored “population control.”

Abortion was a subset of population control? It wasn’t on the conservative radar. At the time the standard joke was, “‘Congressman, what do you want to do about this abortion bill?’ ‘Oh, pay it.’” When Roe v. Wade came along, nobody paid much attention to it except for those who were religiously oriented.

Were people following the Roe v. Wade oral arguments at the Supreme Court? Nobody on the right paid much attention to them.

What was the initial reaction to the Roe decision in January 1973? Nellie Gray, a liberal feminist civil rights activist who worked for the federal government, took it upon herself to visit senators with names like Kennedy. She assumed they would say, “We’ve got to fix this.” But her heroes were not interested.

She thought Ted Kennedy would see injustice? She assumed he and others would share her horror about people deprived of personhood. She couldn’t believe they wouldn’t talk with her.

So she organized in 1974 a March for Life. In those days that’s what you did if you had a civil rights issue: You organized a march. She contacted a couple of guys in New York, the Long Island equivalent of good old boys. They brought a couple of buses down, probably their American Legion buddies: blue-collar, Catholics, probably Irish. They came and they marched. It was very small.

Nellie found allies among conservatives? To her horror she discovered Republican conservative James Buckley wanted to introduce a human life amendment. She hadn’t talked to Republicans and had no use for them, certainly not conservative ones, but all of a sudden she found herself with a new set of friends.

Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, cemented the relationship? Paul would only support a candidate who agreed to support the Human Life Amendment. He did not want the pro-life issue to be a Republican-only issue. But in 1978 the Republican establishment said several elections were unwinnable—and Paul won them. For example, he had Roger Jepsen in Iowa go into the Democratic precincts with a pro-life flyer, and Jepsen won. The pro-life issue turned out Democratic voters to vote Republican.

They elected Ronald Reagan. But he didn’t deliver. Nancy Reagan was always pro-abortion. He would never do anything for the March for Life. Morton Blackwell at the time of the march in 1984 got him to meet with pro-lifers. This was considered a real accomplishment.

Did anything emerge from that? No, nothing was ever supposed to emerge from that. It was just window-dressing.

Two of the three Supreme Court justices who came out of the Reagan administration were disappointments. Sandra Day O’Connor made it because Reagan said he’d nominate a woman, but why that particular woman? A young staffer checked with a few people in Arizona. He didn’t talk with Carolyn Gerster, an Arizona doctor who was the Right to Life leader. By the time the pro-life people in Arizona made contact with us, it was too late. The Reagan folks wouldn’t withdraw her name.

How effective was the National Right to Life Committee? NRLC created an ungodly management structure: a board of 50, one member from every state. Getting all those people to make any decision was a nightmare. So in 1978 or 1979 NRLC hired Judie Brown, a Kmart internal auditor. She wanted to see pro-life candidates elected and took it upon herself to endorse them. The board says “we never authorized that, so goodbye”—and Judie founded the American Life League.

What started out as the Christian Action Council became Care Net, which grew a crisis pregnancy center network. A huge grassroots movement came in for Reagan because they thought he would be the pro-life savior. That didn’t happen. They dropped out of politics, but they didn’t drop out of the pro-life movement. They went back to their communities and set up CPCs. For years, when I would travel and meet people who knew my name because I had been visible, they’d say, “I used to do politics, but now I do this.”

Operation Rescue received a lot of attention in the late 1980s. OR was a PR disaster for the pro-life movement. We had made a lot of headway at the cultural person-to-person level on Main Street, but Operation Rescue, combined with shootings that were happening at the same time, gave the pro-life movement such a black eye that many people became afraid to be pro-life.

OR was playing off frustration. You could make a case that it was a safety valve, giving people a creative outlet for their anger so they didn’t do something more drastic.

But out of that low point some new strategies developed. The pro-life trajectory changed forever when people at our early-1990s pro-life leaders meetings said “Love them both”—the baby and the mom—would be our new thing. We hadn’t been talking about the woman.

—WORLD has updated this Q&A to correct the description of Judie Brown’s role at Kmart.