Defenders of the Unborn

By Daniel Williams, OUP, £23

Daniel Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn is a fascinating, revealing and even-handed account of the early history of the pro-life movement in America.

The movement is usually presented as a reaction against the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade, which led to the legalisation of abortion throughout the United States. But, as Williams shows, the debate on abortion began as early as the 1930s when a small number of doctors began to advocate a utilitarian philosophy in which the welfare of the pregnant mother was considered to take precedence over that of the unborn child. They were opposed by the National Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Guilds, founded in 1937 to combat new ethical challenges in medicine including contraception, sterilisation and abortion.

The battle over abortion began in earnest in 1959 when the American Law Institute’s (ALI) Model Penal Code included a model abortion law that allowed abortion in cases of rape, incest and disability, and to preserve the life and physical and mental health of the mother. Immediately, a number of American states sought to pass laws modelled on the ALI code, but perceptive observers, many of them Catholic doctors, immediately recognised that the code would lead to abortion on demand.

Williams shows that the Catholic Church was virtually alone in opposing abortion law liberalisation in the 1960s. Evangelical Protestants such as Billy Graham supported abortion in “hard cases”. The National Council of Churches, representing mainline Protestantism, strongly endorsed therapeutic abortion.

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