The 1970s

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

In the 1970s, state-level abortion reform laws and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision provoked intense anti-abortion organizing. The Catholic Church augmented its existing institutional infrastructure by using the Bishops' organization to work directly against abortion. In 1973, NCCB's Pro-Family Division formed the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Recognizing the great potential for organizing, the NRLC and its elaborate structure of state and local affiliates used parishes and pulpits to recruit members to their ranks and to influence legislation.

After the Roe decision, "pro-life" advocates saw that they were on the defensive and recognized the impossibility of overturning the decision with the then-current makeup of the US Supreme Court. And the Court would not change without a sufficiently conservative President. Other approaches were necessary. For the next nine years, the NRLC focused on Congress in an unsuccessful attempt to re-criminalize abortion through a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution.

American Catholics were used to hearing their priests encouraging them to vote based on their religious principles, but it soon became clear that a mass anti-abortion movement could not be built with Catholics alone. For one thing, many American Catholics no longer agreed with their church leadership's positions on reproductive health issues. And the leadership wasn't about to budge in its dogmatic stance in order to win new recruits. The movement needed other sources of membership.

Evangelical Protestants began to emerge as a prominent social and political force in the 1970s. As church membership in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian congregations grew substantially in this decade, New Right strategists including Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie took careful notice. The New Right of the late 1970s was crafted by its strategists to carry its agenda in large part through a revitalization of the Republican Party. But it needed mass numbers of new voters willing to support its issues, and it needed a cause that could attract some former Democrats. Christian fundamentalists had largely retreated from the political arena after the embarrassment of the Scopes creationist trail and the failure of Prohibition. The strategists' challenge was to convince these individuals to vote again. The 1976 election of Jimmy Carter - the country's first born-again President - primed the pump.

Weyrich and Viguerie recruited Jerry Falwell, the successful Lynchburg, Virginia preacher who was busy building a national televangelist empire with adjunct services.4 Together, in 1979, they created the Moral Majority, a group designed to mobilize conservative Christians to become politically active. They sought and received support from Focus on the Family, another burgeoning organization founded in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist and Christian family counselor. Abortion proved to be a powerful lightning rod that attracted members to these groups, which in turn formed the core of the Christian Right. The New Right thus mobilized an arm, the Christian Right, that was intended to lure both Protestants and Catholic voters away from their traditionally Democratic leanings.5

An influential married team, J.C. and Barbara Willke, marriage counselors and Catholic sex educators, were recruited into the work by Catholic anti-abortion militant Father Paul Marx, the founder of Human Life International. The Willkes knew the power of visual aids from their sex education work, and their gruesome 1971 set of photos and illustrations of aborted fetuses circulate widely to this day. They are often used in clinic protests or in educational sessions to recruit new members.6 Originally designed as deterrents for women considering an abortion, these pictures also function as motivation for highly charged emotional reactions to abortion and appear to contribute to violent anti-abortion activity. John Salvi, the killer in the December 1994 Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings, was among those who distributed them.7

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