In this election year many of us find ourselves disappointed with the deteriorating tone of political debate in the United States. The Donald Trump phenomenon is only the most obvious indicator that all is far from well. Yet even on the “progressive” side we see an effort to belittle those who express opinions deemed to be “on the wrong side of history,” the assumption being that Americans—and perhaps the world—are caught up in larger historical forces moving in a single direction evident to all. However, Daniel K. Williams' new book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, complicates this picture by showing the extent to which the movement to limit abortion was once regarded as genuinely progressive. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Kristin Dombek paints this surprising portrait of a vanished world of two generations ago:
From the perspective of our historical moment, it’s hard to imagine a country where the most prominent voices against abortion were Catholic physicians, and evangelical Protestants were either in favor of lifting restrictions on abortion, or didn’t really care. A country where Democrats and the Black Panthers opposed abortion, and Ronald Reagan, like most conservatives, supported it. Where more men than women supported legalizing abortion, and Hugh Hefner was one of those men, leading one activist to call legalized abortion the “final victory of the Playboy philosophy.” Where opposition to abortion found common cause with opposition to the exploitation of women, to the abandonment of the poor, to big business and to the Vietnam War.
While Dombek acknowledges that contemporary progressives find the language of abortion-as-genocide unpersuasive, she recognizes that, in the context of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, “liberals were understandably suspicious of any policy or law that seemed to promote population control funded by a government they suspected of systemic racism.”
Though Williams' book is unlikely to bring the pro-life cause back into the progressive camp, it should serve as a cautionary note on the use of political labels and as a needed counsel of humility for those with the cultural power to assign them. Fashions come and go. One generation's progress may fall victim to the next generation's very different agenda. If there is a lesson to be taken from this, it is that history is not, after all, a singular progressive movement along some grand Hegelian trajectory.
Yet Christians confess that history is in God's hands. It is not just a meaningless “one damn thing after another” but is a genuine movement from creation and fall to redemption and consummation, as laid out in the biblical narrative. Ideological agendas tend to fail over the long term because they are based on faulty understandings of the workings of God's world. Or, to paraphrase Marx, they carry the seeds of their own destruction, something we witnessed with communism's collapse a quarter of a century ago. If history should appear to be following a particular path at the moment, rather than getting on board, we have every reason to be cautious, discerning the spirits at work and remaining faithful to the God whose redemptive plan is at the very center of history.
David Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.