Crowd in front of the White House holds up various signs, including "Abortion is murder."

Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, by Karissa Haugeberg

Not a year goes by without state legislatures across the country implementing new regulatory burdens on abortion clinics, or requiring excessive waiting periods for women seeking abortions. In fact, while abortion continues to be a legal procedure, the twentieth-first-century abortion landscape is often much more restrictive than it was in the years immediately following the passage of Roe v. Wade. What factors caused this retrenchment of abortion rights in an era of legality? To answer this question, Karissa Haugeberg’s new book, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, explores the foundational role women activists played in the anti-abortion movement, from its formation in the pre-Roe 1960s to the present day.

Looking at the writings and actions of women anti-abortion leaders, Haugeberg argues that these women intimately shaped the hostile abortion environment we face today. While historiography has focused on the influential roles of male leaders of established anti-abortion movements like the National Right to Life Committee (NALC), scholars have neglected to explore the key role women activists played in all stages of the anti-abortion movement.1

As Haugeberg argues, most women activists were not leaders of conventional anti-abortion organizations but rather were grassroots organizers whose groundbreaking tactics in the 1970s and early 1980s laid the foundation for later, more mainstream activists. Yet, until now, their ground-up advocacy remained invisible in writings on anti-abortion activism.

Book jacket for Women Against Abortion by Karissa Haugeberg
Women Against Abortion by Karissa Haugeberg

Haugeberg gracefully yet critically explores how women like Marjory Mecklenburg, who created what are now known as Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), put women — and not fetuses — at the center of their anti-abortion activism. These centers modeled themselves after abortion clinics, often opening up shop right next door. But center volunteers worked to persuade women not to have abortions, often by providing misleading or false medical information — for instance, that abortion caused sterility or psychological distress. The false medical claims CPCs propagated in the 1980s and 1990s became part of major legal decisions like Gonzales v. Carhart in 2007, in which the Supreme Court decided women should not undergo certain late-term abortion procedures because of the possible distress it could cause.

Another leading anti-abortion woman activist was Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a physician whose experience as an African American woman influenced her view of abortion as racial genocide. Juli Loesch was a young, progressive Catholic who self-identified as a feminist, and who drew upon tactics she learned in anti-nuclear protests to become an important grassroots organizer and founder of “rescue” operations at abortion clinics. As Haugeberg explains, in rescue operations, “participants sought to prevent abortions, thereby ‘rescuing’ fetuses by destroying medical equipment, releasing noxious chemicals into ventilation systems, or by chaining themselves to clinic entryways to prevent patients from entering.”2 Joan Andrews was the founder of more violent rescue interventions, working at a grassroots level outside of the formal structure of the Catholic church to escalate and expand rescue operations across the country. Both Loesch and Andrews were Catholic, who, as Haugeberg argues, “developed the aggressive strategies that later came to be associated with evangelical Protestant men in the grassroots pro-life movement.”3

By the 1990s, the federal government had begun to crack down on violence towards abortion clinics and providers, and “rescue” operations fell out of mainstream favor in the anti-abortion movement. Yet women like Shelley Shannon, who tried to murder Dr. George Tiller in 1993, continued to lead the anti-abortion extremists who remained active in the 1990s and directed their violence towards abortion providers at home and in their private lives.

A white woman in a lab coat adjusts a sheet on a hospital bed inside a room, with an empty instruments table nearby and a chart folder on the wall
Room in an abortion clinic, DC. (Harrity/Library of Congress)

Haugeberg contributes important insights into contemporary abortion rights debate in the U.S. Previous scholarship that has analyzed the role women played in anti-abortion activism focused on specific locations or short time periods.4 This fragmented view obscures how anti-abortion activism was always porous — women, and men, moved freely through grassroots and conventional organizations and between violent and nonviolent tactics.

In addition, scholarship has tended to portray anti-abortion activism as evolving from a peaceful beginning to a violent end. Haugeberg disputes this claim, arguing that “violent extremism fell out of favor among some activists as others embraced intimidating and lethal strategies for ending abortion.”5 Haugeberg’s expert insight into the malleability of anti-abortion activism at times lends itself to repetition, as the woman showcased in one chapter also participated in many of the strategies detailed in others.

I found particularly interesting Haugeberg’s gendered analysis of women’s public participation in efforts that were based on the shoring up of traditional gender roles. Haugeberg argues that various women found meaning in their activism, and reconciled their public role by emphasizing the maternal aspect of their actions. Women volunteering in CPCs, for example, described their time away from their families as “a larger mothering project.”6

This gendered dynamic often worked against women. As Protestant, evangelical men in large anti-abortion organizations began to take over rescue organizations originally founded by progressive Catholic women, they pushed women out. As Haugeberg writes, “The departure of women from rescue operations reinforced the patriarchal, militaristic nature of the movement by seeming to confirm that women were too fragile to participate in the taxing, risky work of rescue operations.”7

Despite this erasure, as Haugeberg contends, these women’s legacies have not gone away: “the arguments and strategies women operating at the grassroots level developed came to serve as blueprints to legislators and judges who continue to craft policies and laws that erode women’s right to abortion.”8 Her book demonstrates the reality of how women can be implicated in patriarchal actions, and the sustained legacy of this trend.

Further Reading

Sarah Dubow. Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Johanna Schoen, Abortion After Roe. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Notes

  1. Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Mary Ziegler, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). Return to text.
  2. Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 60. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 6–7. Return to text.
  4. Faye D. Ginsburg, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community, Updated Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Return to text.
  5. Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, 8. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 21. Return to text.
  7. Ibid., 97. Return to text.
  8. Ibid., 8. Return to text.

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