So I’m breezing through recent issues of The New Republic and I’m jolted out of my chair by the following:
Opposition to abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s was “drummed up, exacerbated, and orchestrated by elites at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and the right wing of the Republican party.”
Thus concludes the third paragraph of a lengthy review of three recent books on abortion by University of Chicago historian Christine Stansell.
Stansell is in fact a distinguished historian, and I’ve frequently assigned her excellent American Moderns a study of Greenwich village bohemians in the early twentieth century.
But this essay — and not just that sentence — gets a great deal wrong. Small factual errors — Pius XII permitted the rhythm method in 1952, well before Paul VI endorsed it in 1968 — are less important than the tone, which implies that Catholic opposition to abortion was somehow cajoled out of an unwilling Catholic populace by a conniving hierarchy. Note the language: opposition to abortion was “drummed up, exacerbated and orchestrated.” Or later: the bishops finessed a “rhetorical sleight of hand” by shifting attention away from birth control to abortion. Or later still: a “Catholic vendetta” (really?) made abortion a constant issue in national politics. Or one more time: “the deep resources and coffers” of Catholicism fed the campaign to make the fetus “an icon to rally believers.”
All of this is unfortunate. Stansell is right to see significant connections between the intense, decades long and agonized Catholic discussion of contraception and the emergence of abortion as a national issue in the mid-1960s. I tried to make these connections in my
Catholicism and American Freedom.
But Stansell’s conspiratorial tone is disappointing. Her dubious assumption that absent the Catholic bishops abortion would “have ended up as legal, available, something seldom discussed as a personal matter” is actually the mirror image of arguments made by Catholic conservatives such as George Weigel: that Catholic dissent over birth control might have been quashed if only bishops had resolutely defrocked clergy willingly to publicly venture their disagreement with Humanae Vitae.
Both Stansell and Weigel overestimate episcopal influence. By the mid-1960s, the overwhelming majority of Catholic couples, priests (as evidenced in Leslie Tentler’s fine study) and, perhaps, even bishops, were either ignoring Church teaching on contraception or fervently hoping that this teaching would change. When it did not, Catholic couples resolved to simply ignore church teaching, as they do today, over forty years and innumerable episcopal statements later. Many of today’s more conservative priests and seminarians claim to fully endorse church teaching on contraception. But theirs is an easy orthodoxy unavailable to priests fifty years ago, forced to grapple with the issue on a less abstract plane, as they listened to endless anguished couples discussing dilemmas of contraception, sex and family in the confessional.
Abortion was different. The rapid change in laws on abortion — illegal almost everywhere in 1962, legal at any point in the pregnancy and for any reason after Roe — produced a major popular reaction. This reaction came primarily from within the Catholic community but not because bishops ordered it. Instead bishops, Catholic intellectuals seasoned (and traumatized) by the contraception debate and a wide swath of Catholic opinion found the radical quality of Roe and some of the state laws that preceded Roe startling. Catholic public opinion in its broadest sense on abortion is not significantly different than the general public. But the most mobilized Catholics in the late 1960s and early 1970s — many of them liberals and not, as Stansell assumes, all Republican conservatives — were appalled by the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to permit any restrictions on abortion. (That the Justices, like the bishops, are an unelected “elite” does not trouble Stansell.) Stansell cannot bear to use the term pro-life without revealing scare quotes, and she cannot credit opposition to legal abortion as a genuinely popular movement. She is uninterested, for example, in polling data suggesting young people are more opposed to abortion than than their parents.
She concludes her essay dwelling, a bit wishfully in my estimation, on the “adamantine” fact that most Americans are pro-choice in that they still favor legal abortion. They are and they do. But not in the last months of a pregnancy. Not to select fetuses based on gender. Not with government funds.
The more interesting and accurate historical story is exactly this complexity. Stansell might have turned her talents toward helping us understand this complexity. But she hasn’t, and the soundbite quality of the essay is both a pity and a missed opportunity.