A doctor best known for performing late-term abortions is gunned down while he and his wife are faithfully ministering in their Lutheran church on a Sunday morning. The University of Notre Dame, America’s best-known Catholic institution, honors the nation’s first black president, who is also a staunch defender of legal abortion. Dozens of prolife activists protesting Barack Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame are arrested.

Those are just two of the more traumatic moments in the ongoing clash that has been called America’s new civil war. No other nation experiences such intense public conflict over the fate of unborn life. The “abortion wars” are fought in America’s universities as well as in the nation’s courts, legislatures, and streets. Historically, most of the academic firepower has been directed at the “anti-abortion” movement. For example, political scientist Alesha Doan’s recent study Opposition and Intimidation: The Abortion Wars and Strategies of Political Harassment (2007), depicts the prolife movement as a “morality movement” that specializes in “inflammatory and militaristic rhetoric, veiled physical threats, and successful perpetuation of violence.” According to Doan, prolife tactics of aggressive harassment are analogous to those employed by the KKK.

Despite a relentless stream of negative stereotyping, the prolife movement has proved to be one of the most enduring and significant protest movements in modern times. Ziad Munson’s new study The Making of Pro-life Activists breaks out of the conventional academic portrayals, providing a more balanced assessment of the dynamics and diverse trajectories of activism at work within the movement. Extensive in-depth interviews in four distinct regional settings form the basis for his study; they also provide a rich tapestry of personal stories and observations that bring life and color to his sociological analysis.

Munson makes three important contributions. First, his extensive multiregional research uncovers some of the critical but poorly understood processes of mobilization and socialization within activist movements. Second, he challenges the clichéd and often denigrating scholarly accounts of prolife worldviews and offers a more thoughtful examination of the diverse voices within the movement. Third, he deconstructs the widely accepted assumption that the prolife movement is predominantly an expression of long-held religious convictions, replacing it with a fresh approach to the religious culture of prolife activism.

Munson sees prolife activism as an example of a major contemporary social-
activist movement that can shed light on the inner dynamics of other protest moments. Prolife activism is usually thought of as a political movement that attempts to tap into, mobilize, and channel a preexistent base of deeply conservative moral and religious beliefs about women and maternity. Munson concludes that the evidence does not support this account. Individuals who are drawn to prolife activity usually begin with a set of very “nebulous” attitudes toward abortion that are, at best, “underdeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent.” In fact, a significant percentage of prolife activists were committed to soft prochoice stances at the time they made contact with the movement. Activists come from a wide range of ideological, religious, and political backgrounds.

Furthermore, effective prolife recruitment does not consist of marketing strategies designed to connect with individuals who hold preexisting prolife beliefs, sell them on the mission to promote those beliefs, and then mobilize them. Munson argues that mobilization depends far more on personal relationships and personal transformation than on indoctrination. Recruitment typically begins with individuals who are at some “turning point” in their lives. Those who hold strong prolife views, but who are fairly settled in their familial, religious, and work lives, rarely become involved in prolife activism. However, people who are going through periods of change, disruption, or transformation are often open to the idea of commitment. This willingness to become involved may be due to changes in familial status (marriage, divorce, the birth of a first child), education, work, or location; retirement; changes in religion; or a death in the family. People experience many turning points, or what sociologists call “liminal” moments, over the course of their lives. Almost all of the activists that Munson interviewed entered the prolife movement during one of these moments of “biographical availability.”

First contact is not typically made through a response to a glossy poster, a punchy newspaper ad, or a clever marketing campaign. Rather, it usually occurs through direct personal encounters with members of the movement in their ordinary social networks in the workplace, family, school, religious community, or circle of friends and acquaintances. New members are drawn into the movement through “relational ties.” These relational contacts and initial exchanges are often haphazard, accidental, and seemingly trivial.

Munson’s emphasis on the highly personal nature of recruitment may shake up the conventional academic wisdom that protest movements grow through the well-organized and effective framing of shared values and ideals. I suspect, however, it won’t come as a surprise to many insiders who are well aware that friendship and personal trust are crucial factors in any mobilization effort. Effective activism, whether religious or nonreligious, conservative or radical, must find ways of penetrating the soft-shelled texture of daily life. Posters are mere reminders of dates and locations—the message must always be communicated person to person. Munson does seem to overlook one critical element in mobilization, however. From the perspective of the insider, these “serendipitous” personal encounters are a direct function of an insider’s own “biographical availability” to others. In activist circles, both religious and nonreligious, this is recruitment 101.

The next major moment in mobilization is “initial activism” through a prolife meeting, a protest, or volunteer work in a crisis-pregnancy center. Participation at this level is not usually motivated by strong ideological commitments, but by a desire for “social involvement” and “doing things with others.” It is only after new members begin to be involved and connected to the prolife community that they really begin the process of developing more articulate and well-formed beliefs.

Again, I suspect Munson’s insistence on the importance of this “initial activist” phase gets it half-right. He seems to miss a “conversion” dimension that is central to any activist movement, whether religious or secular. The “initial activist” phase is an invitation to the individual to self-identify with the group. Immersion in initial activism is more than just warm fellowship and connection; it is a gentle, but critical, call to conversion. The individual is invited to “come and see,” to personally taste the experience of being a member of a movement.

According to Munson, the final phases of mobilization are the “development of prolife beliefs” and “full movement participation.” Here things get interesting. At the heart of the prolife movement is a deep and abiding conviction that, in the words of one activist, “every child’s life can have meaning.” However, this shared conviction plays out in diverse ways. In Munson’s sociological language, the prolife movement branches into four distinct “streams” of activism: direct action, political action, individual outreach, and public outreach. Each stream constitutes a distinct communal and ideological “crucible” for the recruitment, formation, and mobilization of activists.

The political stream focuses on legislative and legal reform. Activists speak the language of civil rights and typically adopt gradualist strategies that promote incremental reforms, including the elimination of direct government funding for abortion, bans on partial-birth abortion, restrictions on who can perform abortions, spousal or parental notification, counseling requirements, and so on.

Operation Rescue is a well-known example of the direct-action stream. Activists deliberately position themselves, usually outside clinics, as players in the deadly drama of abortion alongside doctors, staff, and pregnant women. Their strategies involve picketing, protests, demonstrations, prayer vigils, sit-ins, and civil disobedience. They see themselves as the last line of defense for defenseless children.

The vast majority of prolife activists are involved with the individual-outreach stream—a stream largely overlooked by the media and academy. They operate thousands of crisis-pregnancy centers across the country. This approach emphasizes the harm done to women by abortion. It focuses on providing psychological, moral, financial, and material support to pregnant women. Finally, the public-outreach stream is represented by a variety of prolife organizations dedicated to ongoing education and information about the unborn child, fetal development, and the rights of the child. The public-outreach stream wants to reduce abortion rates by slowly changing people’s minds about the meaning and value of the unborn child.

Munson’s research indicates that there are sharp divisions between these streams. Each embraces a different set of concerns and strategies. Activists from different streams rarely interact with one another or cross boundaries to participate in each other’s activities. Furthermore, there are often tensions between them. The incrementalism of the political, individual, and public-outreach streams is often dismissed as soft and compromising by activists in the direct-action stream. Activists in individual-outreach or public-outreach tend to see political action as too partisan and direct action as too aggressive and divisive. Organizations involved in individual outreach often bar members from participation in direct action.

Munson argues that these streams reflect a remarkable diversity within the movement. His study debunks stereotypical journalistic portrayals of prolife activism as a form of moral terrorism motivated by blind aggression and moral fanaticism. But he also challenges more refined academic stereotypes. Kristin Luker’s very influential study argued that the prochoice/prolife divide reflects two deep, but diametrically opposed, worldviews with conflicting perspectives on values, sexuality, parenthood, the roles of the sexes, and human nature itself. The prochoice movement affirms planned childbearing as necessary to women’s autonomy and self-determination while prolife advocates see marriage, pregnancy, and childbearing as the defining features of women’s existence.

Munson found no evidence of any shared coherent worldview among prolife activists. Prolifers possess a “complex moral landscape” and have diverse political and religious commitments. Some activists lean heavily on civil-rights concerns for protection of the poor and marginalized. Some focus on defense of the unborn child; others emphasize the need to support pregnant women. Some draw heavily on religious commitments; others lean on the findings of medical science. Many prolife activists began with left-leaning political inclinations. In recent years attempts to entrench the prochoice/prolife options into party platforms have tended to force prolife activists, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the Republican camp. Prolife political affiliations may change, however, as the political map evolves. Curiously, the most fundamental political setback for the prochoice movement, the Hyde Amendment eliminating federal funding for abortion, was passed under Jimmy Carter’s administration. President Carter continues to combine a fervent liberalism with an equally fervent prolife commitment. Prolife commitment has shown an ability to adapt, and, as Munson notes, the recovery of a stronger prolife voice in the Democratic Party may still be a possibility.

The third major stereotype Munson challenges is the view that the movement is deeply immersed in, and indebted to, conservative Christian churches. Munson finds that institutional religion actually provides very minimal financial, organizational, and ideological support for the movement. Christian churches, both Catholic and Evangelical, tend to retreat from issues perceived to be controversial and divisive. Pastors often feel that highly charged political issues detract from their mission and sow discord in their congregations. Religious leaders have no significant presence in the movement. For example, of the fifty-three members of the National Right to Life Committee, only one is a religious minister. This pattern holds true for other prolife organizations. In fact, most activists express considerable frustration at the failure of institutional churches to show more support. They point out that pastors rarely, if ever, speak about abortion in their sermons. Munson concludes that the churches “provide surprisingly little overt support for the movement.”

Yet Munson also notes that there is a tight and intricate relationship between religion and prolife activism. How is this so if traditional religious institutions offer so little help? The religiosity of prolife experience is internal to the movement. Prolife activism itself is experienced as “religious” in four distinct ways. First, prolife activism is often viewed as a way of doing God’s work and experienced as a form of “religious calling.” Second, the communal dimensions of prolife protest, action, or outreach seem to constitute a primary form of religious fellowship. Third, prolife action often explicitly takes the form of prayer vigils in front of clinics. For some, public prayer is the fundamental form of activism. Finally, prolifers have developed various types of public ritual to express their commitments and to commemorate the life and death of children lost to abortion. Prolife chapels dedicated to the victims of abortion are springing up. In short, prolife spirituality and activism are creatively fusing into their own unique blend.

Religion, in this sense, is not viewed as some kind of external causal factor. Munson’s research uncovers a more intricate interaction. Religion and activism so thoroughly interpenetrate that prolife activism itself becomes a self-constituting religious or ecclesial experience. Religious faith is expressed, activated, and enacted in and through prolife practice, conviction, and community.

Finally, Munson’s venture into the history of the American abortion movement is a bit of a letdown, but deserves some comment. Here he doesn’t challenge, but merely echoes, a version of prochoice history that has been current in the academy for a few decades. According to Kristin Luker and constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe, for most of American history abortion was generally viewed neither as a crime nor a sin, but merely a form of birth control. In previous centuries homespun techniques of abortion were passed down through families or midwife traditions. Women have always ended pregnancies for the usual reasons that women still do. In this cozy reading of history, abortion is about as American as apple pie, and the Roe v. Wade decision just reflects this authentically American tradition.

Munson is determined to anchor his narrative to this larger one. Until the 1950s, he assures us, abortion was “widely, if not universally, available despite its remaining technically illegal.” This line echoes social historians who go so far as to argue that abortion rates in the late 1800s through the 1930s were probably similar to current abortion rates. These claims about the pervasiveness of abortion seem somewhat exaggerated; it is widely conceded that prior to advances in twentieth-century medicine, most abortions were either “ineffective or lethal.” This reading of history is beginning to wear thin.

At bottom, Munson is convinced that there is no deep or latent tradition of prolife belief or practice in American culture. Prolife moral passion is a modern innovation that has been “constructed in bits and pieces,” and then “developed and nurtured by the movement itself.” This is tendentious, and adds little to Munson’s otherwise valuable discussion. Clearly, serious reservations about abortion exist in American religious, ethical, and medical traditions.

Despite this misappropriated bit of history, Munson’s study offers a fresh account of prolife activism. It is a movement that has no monolithic face, and moves forward along divergent paths. Its members press on, with little external institutional support, in the face of determined legal and political repression. Still, the movement has racked up some significant legislative victories, exhibiting a deliciously stubborn “yes we can” resilience that does seem to be a unique American virtue—and, at times, the nation’s troubling vice.

Daniel Cere is professor of religion, ethics, and law at McGill University, and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values.
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