United States pro-life movement

Demonstrators at the 2004 March for Life

The pro-life movement, also known as the anti-abortion movement or the right-to-life movement, in the United States contains elements opposing elective abortion on both moral and sectarian grounds and supports its legal prohibition or restriction. Advocates generally argue that human life begins at conception and that the human zygote (or embryo or fetus) is a person and therefore has a right to life. The pro-life movement includes a variety of organizations, with no single centralized decision-making body.[1] There are diverse arguments and rationales for the pro-life stance. Some anti-abortion activists concede arguments for permissible abortions in exceptional circumstances such as incest, rape, severe fetal defects or when the woman's health is at risk.

Before the Supreme Court 1973 decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, anti-abortion views predominated and found expression in state laws which prohibited or restricted abortions in a variety of ways. (See Abortion in the United States.) The anti-abortion movement became politically active and dedicated to the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down most state laws restricting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.[2][3] In the United States, the movement is associated with several Christian religious groups, especially the Catholic Church, and is frequently, but not exclusively, allied with the Republican Party.[4][5] The movement is also supported by non-mainstream pro-life feminists.[6] The movement seeks to reverse Roe v. Wade and to promote legislative changes or constitutional amendments, such as the Human Life Amendment, that prohibit or at least broadly restrict abortion.[1]

On the other side of the abortion debate in the United States is the pro-choice movement, which argues that pregnant women retain the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.


In the late 1960s, a number of organizations were formed to mobilize opinion against the legalization of abortion. In the United States, the National Right to Life Committee was formed in 1968, while in Australia, the National Right to Life formed in 1970.[7]

The description "pro-life" was adopted by the right-to-life (anti-abortion) movement in the United States following the Supreme Court 1973 decision Roe v. Wade,[1] which held that a woman may terminate her pregnancy prior to the viability of the fetus outside of the womb and may also terminate her pregnancy "subsequent to viability ... for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."[8] The term "pro-life" was adopted instead of "anti-abortion" to highlight their proponents' belief that abortion is the taking of a human life, rather than an issue concerning the restriction of women's reproductive rights.[1] The first organized action was initiated by U.S. Catholic bishops who recommended in 1973 that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to ban abortion.[1]

Roe v. Wade was considered a major setback by pro-life campaigners. The case and the overturning of most anti-abortion laws spurred the growth of a largely religious-based pro-life political and social movement, even as Americans were becoming, in the 1970s and 1980s, increasingly pro-choice. The first major pro-life success since Roe's case came in 1976 with the passing of the Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of certain federal funds for abortions. In Harris v. McRae, pro-life advocates won a 1980 challenge to the Hyde Amendment. That same year, the pro-life movement gained control of the Republican Party's platform committee, adding pro-life planks to the Republican position, and calling for a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning abortion.[1] Two pro-life U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush – were elected.

Some in the media have noted a revitalization of the pro-life movement in the 21st century. In 2011, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard wrote:

That the pro-life movement is bigger is a given. It's also younger, increasingly entrepreneurial, more strategic in its thinking, better organized, tougher in dealing with allies and enemies alike, almost wildly ambitious, and more relentless than ever. Pro-lifers have captured the high moral ground, chiefly thanks to advances in the quality of sonograms. Once fuzzy, sonograms now provide a high-resolution picture of the unborn child in the womb. Fetuses have become babies.[9]

Barnes also discussed the rise in opposition to abortion among the younger generations, especially the millennials, the prevalence of crisis pregnancy centers, and the rejuvenation of old pro-life groups, such as Students for Life, and the rise of new ones, such as 40 Days for Life and Live Action.[9] Lisa Miller of The Washington Post wrote about the younger, more feminine face of the pro-life movement with the rise of leaders such as Lila Rose of Live Action, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, and Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life, all "youngish Christian working mothers with children at home" who seek to combat the image of the anti-abortion movement as made up of "old white men" who cannot relate to the experience of pregnant women.[10]

The pro-life movement has been successful in recent years in promoting new laws against abortion within the states. The Guttmacher Institute said eighty laws restricting abortion were passed in the first six months of 2011, "more than double the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions enacted in 2005—and more than triple the 23 enacted in 2010".[11]


The pro-life movement includes a variety of organizations, with no single centralized decision-making body.[1] There are diverse arguments and rationales for the pro-life stance.

There are many socially conservative organizations in the U.S. that support the pro-life movement. Some groups focus solely on promoting the pro-life cause, such as American Life League, the Susan B. Anthony List, National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life, and Live Action, among many others. Other groups support not only the pro-life cause but the broader family values cause, such as Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America, among many others.

Pro-life individuals generally believe that human life should be valued either from fertilization or implantation until natural death. The contemporary pro-life movement is typically, but not exclusively, influenced by Conservative Christian beliefs, especially in the United States, and has influenced certain strains of bioethical utilitarianism.[12] From that viewpoint, any action which destroys an embryo or fetus kills a person. Any deliberate destruction of human life is considered ethically or morally wrong and is not considered to be mitigated by any benefits to others, as such benefits are coming at the expense of the life of what they believe to be a person. In some cases, this belief extends to opposing abortion of fetuses that would almost certainly expire within a short time after birth, such as anencephalic fetuses.

Some pro-life advocates also oppose certain forms of birth control, particularly hormonal contraception such as emergency contraception (ECPs), and copper IUDs which prevent the implantation of an embryo. Because they believe that the term "pregnancy" should be defined so as to begin at fertilization, they refer to these contraceptives as abortifacients[13] because they cause the embryo to starve. An embryo gets its nourishment off the uterine wall and dies if not attached. The Catholic Church endorses this view,[14] but the possibility that hormonal contraception has post-fertilization effects is disputed within the scientific community, including some pro-life physicians.[15]

Attachment to a pro-life position is often but not exclusively connected to religious beliefs about the sanctity of life (see also culture of life). Exclusively secular-humanist positions against abortion tend to be a minority viewpoint among pro-life advocates; these groups (such as Secular Pro-Life) say that their position is based on human rights and biology, rather than religion.[16][17][18] Many holding the pro-life position also tend toward a complementarian view of gender roles, though there is also a self-described feminist element inside the movement.[19]

Views in opposition to abortion

The variety in opinion on the issue of abortion is reflected in the diverse views of religious groups. For example, the Catholic Church considers all procured abortions morally evil,[20] while traditional Jewish teaching sanctions abortion if necessary to safeguard the life and well-being of the pregnant woman.[21]

Christian groups

The only coordinated opposition to abortion in the United States during the early 1970s before the Roe v. Wade decision was from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Family Life Bureau. Mobilization of a wide-scale pro-life movement began immediately after in 1973 with the creation of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).[22]

Before 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention officially advocated for loosening of abortion restrictions.[23] During the 1971 and 1974 Southern Baptist Conventions, Southern Baptists were called upon "to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother."[23] W. Barry Garrett wrote in the Baptist Press, "Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the [Roe v. Wade] Supreme Court Decision.".[23] By 1980, conservative Protestant leaders became vocal in their opposition to legalized abortion,[24] and by the early 1990s Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition of America became a significant pro-life organization.[25] In 2005, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that making abortion illegal is more important than any other issue.[26]

Much of the pro-life movement in the United States and around the world finds support in the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian right, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Church of England, the Anglican Church in North America, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).[27][28][29][30] However, the pro-life teachings of these denominations vary considerably. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church consider abortion to be immoral in all cases, but may in some cases permit an act which indirectly and without intent results in the death of the fetus in a case where the mother's life is threatened. In Pope John Paul II's Letter to Families he simply stated the Roman Catholic Church's view on abortion and euthanasia: "Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law."

The National Association of Evangelicals and the LDS Church oppose abortion on demand. However, the NAE considers abortion permissible in cases with clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, dire threat to the life/physical health of the pregnant woman, or when a pregnancy results from rape or incest.[31][32][33] The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS) was formed in 1987 to further the pro-life ministry in The United Methodist Church.[34] The Southern Baptist Convention believes that abortion is allowable only in cases where there is a direct threat to the life of the woman.[31] Other Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ, are pro-choice.[31]

Consistent life ethic

Supporters of the consistent life ethic also oppose abortions as one of the acts that end human life. In 1979, Juli Loesch linked anti-abortion and anti-nuclear weapons arguments to form the group Prolifers for Survival. In 1987 this group defined an ethic of the sanctity of all life, and formed the group Seamless Garment Network. This group was against abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, militarism, poverty and racism.[35] Beginning in 1983, American Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin argued that abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and unjust war are all related, and all wrong. He said that "to be truly 'pro-life,' you have to take all of those issues into account."[36] Paul M. Perl studied 1996 voter statistics and found that the consistent life ethic is difficult for religious leaders to promote because it combines the generally conservative anti-abortion stance with a liberal social attitude.[37]

The United States Republican Party platform advocates a pro-life position,[38] though there are some pro-choice Republicans. The Republican group The Wish List supports pro-choice Republican women just as EMILY's List supports pro-choice Democratic women. The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) is dedicated to "increasing the percentage of pro-life women in Congress and high public office,"[39] and seeks to eliminate abortion in the U.S.[40] The Democrats for Life of America are a group of pro-life Democrats on the political left who advocate for a pro-life plank in the Democratic Party's platform and for pro-life Democratic candidates. Former vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, the late Robert Casey, a former two-term governor of Pennsylvania, and former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich), a former leader of the bipartisan pro-life caucus in the United States House of Representatives, have been among the most well-known pro-life Democrats.[41] However, following his vote in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the SBA List reported that her organization was revoking a pro-life award it had been planning to give to Stupak,[42] and pro-life organizations accused Stupak of having betrayed the pro-life movement.[43][44][45][46]

The New York Times reported in 2011 that the pro-life movement in the United States has been undergoing a disagreement over tactics. Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the movement has usually focused on chipping away at Roe through incremental restrictions such as laws requiring parental consent or women to see sonograms, restricting late-term abortions, etc., with the goal of limiting abortions and changing "hearts and minds" until there is a majority on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. However, some activists are calling for "an all-out legal assault on Roe. v. Wade", seeking the enactment of laws defining legal personhood as beginning at fertilization or prohibiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable at six to eight weeks in the hope that court challenges to such laws would lead the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. They believe that Justice Anthony Kennedy, who nearly decided to overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, is open to rethinking Roe. Others fear that the Court would not only strike down the laws in question but other state laws as well, and take the opportunity to solidify the ruling in Roe. Evangelical Christian groups tend to be in the former camp and Catholic groups in the latter.[47]


Studies indicate that activists within the American pro-life movement are predominantly white and educated, with a majority of pro-life activism constituted by women. Scholars continue to dispute the primary factors that cause individuals to become pro-life activists. While some have suggested that a particular moral stance or worldview leads to activism, others have suggested that activism leads individuals to develop particular moral positions and worldviews.

A 1981 survey of dues paying members of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) by sociologist Donald O. Granberg found that survey respondents held conservative views on sex, sex education, and contraception. Additionally, Granberg's survey provided basic demographic characteristics of his sample: 98% of survey respondents were white, 63% were female, 58% had a college degree, and 70% were Catholic. Granberg concluded that conservative personal morality was the primary mechanism for explaining an individual's involvement in the pro-life movement.[48]

A 2002 study by Carol J.C. Maxwell drawing on decades of survey and interview data of direct-action activists within the pro-life movement found that 99% of the sample was white, 60% was female, 51% had a college degree, and 29% were Catholic. Like Granberg's 1981 study, Maxwell concluded that pro-life and pro-choice activists held two different worldviews which in turn are formed by two different moral centers.[49]

More recently, sociologist Ziad Munson studied the characteristics of both activists and non-activists who considered themselves pro-life. The pro-life activists of Munson's sample were 93% white, 57% female, 66% Catholic, and 71% had a college degree. Of non-activists who considered themselves pro-life, Munson found that 83% were white, 52% were female, 45% were Catholic, and 76% had a college degree. In Munson's analysis personal moralities and worldviews are formed as a consequence of participation in pro-life activism. Munson's analysis differs from previous scholarly work in its assertion that beliefs result from activism rather than causing activism. For Munson, life course factors make an individual more or less likely to become an activist.[50]

Controversies over terminology

Pro-life advocates tend to use terms such as "unborn baby", "unborn child", or "pre-born child",[51][52] and see the medical terms "embryo", "zygote", and "fetus" as dehumanizing.[53][54] Pro-life individuals may also prefer to refer to the pregnant woman as a "mother", while some pro-choice individuals consider this inappropriate.

Both "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are examples of terms labeled as political framing: they are terms which purposely try to define their philosophies in the best possible light, while by definition attempting to describe their opposition in the worst possible light. "Pro-choice" implies that the alternative viewpoint is "anti-choice", while "pro-life" implies the alternative viewpoint is "pro-death" or "anti-life".[55] Some right-to-lifers use the term "pro-abort" to refer to pro-choice organizations and individuals.[56]

The Associated Press encourages journalists to use the terms "abortion rights" and "anti-abortion".[57] In a 2009 Gallup Poll, a majority of U.S. adults (51%) called themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion—for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1995—while 42% identified themselves as "pro-choice",[58] although pro-choice groups noted that acceptance of the "pro-life" label did not in all cases indicate opposition to legalized abortion, and that another recent poll had indicated that an equal number were pro-choice.[59] A March 2011 Rasmussen Reports poll concluded that Americans are "closely divided between those who call themselves pro-life" and those who consider themselves as "pro-choice".[60] In a February 2011 Rasmussen Reports poll of "Likely U.S. Voters", fifty percent view themselves as "pro-choice" and forty percent "say they are pro-life".[61] In a July 2013 Rasmussen Reports poll of "Likely U.S. Voters", 46 percent view themselves as "pro-choice" and 43 percent "say they are pro-life".[62]

Abortion health risk claims

Some right-to-life organizations and individuals disseminate false medical information and unsupported pseudoscientific claims about alleged physical and mental health risks of abortion.[63][64] Many right-to-life organizations claim that abortion damages future fertility, or causes breast cancer,[65][66] which is contradicted by the medical professional organizations.[67][68][69][70][71][72] Some states, such as Alaska, Mississippi, West Virginia, Texas, and Kansas, have passed laws requiring abortion providers to warn patients of a link between abortion and breast cancer, and to issue other scientifically unsupported warnings.[73][74]

Some right-to-life advocacy groups allege a link between abortion and subsequent mental-health problems.[75] Some U.S. state legislatures have mandated that patients be told that abortion increases their risk of depression and suicide, despite the fact that such risks are not supported by the bulk of the scientific literature,[75][76][77][78][79] and are contradicted by mainstream organizations of mental-health professionals such as the American Psychological Association.[80][81][82]

Types of advocacy

Pro-life advocacy involves a variety of activities, from promoting the pro-life position to the public in general, lobbying public officials, or attempting to dissuade individual women to forgo abortions. Some efforts involve distributing literature, providing counseling services, conducting public demonstrations or protests and private or public prayer.

Pro-life protesters make a silent demonstration in front of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrations and protests


Specialty license plates

In the United States, some states issue specialty license plates that have a pro-life theme. Choose Life, an advocacy group founded in 1997, was successful in securing a pro-life automobile tag in Florida. Subsequently, the organization has been actively helping groups in other states pursue "Choose Life" license plates.[98][99]


Violent incidents directed against abortion providers have included arson and bombings of abortion clinics, and murders or attempted murders of physicians and clinic staff, especially the doctors that provide abortions. Acts of violence against abortion providers and facilities in North America have largely subsided following a peak in the mid-1990s[100] which included the murders of Drs. David Gunn, John Britton, and Barnett Slepian and the attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller was murdered in his church in 2009.[101]

Nearly all pro-life leaders condemn the use of violence in the movement, describing it as an aberration and saying that no one in their organizations was associated with acts of violence.[102][103] There is, however, a small extremist fringe element of the right-to-life movement in the USA, which supports, raises money for, and attempts to justify anti-abortion violence, including murders of abortion workers, which the fringe element calls "justifiable homicides".[104][105][106]

Pro-life activists have been the targets of criminal intimidation and violence, which included the murder of James Pouillon.[107]

See also


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Further reading

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