What Can We Learn from the Pre-Roe Pro-Lifers?

Recovering a comprehensive social vision for families

Daniel K. Williams

Imagine a pro-life movement that successfully prevented the legalization of abortion in dozens of states. Imagine a movement that attracted support not only from many Republicans but also from some of the most liberal Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Imagine a pro-life movement that supported the unborn not only through anti-abortion laws but also through calls for an expansion in prenatal and maternal health insurance and other measures to protect both children and mothers. 

In other words, imagine the pro-life movement of the early 1970s.

The Pro-Life Movement of the 70s

American abortion law in the pre-Roe era of the early 1970s was in many respects a lot like American abortion law today. Because the federal government left abortion regulation up to the states, some states, such as New York, allowed nearly unrestricted abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, while other states prohibited all abortion except when it was necessary to save a woman’s life. As is the case today, polls showed that public opinion on abortion was divided. And both the feminist movement and much of the national media were strongly supportive of abortion rights, just as we see now.

In short, the pro-life movement of the early 1970s faced some of the same challenges in winning public support that it experiences in our generation. But there were at least two key differences between the movement then and now: the pro-life movement’s political orientation and its comprehensive social vision. 

Because the pro-life movement did not position itself as a politically conservative movement, it was able to win support across the political spectrum in ways that may seem unimaginable in our current political moment. But there is a lot that we can learn from this approach, even in the midst of the partisan polarization we now face.

The pro-life movement of the early 1970s was still overwhelmingly Catholic, and the social vision they promoted reflected the priorities of a 20th-century Catholic emphasis on societal obligations to the less fortunate. Employers had an obligation to pay workers a living wage. The government had a social obligation to make sure that the nation’s citizens had adequate healthcare and educational opportunities. And the state also had an obligation to families to ensure that they could flourish.

The Catholics who organized the earliest efforts to defend the unborn against proposals for the liberalization of state abortion laws drew on this social teaching to situate the right to life for the preborn within a broader vision of human flourishing. In 1947, the nation’s Catholic bishops issued a declaration of human rights that began with the “right to life and bodily integrity from the moment of conception,” but then proceeded with a long list of other social rights, including the “right to a living wage,” the “right to an education,” the “right to collective bargaining,” and the “right to receive assistance from society.” 

For mid-20th-century Catholics, the right to life for the preborn was a foundational right, but they never thought of it as existing in a vacuum. Instead, it formed the premise from which all other social obligations could proceed. While libertarians often think of rights primarily in individualist terms, Catholic social teaching—especially the social teaching that was codified by the Vatican II conference in the 1960s—envisioned human rights as a codification of social obligations that we owe to people in recognition of their human dignity as those made in the image of the divine.

In recognition of this larger social vision, the pro-life organizations of the early 1970s often combined their campaign against abortion with anti-war activism, concerns about poverty, and calls for expanded social assistance. 

But when the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) made abortion legal nationwide, even the most politically progressive pro-life organizations decided that the quest to secure constitutional protection for the preborn superseded all other considerations.

The pro-life movement never got the constitutional amendment it wanted, but the process of seeking it changed the movement’s political orientation. When the Republican Party endorsed the constitutional amendment proposal in 1976—and the Democrats rejected it—many pro-life leaders who had once been Democrats decided to work instead with the Republicans. This alliance with the GOP, which deepened over the course of the late 20th century, led the pro-life movement to downplay its original comprehensive social vision or abandon it entirely.

When evangelicals entered the pro-life movement in large numbers in the late 1970s and 1980s, they brought with them a new political framework for the movement. Instead of a Catholic social vision of mutual obligations, the vision many evangelicals had was the recovery of a America which they thought was committed to Christian ideals. Overturning Roe became their holy grail because they saw Roe as the pillar of a secular liberal state that was destroying the family and the nation, in addition to the lives of the unborn.

But now that Roe has been overturned, it is not clear that conservative evangelicals are any closer to their dream of restoring Christian morality in the nation. The end of Roe has not produced a Christian nation, but instead a divided one. States in the Bible belt and other conservative areas of the Midwest and Mountain West have acted quickly to restrict abortion. On the other hand, the states of the Northeast and Pacific West, along with some Democratic states in other regions, have expanded abortion availability. Congress is deeply divided on abortion, and the bipartisan support for the pro-life cause that existed in the pre-Roe era is nowhere to be seen. 

Perhaps it is time to look back to the early pro-life movement for insights into how to transcend this partisan divide and discover a pro-life ethic that will protect the unborn while also winning allies from both sides of the political aisle. 

Recovering the Ways of the Pre-Roe Pro-Life Movement

Recovering a pro-life vision that transcends partisan divisions is critically important in our current political climate, because if we want to support the work of pro-life Christians in “blue states” and “blue cities,” pro-life activism cannot merely mean a strategy of attempting to make abortion illegal, though that is a noble goal. We have to find a way to save preborn lives even where abortion is legal.

This is where the pre-Roe pro-life movement’s comprehensive social vision would be helpful. Instead of merely seeking to make abortion illegal, many pro-life activists in the early 1970s sought to expand prenatal healthcare and protect the health of both mothers and children, as well as the lives of all people before and after birth. Some sought legal reforms that would make it easier for children to be adopted. Some wanted to expand disability insurance and create state subsidies that would give parents of children with Down syndrome and other severe disabilities the financial resources to care for their children. 

A few of these proposed reforms might win support in blue states as well as red ones today. If pro-lifers are narrowly focused on making abortion illegal, they will likely experience repeated frustration outside of conservative regions of the country. But if, on the other hand, their goal is a more comprehensive vision of human flourishing for people before and after birth, they will probably be able to find many creative ways to save human lives (including the lives of the preborn) even in states that strongly resist the idea of restricting abortion. 

This approach is different than that envisioned by some Christian political activists of the past. But it will promote the principles of God’s kingdom, and it might even lead to some gospel-centered conversations with people who strongly believe in abortion rights but are curious about Christians who want to help single mothers access affordable healthcare or who are willing to make substantial financial and personal sacrifices to care for children with Down syndrome. 

The fight against abortion cannot be won solely through politics. After all, even the pro-life activists of the pre-Roe era did not prevent the legalization of abortion in every state—nor were they able to avert the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. But they did bear witness to the great value of every human life, and they left behind a vision for human flourishing that can be applied to the political realm, as well as to efforts that transcend politics. At a time when we in the pro-life movement are seeking a path forward through uncharted political waters, the recovery of that vision holds a lot of promise. 

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24