Some history of the term “pro-life”

November 24, 2016

Cross-posted from Patheos

Was the term “pro-life” specifically coined to mean “anti-abortion,” without reference to other issues of life and justice? Many seem to think so, and argue that using the term in a consistent-life-ethic sense betrays both the goal of the movement, and the intention of the term (see this curious little piece from the EWTN library).

“Oh, but terms change,” one could argue.

Indeed, they do. And in this case, it might come as a surprise to some, to find that the narrow use of “pro-life”, as favored by today’s mainstream movement, is a recent development. The term itself in its initial use wasn’t intended to refer to abortion at all: according to the OED, the first documented use of the term “pro-life” was in a child-rearing manual by Erich Fromm and A.S. Neill’s (Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing):

No pro-life parent or teacher would ever strike a child. No pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishment of homosexuals, our attitude toward bastardy.

One of the first instances of the use of the term to specifically designate opposition to abortion was in an article from the Chicago Tribune about a group of student pacifists, SOUL, who saw opposing abortion as a logical corollary to their opposition to war:

Young people are being duped on the issue of abortion.  They want to be considered ‘liberal’ and they think that the thing to do is to be against war and for abortion.  But the most liberal cause is protecting other people’s lives.  To be pro-life you have to be for all life.


“Many women, especially those who are unmarried and young, are increasingly being shoved into abortion by social pressures, by the baby’s father, by the attitudes of counselors and physicians, by their own families who don’t want anyone to know about the pregnancy…it’s almost like a cosmic force pushing for abortion.”

This student group was advocating for social programs, family planning, and medical care for women, an end to the stigma on illegitimacy, and mandatory maternity benefits. And this was prior to the legalization of abortion – and prior to the development of the term “pro-choice” as a more positive alternative to “pro-abortion.”

But what about the movement itself?

The history of the pro-life movement itself is complex, because abortion in one form or another is as old as the history of medicine:

The earliest known description of abortion comes from the Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE), an ancient Egyptian medical text drawn, ostensibly, from records dating as far back as the third millennium BCE. The Ebers Papyrus suggests that an abortion can be induced with the use of a plant-fiber tampon coated with a compound that included honey and crushed dates. Later herbal abortifacients included the long-extinct silphium, the most prized medicinal plant of the ancient world, and pennyroyal, which is still sometimes used to induce abortions (but not safely, as it is highly toxic). In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Calonice refers to a young woman as “well-cropped, and trimmed, and spruced with pennyroyal.”

The Hippocratic Oath forbids a physician to perform an abortion; however, views on abortion appear to have been relatively lax in ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome. At this time, most legal opposition to abortion appears to have been rooted in an idea of paternal rights over offspring. Because the concept of an individual inalienable right is relatively recent in the history of Western thought, arguments against abortion in the Christian tradition have not always taken a “right to life” approach.

But certainly, by the twentieth century, opposition to abortion was rooted in an idea of the individual right to life of the unborn. Those who defended the rights of the unborn were interested also in the rights of poor, and of women, as historian Daniel Williams explains, according to this  article in The Atlantic:

“Too many historians took for granted that the pro-life movement emerged as a backlash against feminism, and/or as a backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973,” Williams said in an interview. Many of today’s most ardent anti-abortion activists likely identify with this kind of sexual conservatism and resentment toward a meddling government. But in many ways, their political convictions are counter to the original aspirations of the movement. As Williams writes in his book, “The pro-life movement that we have always labeled ‘conservative’ was at one time much more deeply rooted in the liberal rights-based values than we might have suspected.”


For most mid-century American Catholics, opposing abortion followed the same logic as supporting social programs for the poor and creating a living wage for workers. Catholic social teachings, outlined in documents such as the 19th-century encyclical Rerum novarum, argued that all life should be preserved, from conception until death, and that the state has an obligation to support this cause. “They believed in expanded pre-natal health insurance, and in insurance that would also provide benefits for women who gave birth to children with disabilities,” Williams said. They wanted a streamlined adoption process, aid for poor women, and federally funded childcare. Though Catholics wanted abortion outlawed, they also wanted the state to support poor women and families.

Critics of the New Pro Life Movement have argued that we are betraying the original intention of the term and the activism, by insisting on viewing abortion within the societal context of pre-existing evils that drive women to abortion. But, in reality, the uneasy alliance of “pro-life” with a right-wing Republican worldview is a recent development. And the mental contortions of right-wingers attempting to justify their coziness with overt racists and torture advocates, with promoters of economic policies that hurt the poor, reveal it as a very unfortunate development, indeed. Leaders who enact policies which are posed against the dignity of life and well-being of families can never truly represent the pro-life movement. Such approaches are contrary both to the movement’s history, and to its future goals.