From the Archives: Right to Life: The Southern Strategy

From "Generations: Women in the South," Southern Exposure Vol. IV No. 4.

This summer, the United States Supreme Court is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that protected the right to abortion without excessive government restriction.

Four years after the landmark ruling, Southern Exposure magazine, the print forerunner to Facing South, ran a story by Priscilla Parish Williams titled “Right to Life: The Southern Strategy.” An Arkansas native who had worked with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, Williams had traveled the South interviewing “right to life” activists to understand the backlash that was already brewing then against abortion rights. A brief sidebar accompanying the piece gave a history of Mary Doe and Jane Roe, the two Southern women who were prohibited from obtaining abortions in the case that became Roe v. Wade. 

With the anti-abortion movement now standing on the brink of success — and with abortion already inaccessible for many Southerners, especially in low-income communities of color — we're republishing Williams' story to offer an inside look at the beginnings of the anti-abortion movement. Religious institutions — the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations — figure heavily in the story. Williams also details the falsities and omissions the movement's leaders relied on to gin up anti-abortion sentiment in a region that was not strongly opposed to the procedure.

The anti-abortion movement's goals have shifted since 1977, but Williams' reporting still offers insight into the immediate backlash Roe provoked, and the beginnings of a Southern strategy that influenced state legislatures and ultimately the nation's highest court to undercut fundamental reproductive rights.

* * *

(On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. Since that time, a struggle has ensued between those who support the Court's action and those who do not. The increasingly intense campaign to pass a constitutional amendment which will reverse the Court's abortion ruling continues to expand, and recently the South has become an important target area for "Right-to-Life" political organizing.) 

On October 3, 1976, every Roman Catholic church in the country was ordered to observe "Respect Life Sunday" as part of the Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. At the church I attended that day in rural Virginia we listened to an open letter from the area's bishop on the horrors of abortion; we looked at large colored posters of an embryo named Jennifer and her pregnant mother (we received smaller ones to take home); and, during the communion service, we were invited to sign "Bicentennial Reaffirmation" forms, pledging ourselves to safeguard "for every human being" — including the unborn — the inalienable rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence. At the bottom of the form we were asked to give our name and address and to indicate whether or not we were 18 or older and whether or not we were registered to vote. The forms were to be sent back to regional pro-life headquarters before undoubtedly going on to each area's political representatives.

Mobilizing political strength is central to the Bishops' mission to overturn the US Supreme Court's historic ruling of January 22, 1973, giving women the right to abortion as part of their constitutional right to privacy. As it happened, the two plaintiffs in the case were two poor Southern women, known to the court as Jane Roe and Mary Doe. Their legal cases had become a focal point for women throughout the country who felt that abortion was the issue when "control over our bodies" was the slogan. It now appears that the South has become an important target area to the opponents of abortion.

Before 1973, anti-abortion committees had worked vigorously in many states to defeat the wave of liberal state abortion laws passed in the late '60s and early '70s. But the Court's decisions spurred a new level of activity. The weekend after the Roe and Doe ruling, the Conference of Catholic Bishops launched the National Right-to-Life Committee and quickly set up state organizations all across the country. There are now other so-called "pro-life" organizations as well as the Right-to-Life Committee, and they all share the same goals. Their long-range purpose is to overturn the Supreme Court's decisions by any of several amendments to the US Constitution. Their short-range tactics have been to thwart the implementation of Roe and Doe by restrictive state laws and administrative defiance.

The short-range efforts, however, have suffered repeated setbacks, especially from court rulings prohibiting various state laws aimed at circumventing the Roe and Doe decisions. Thus discouraged by losing state battles, but still determined to win the war, the Right-to-Lifers have turned their energies to their primary objective: the passage of an amendment to the US Constitution. Although there is some variation in the language of the amendments proposed thus far, most Right-to-Lifers support the one generally known as the Human Life Amendment which gives a fetus the full constitutional protection of a person.

Oddly, the Roman Catholic Bishops who are spearheading the drive for a constitutional amendment have not yet supported the language of any particular amendment. Perhaps they fear such a move might divide the Right-to-Life camp into warring factions; perhaps it would make them even more liable than they already are to charges of violating the principle of the separation of church and state; finally, it might weaken their eventual bargaining position if an entirely different amendment emerges in later stages of lobbying.

Whatever the Bishops' real reason, it does not reflect a lack of concern about the issue. Their "Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities" included not only instructions for Respect Life Sunday, but a blueprint for organizing state coordinating committees, diocesan-level working groups, parish committees, and local "bipartisan" political action coalitions.

The Southern Strategy

Since passage of a constitutional amendment requires approval from two-thirds of each chamber of Congress, and subsequent ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures, Right-to-Life activists are now solidifying their support and cultivating new constituencies. One potential source of support, they believe, is the South. Judy Brown, the National Right-to-Life Committee's director of public relations, maintains that because of its broad and deep sense of morality stemming from a strong religious base, the South will finally be the strongest single region in lobbying for an anti-abortion amendment. Consequently, Right-to-Life leaders have set out to do some serious consciousness-raising for their cause in a region where the other side's attitudes have not yet become firmly entrenched.

The strongest opposition to abortion has traditionally come from areas where abortions are performed in large numbers and where there has been a large enough Catholic population to call attention to the issue. While the number of abortions in the South is growing, there still have been relatively few compared with other regions; and there are very few Catholic strongholds in the South. These two factors help explain why the much publicized "abortion controversy" did not gain prominence in the South at the same rate it did in other parts of the US.

The reason so few legal abortions have been performed perhaps lies in the general attitude of Southerners toward abortion. One study shows that in 1968 and '69, 84 percent of men and 91 percent of women among non- Catholic Southerners disapproved elective abortion.1 Now, although a majority of Southerners supports the Supreme Court decisions, the South is still a conservative region compared with the East and West.2 In fact, in several Southern states the laws and availability of abortion services are just beginning to reflect acknowledgement of the 1973 Supreme Court decisions.

Arkansas, for example, has continued to abide by its obsolete statute despite the Supreme Court rulings. As late as 1975, Vietnamese refugees sent to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, were denied abortions. Encouraged by Nixon's 1971 Presidential Order which commanded military bases to perform abortions in accordance with state law rather than the Roe and Doe decisions, Fort Chaffee turned its back on the Supreme Court. The Vietnamese women failed to qualify for abortions not only because their pregnancies did not threaten their lives, but also because they were not able to meet a four-month residency requirement, even though the Supreme Court had specifically declared residency requirements unconstitutional.

For Arkansas residents, the situation was only slightly better. Some physicians in Little Rock were willing to perform abortions in private hospitals for a fee ranging from $500 to $750. If a woman without much money and/or a friendly physician had the clairvoyance to consult "Arkansas Women's Rights" in the Little Rock telephone book, she might be referred to one of three small-town doctors willing to perform abortions, provided that both concurring medical opinions and consent from the woman's parents or spouse could be obtained. Finally, in February, 1976, a Little Rock gynecologist who had established an abortion clinic filed suit to test the constitutionality of the state law, and successfully obtained a temporary restraining order against its enforcement.

By 1976, abortion clinics also opened in Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia, making abortions available to more women of all income levels in every Southern state — and adding fuel to the South's steadily growing Right-to-Life movement.

Needless to say, national Right-to-Life leaders are anxious to halt this trend. They hope to develop a Southern organization to fight against expanding abortion services and for a constitutional amendment. One of the strongest Right-to-Life chapters in the country, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, has begun "Mission Possible," a self-help missionary program for the South. Already, Mission Possible seed money has gone to Baptists-for-Life leader Bob Holbrook from Hallettsville, Texas. Other groups will be subsidized on the basis of matching grants. In addition, Mission Possible has sent representatives into Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to teach Southern groups how to organize, lobby, and recruit additional members.

David O'Steen, the director of the Minnesota group and a Southerner himself, recognizes the stigma against Catholics in the South, and for that reason believes the movement must be broadened beyond the Catholic church. The president of South Carolina Citizens for Life, Mrs. Eleanor Blizard, shares his view. A devout, spirited woman, Mrs. Blizard says, "Nothing makes me madder than for people to think I'm Catholic." She works closely with the local Catholic Bishop, but her main effort is to reach other Protestants. She explains that she first became involved in the movement when representatives from Right to Life and Planned Parenthood came to her Sunday School class. "I asked both for Scripture to support their positions. Planned Parenthood had none. Right-to-Life had Scripture and pictures."

Despite pro-Doe and -Roe resolutions favoring what has come to be called "freedom of choice" by many national religious groups with strong Southern contingencies — e.g., the United Methodist Church, the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States, and the Southern Baptist Convention — there are pro-life rumblings in the pews. Baptists-for-Life's Bob Holbrook was instrumental in getting the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution at its June, 1976, annual meeting much different in tone from the preceding years' resolutions on abortion. Though affirming the traditional Baptist position on the separation of church and state, this year's statement condemns abortion which "for selfish non-therapeutic reasons wantonly destroys fetal life, dulls our society's moral sensitivity, and leads to a cheapening of human life." By comparison, its language about "the right of expectant mothers to a full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health" seems weak and ambiguous.

In a much stronger anti-abortion resolution also passed this summer, the Presbyterian Church of America (the small splinter group of congregations which seceded from the Presbyterian Church in the United States over abortion, among other issues) called upon "every responsible citizen to support the enactment of moral legislation that will protect the unborn child."

While the evangelical groups, the independent Baptist churches, and the autonomous Churches of Christ do not have a "national office" through which to communicate and organize, they do have highly effective informal networks. For example, the director of Tennessee Volunteers for Life is a Church of Christ preacher named John Waddey, who is also head of the East Tennessee School of Preaching and Missions. Waddey showed some pictures to his friend, Ray Dutton, a Church of Christ preacher in Jasper, Alabama. Now Dutton, who regularly preaches on one of the most powerful radio stations in Alabama, heads Alabama Citizens for Life. His group is rapidly outdistancing the older, less effective Alabama Right-to-Life — whose youth group, incidentally, spent an entire fall weekend at Birmingham shopping centers in rocking chairs, staging a "rock for life."

Whether by rocking in public, manning booths at state and county fairs, speaking to civic clubs, schools, local church groups, or appearing on radio and TV, the Right-to-Lifers are beginning to touch a responsive chord in Southern churches, mainline and evangelical alike.

The Facts

As I interviewed the president of the N.C. Right-to-Life chapter in her home, her sister-in-law addressed stacks and stacks of envelopes at the dining room table. The Georgia Right-to-Life organization has just moved into headquarters of its own after being housed for several years in the chapter president's garage. The South Carolina Citizens for Life's president reported their "biggest and best meeting ever" had occurred the week before I drove through in October. And on it goes. The recurring message I heard from Right-to-Life leaders throughout the South was simple: "We just have to tell the people what an abortion does to a baby, and what the dangers are to a woman. Right now people just don't know the facts."

The pictures and "the facts" currently in wide circulation throughout Right-to-Life circles in the South and elsewhere are usually based on the Handbook on Abortion,3 written by two long-time Right-to-Life activists, Dr. and Mrs. J. C. Willke of Cincinnati. The Willke's argument, proclaimed as "the scientific case for the unborn," seems to echo in any conversation with a Right-to-Life supporter: terms seldom vary, the examples cited are the same, and the logic follows a predictable course. Right-to-Life speakers usually begin each session with a two-part audio-visual presentation. The first half shows the development of the fetus through gestation, usually proceeding backwards from the toddler stage for effect, then graphically illustrates various abortion methods. The second half covers "dangers to maternal health." Its intent is simply to scare women contemplating abortion with "facts" regarding the risks of abortion — hemorrhage, long-term mental and emotional damage, sterility, the likelihood of premature births and miscarriages in future pregnancies, and the like — although the evidence to support these "facts" is, at best, contradictory.

Not surprisingly, Right-to-Lifers do not show the other pictures or mention the other facts — facts which argue persuasively for keeping abortion legal in all fifty states and which account for the vast approval of legalized abortion in the public opinion polls, even in the Bible-belt South. Abortion mortality rates, for example, have dropped dramatically, even though the total number of abortions has gone up. The number of illegal, back-alley abortions has also declined, although in areas where abortion is still not widely available, they of course persist.

Dr. Jacob Adams, associate director of the Emory University-Grady Memorial Family Planning Program in Atlanta, reports that now he seldom sees a woman suffering from a "septic" abortion (usually an abortion performed in unsterile conditions, resulting in extreme infection), whereas before the 1973 Supreme Court decisions, septic abortions were second only to accidents as the largest cause of deaths for women of reproductive age in the health clinic where he worked. According to Adams, Georgia's 1968 "reform" law clearly worked to the advantage of women who, as private patients in private hospitals, could get their physicians to do abortions for any of the "therapeutic" reasons the law permitted. Poor women appeared with their infections in the emergency rooms of public hospitals.4

Indeed, the very terms "Right to Life" and "Human Life Amendment" become a mockery when one thinks of these women. Pictures of women dead and dying in hospital emergency rooms and on motel floors will match any of the Right-to-Lifers' visual aids. The correlation between safe, legal abortion and public health will not change with a Human Life Amendment. Women will continue to get pregnant and continue to obtain abortions, legal or illegal. While Right-to-Lifers sometimes acknowledge that many more women die when abortions are not legal, that fact in their eyes is no justification for permitting abortions by law.

The right secured in 1973 by Southerners Jane Roe and Mary Doe has not yet received its final test. It is up to those of us who defend a woman's right to control her own body to point out that the real danger to a woman is not having an abortion, but rather, having an illegal one. This fact must be repeated as continually as the Right-to-Lifers tell their facts, lest a "Human Life Amendment" come to pass, rendering null and void the 1973 Supreme Court decisions. The current buildup of Southern forces indicates that members of the Right-to-Life movement are absolutely serious about their goal.


1. Judith Blake, ''Abortion and Public Opinion: The 1960-1970 Decade," Science, 171 (February 12, 1971), p.547.

2. W.R. Arney and W.H. Trescher, "Trends in Attitudes Toward Abortion, 1972-1975," Family Planning Perspectives, 8 (May/June 1976), p.122.

3. Cincinnati, Ohio: Hayes Publishing Co., Inc., 1971, rev. ed. 1975.

4. For further information regarding abortion and public health: Center for Disease Control: Abortion Surveillance, 1974, issued April, 1976, by the Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Ga., 30333.