Kelly on Haugeberg, 'Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century'

Karissa Haugeberg
Laura Kelly

Karissa Haugeberg. Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century. Women in American History Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 240 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08246-7; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04096-2.

Reviewed by Laura Kelly (University of Strathclyde) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (August, 2017) Commissioned by Darren N. Wagner

Since the publication of sociologist Kristin Luker's important book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, in 1984, which explored the experiences and motivations of the first generation of pro-life and pro-choice activists, there have been a number of valuable studies of the history of the anti-abortion movement in North America (for example, Carol Mason, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics [2002], Carol J. C. Maxwell, Pro-Life Activists in America: Meaning, Motivation, and Direct Action [2002], Mary Ziegler, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate [2015], and Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon, The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of "Pro-Woman" Rhetoric in Canada and the United States [2016]). Karissa Haugeberg's insightful and engaging book, Women against Abortion, takes a fresh approach to this history through a focus on the role of women in the pro-life movement, whose activism has received limited historical attention. Drawing on a range of archival sources, memoirs, legal cases, contemporary anti-abortion publications, and films in addition to oral history interviews with activists, Haugeberg explores the role and experiences of women involved in anti-abortion activism from the 1960s to the 1990s, and allows the voices of the women themselves to be reinstated into the historical narrative. The book focuses on a number of key women involved in anti-abortion activism, including an examination of the work of Marjory Mecklenburg in the late 1960s, Juli Loesch's and Joan Andrews's grassroot activism in the 1970s and 1980s, and Shelley Shannon’s militant activism in the 1990s. What is particularly interesting about Haugeberg's focus is that most of the women she has researched were involved in grassroots organizations rather than conventional anti-abortion groups. In this way, her research not only broadens our knowledge of the role of women in the anti-abortion movement but also provides insight into the role of grassroots activist groups.

The first chapter examines the emergence of crisis pregnancy centers, an important tool in anti-abortion activism from the 1960s to the present. Crisis pregnancy centers provide free pregnancy testing and ultrasounds, in addition to other resources, such as counseling, with the aim of persuading pregnant women against having an abortion. This chapter explores the role of Mecklenberg who, as Haugeberg shows, "helped to catapult CPC [crisis pregnancy centers] work from a boutique service provided by disaffected pro-life women to the center of public policy debates about teenage sexuality and unwanted pregnancy" (p. 10).

The second chapter examines the concept of post-abortion syndrome. From the 1970s, female pro-life activists borrowed from the rhetoric of empowerment and control from the feminist health movement, through their construction of abortion as potentially dangerous to women's health. As Haugeberg effectively demonstrates, pro-life activists "eroded professional physicians' cultural authority by transforming the image of women who sought abortions from sinners to victims" while depicting abortion providers as "enemies to fetal life and to women's health" (p. 36). The chapter focuses on the various strategies utilized in anti-abortion campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, such as "abortion survivors" groups and abortion regret activism. Haugeberg also explores the strategies of crisis pregnancy centers, arguing that "deception, coercion, and terror have been central features of women's work in the antiabortion movement" (p. 55).

Chapter 3 focuses on the anti-abortion activism of Loesch, a Catholic anti-abortion activist, and draws on oral history material in addition to meticulous research of Loesch's publications and memoirs, allowing us to gain insight into her personal experiences and views. Loesch's motivations for becoming involved in anti-abortion activism and her experiences as part of Operation Rescue from the late 1980s are discussed. Importantly, the chapter also discusses women pro-life activists who identified as feminists and who "believed that abortion permitted men to exploit women" (p. 62), and the sense of alienation these women sometimes felt from conventional anti-abortion activists. Haugeberg shows how for anti-abortion activists like Loesch, who identified as feminists, "antiabortion activism extended the tradition of social justice advocacy that sought to protect vulnerable populations from the excesses of militarism and capitalism" (p. 73).

Chapter 4 focuses on the rescue movement, an aggressive form of activism that emerged from the early 1970s, where anti-abortion activists would invade clinics, commit arson, and detonate bombs, in an attempt to "rescue" fetuses from being aborted. However, historical research to date has focused on the role of evangelical men in the rescue movement, ignoring the role of Catholic women who engaged in this type of anti-abortion activism. The chapter highlights the experiences of Andrews and her involvement in the rescue movement from the late 1970s. Interestingly, the chapter illustrates the challenges faced by women anti-abortion activists in the male-dominated sphere of the rescue movement, and the financial and emotional burdens these women faced.

The final chapter investigates the theme of women and lethal violence in the anti-abortion movement, particularly the experiences of Shannon, who was jailed in 1993 for the attempted assassination of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas. Again, Haugeberg draws on a range of archival sources to piece together a compelling, and sometimes chilling, account of Shannon's activism, even drawing on interviews with men and women who knew her. The chapter illustrates how Shannon became interested in anti-abortion activism and her involvement in criminal activities, in addition to the challenges she faced on a personal level (her husband supported legal abortion) and her legacy. As Haugeberg shows, research on the role of women's participation in violent anti-abortion activism "raises new questions about religiously conservative women's lives during the late twentieth century." As well as offering women the opportunity to socialize outside the home, travel, and perform work they believed to be meaningful, rescue work allowed anti-abortion activists to identify as "heroes in a holy war against abortion" and to feel personally fulfilled. However, there was also a "somewhat sad and ultimately dangerous invisibility of these women before and after they began to deploy violent strategies in their fight against abortion" (p. 133). The epilogue concludes with a discussion of the legacy of women's anti-abortion work and an assessment of their influence.

This book is an important contribution to the history of abortion in the United States and provides significant new insights into the role of women in the pro-life movement. Haugeberg masterfully weaves together a sensitive and balanced account that is sure to be of great interest to scholars of reproductive rights and social movements. It is also an excellent exemplar for scholars engaging with difficult and contentious subjects in modern social history. At a time when women's reproductive rights in the United States are increasingly under threat, and the polarized battle between pro-choice and pro-life activists continues, this book is an important addition to our understanding of the history of the anti-abortion movement.

Erratum: The original version of this review included a misspelling of Haugeberg’s name.—ed. (8/28/17).

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Citation: Laura Kelly. Review of Haugeberg, Karissa, Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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