The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision took most Americans by surprise. Women’s advocates had to quickly shift from cloak-and-dagger referrals to offering regular medical facilities for abortions. A nascent opposition suddenly came together, led initially by Catholic groups. Its campaign for reversal in the political and legal arenas, and in public opinion, shaped subsequent events.
Cynthia Gorney, a journalist, focuses on the lives and thoughts of two activists in this struggle in ARTICLES OF FAITH: A FRONTLINE HISTORY OF THE ABORTION WARS. Judith Widdicombe is a registered nurse whose volunteer job with a suicide prevention line led her into abortion rights work. She became director of Reproductive Health Services, a St. Louis clinic which was the plaintiff in the late 1980’s controversial Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case. Sam Lee was a young man who originally planned to be a priest. Always more attuned to inner direction than to mundane needs like food or a job, he felt called to civil disobedience in protest of abortion. Over the years he showed up regularly at Widdicombe’s clinic, became a sit-in leader, and ultimately a lobbyist and strategist for Missouri’s pro-life movement. Strangely enough, Lee and Widdicombe had many conversations and came to respect each other, if not the other’s position.
The book also recounts wider events in the “abortion wars” from 1968 to the late 1990’s. Even those well-informed on the issue may find surprises. For example, by 1980 many evangelical Protestants had adopted the right-to-life cause. While this added moral and material support, the evangelicals’ views on other “life-related” issues like war and capital punishment clashed sharply with the founding members’ views. The pro-choice camp never carried out its idea of countering the “dead baby picture” campaign with graphic photos of dead women mutilated by botched abortions. It was not only to avoid emotionally charged appeals; they had learned that some viewers reacted to such images with a sick, sexualized rage rather than compassion.
Gorney’s impartiality, on a topic which seems to have polarized the country, is laudable. ARTICLES OF FAITH is fine history, but its chapters showing the “hearts and minds” of two dedicated advocates give it extra punch.