The National Right to Life Committee: Its Founding, Its History, and the Emergence of the Pro-Life Movement Prior to Roe V. Wade

By Karrer, Robert N. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2011 | Go to article overview
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The National Right to Life Committee: Its Founding, Its History, and the Emergence of the Pro-Life Movement Prior to Roe V. Wade


Karrer, Robert N., The Catholic Historical Review


During the mid-1960s a few Catholic journals and individuals advised that a more active role should be taken in defeating abortion reform. In 1967 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops selected James Thomas McHugh, administrator of the United States Catholic Conference's Family Life Bureau, to guide its National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Several pro-life organizations, including Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, emerged and affiliated with the NRLC national office. To appeal to a more broad-based, nonsectarian movement, key Minnesota leaders proposed an organizational model that would separate the NRLC from its founder. In early 1973 McHugh and his executive assistant, Michael Taylor, proposed a different plan, facilitating the NRLC's move to independence.

Keywords: Abortion; McHugh, Bishop James Thomas; National Right to Life Committee; pro-life movement; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

In mid-April 1967, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), meeting in Chicago for its annual conference, voted to budget $50,000 to "initiate and coordinate a program of information" that would alert constituents concerning the wave of legislation sweeping through state chambers that was intended to weaken restrictive abortion statutes. From this unpretentious launch the Catholic Church formally established a permanent beachhead in its long-standing policy of opposing and condemning legal abortion.1

Pro-Life Awakening

Catholic legal scholar and later federal appellate court judge John Noonan once referred to Christendom's opposition to abortion as an "almost absolute value in history" For most of these two millennia believers of all persuasions believed that life was a precious gift from God and that man did not have the right to kill the innocent child in the womb. Christianity considered abortion a crime against humanity and a sin against God, as reflected, for example, in the works of Noonan, Roger Huser, David Granfield, and John Connery Other antiabortion scholars have traced the historical roots of abortion from medical, legal, religious, political, or sociological perspectives. The more prominent are Robert Byrn, Charles Rice, Germain Grisez, Marvin Olasky, Dennis Horan, and Thomas Balch. More recently Frederick Dyer, Philip Rafferty, Joseph Dellapenna (who, along with Rafferty, proved that English common law and early colonial American courts prosecuted people for performing abortions), and Keith Cassidy have made significant contributions in understanding of the abortion issue.2

Abortion rights advocates first began promoting so-called reform of abortion laws during the 1950s. A 1955 abortion conference, although most Americans were unaware of it, called for substantial changes in abortion laws. A few sympathetic law journal articles that decade added weight to the cause, as did the efforts of a small cadre of physicians. In 1958 America magazine entered the fray, attacking the conclusions of a New York panel that favored liberalization for economic and psychological reasons. The editors warned that those supporting new liberal abortion laws advocated "a regression to barbarism." "Deliberate abortion, like its twin, euthanasia," continued the article, "is the ugly offspring of the moral positivism that grounds all distinctions of right and wrong in the lawmaking power of the state."3

In 1959 the American Law Institute (ALI) - an organization of judges, lawyers, and other legal scholars - proposed four changes in abortion penal codes. Generally it supported legal abortion in situations of rape, incest, or fetal deformity but also proposed that abortion should be permitted if the pregnancy impaired the physical or mental health of the mother. During the early 1960s minimal changes in abortion laws concentrated on granting hospitals the authority to use in-house committees to approve or disapprove of therapeutic procedures. Activists favored more modifications that would expand therapeutic procedures to include a woman's emotional and psychological health.

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