Social movements play a critical role in the development of public policy in modern America. An extensive literature provides us with valuable insights into their growth and evolution, but in the end it cannot substitute for the history of specific movements, which can be understood only in the particular circumstances of their birth and development. 1 Over the last fifty years few movements have had the long-standing visibility, the mass involvement, and the public impact of the Right to Life movement. While there is still no adequate full-length account of the movement, an outline of some of the major aspects of its history, particularly as it is relevant to the public policy process in the United States, can be provided. 2 Before embarking on that task, I will review and assess current interpretations of the movement, at both the popular and scholarly levels, and suggest a plausible explanation of its social sources and characteristics.
Interpretations of the movement cover a wide range in both sophistication and utility. At the most basic level are the stereotypes and impressions created by the mass media. The Right to Life movement has been the subject of numerous television dramas, documentaries, and news accounts. Television portrayals in particular have created a number of negative images. The movement is seen as violent, irrational, insensitive to women, religiously fundamentalist in character, and extremist. 3 These images tend to foster the impression that the movement is marginal, pathological, and deviant rather than having significant similarities to