The Texas Heartbeat Bill: A Historic Moment for the Pro-Life Movement

Teaching is a profession that can age you quickly. The generations of students fly by every four years, not in decades. I have found myself repeatedly asked to give a talk on “The History of the Pro-life Movement” to high school and college students who are ardent in their concern for women in difficult pregnancies and devoted to praying every week outside of their local abortion clinics. They want some sense of perspective. As the Texas Heartbeat Bill goes into effect, the celebration can be a moment for looking back and taking stock of all that the pro-life movement has come through.

The pro-life movement that emerged in the 1970s, in response to the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973, is ancient history to millennials. The early movement was characterized by the ways that it grew out of the Civil Rights movement. It was a scrappy, counter-cultural movement. It took its tactics and sometimes its leaders from the 1950s movement for desegregation in the South following Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), and the 1960s desegregation in the Northern cities following the Civil Rights Act (1964).

Following Martin Luther King’s example, the movement adopted the tactics of civil disobedience and sit-ins, as in the work of Operation Rescue. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had worked with Martin Luther King; and Fr. Robert Hagerty, the first priest to lead a busload of parishioners from the Chicago area to the pro-life march, had sung “We Will Overcome” arm-in-arm with King in Soldier’s Field.

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Part of the lore of my own school, the University of Dallas, is that the famous and flamboyant Professor “Fritz” Wilhelmsen took the entire student body to a sit-in in front of the first abortion clinic to open in Dallas—the city where the Roe v. Wade case was initiated. Wilhelmsen was a famous scholar of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, a proponent of the passage from St. Thomas that Martin Luther King Jr. had cited in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail: “An unjust law is a law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” The conversion testimony of prominent abortionist Bernard Nathanson and the use of incredible, graphic footage of an abortion in process in The Silent Scream was common in early pro-life literature and presentations.

As there were in the Civil Rights movement, there were fringe terrorist elements in the pro-life movement—those who tragically advocated violence and even encouraged shootings of abortionists and bombings of clinics. Early pro-lifers were not welcome in Catholic parishes or mainline Protestant churches. They were considered fringe elements with a bee in their bonnet. Their warnings about the effect that legalizing abortion would have on promiscuity, the destruction of marriage and family, increased child abuse, and the turn of our culture toward legalizing and normalizing sodomy and pedophilia went unheeded…as did similar warnings by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.

Then came the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Fusionist conservatism, the coalition of social and moral conservatives with fiscal conservatives, limited government advocates, and anti-Communists swept Ronald Reagan into office with the largest Republican majority in American history. Certainly, there were still plenty of well-placed pro-life Democrats in the 1970s, like Jessie Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and Joseph Biden…but they were a dying breed, many of whom progressively caved on the pro-life issue as the platform of the Democratic Party became more vehement and radical on sexual issues.

But a new kind of Republican party emerged from the rise of the Moral Majority, the Silent Majority, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America. Immigrant Catholic families who had traditionally voted Democrat and Southern Evangelical Baptists and Methodists who had historically voted Democrat recognized that their party had abandoned their cherished moral values.

Suddenly, pro-lifers were welcome inside the Beltway. Instead of dressing like Civil Rights-era hippies, they started dressing in heels and pearls for big-fundraiser dinners to fund pro-life candidates for office. The President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan himself, addressed the ever-growing National Right to Life March on the Washington Mall. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast and spoke clearly and movingly about the value of every human life and the poverty of a country that believes that “a child must die so that I may live as I wish.” Pope St. John Paul II spoke clearly of the moral evil of abortion during visits to the United States, and parishes began hosting pro-life offices. Soon, each diocese had a pro-life coordinator and the USCCB took up the issue.

The hope of the 1980s was that Ronald Reagan would appoint enough conservative Supreme Court Justices that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. It was 1989: the Berlin Wall was coming down; the Cold War was ending in victory for the liberal democratic West. The Pope, the President, and the Prime Minister had pushed back the force of Soviet domination behind the Iron Curtain, and Communism had disgorged Catholic Poland. Yet, in the midst of the 1989 celebrations, our American patriotism was stained by the shame of Roe v. Wade—the legalized killing of millions of innocent children annually. We survived the “Borking” of Judge Bork and looked to Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia to overturn a court case that had ignored the democratic, legislative process and the laws against abortion that are still on the books in states across the continent.

One of the last of the great, well-placed pro-life Democrats, Governor Robert Casey, oversaw the case that made its way to the Supreme Court in 1992. Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania would test the powers of the Reagan-era conservative judges. Disaster hit. The majority—including Reagan appointees—upheld Roe v. Wade.

I had just started college at the time. I recall going to a pro-life conference where we were told by pro-life law professors like Hadley Arkes that the fight must now return to the states. The pro-life movement would have to follow the patient path of bit-by-bit litigation, returning to the people and to the state legislative process. Roe v. Wade—law by Supreme Court fiat—would not be overturned by Supreme Court fiat.

1990s. 2000s. 2010s. State after state, local legislative effort after local legislative effort. Returning the issue to the people. Returning the issue to the legislatures. Returning the issue to the states.

It is only as the culmination of that long and patient history that the Texas Heartbeat Bill can truly be grasped as the immense victory that it is. The bill even appeals not to criminal law but to civil suits by private individuals and private groups for enforcement. It is truly a masterpiece of American legal effort, putting into play all the complexities of a balanced government of localism and federalism, checks and balances, separation of powers…and ultimately appeal to the people.

At a time when American patriotism might be at its lowest ebb since the 1970s Vietnam War era, the Texas Heartbeat Bill should make Texans…and Americans across the country…proud that we live in the land of the free.

[Photo Credit: Sergio Flores/Getty Images]


  • Susan Hanssen

    Professor Susan Hanssen is an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas, where she teaches American Civilization on their Dallas campus during the school year and Western Civilization on their Rome campus in the summer.

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