Now that the pro-life movement is well into its third generation, perhaps it is time to record a forgotten (or hidden) chapter covering its very beginnings, not to criticize, but to make the record complete.
Take a moment to recall the context of the times. When the abortion issue first emerged in politics, it was inside the Trojan horse of Population Explosion hysteria. That was a major media panic, much like the climate change panic of today, and much of it was funded and driven by wealthy Republicans who controlled the Republican Party at the time. The Republican Party was the enemy.
Yet today the pro-life issue is inseparable from the Republican agenda, as is evangelical Protestantism. How did this come about? The odds against it were long, so herewith some chronology.
Problem Number One: Republican Establishment = Population Control
Today the public has grown skeptical of media-induced anxiety about whatever is the best-marketed issue of the day—but in the 1960s such frenzies were still new. Beginning in the late 1960s and gaining steam in the early 70s, the Population Explosion was, with the outsized exception of Vietnam, the world’s first televised war—the issue du jour. Climate change was part of it—the fashionable scientists of the day warned that a great Ice Age was coming. Typical of the alarmist rhetoric was this from Paul Ehrlich in 1970 in Mademoiselle magazine: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make.”1
The issue was everywhere: newspapers, magazines, television and radio news and commentary, women’s magazines—all insisting that “something had to be done” to avoid the coming Apocalypse. Public policy had to change. And change it did—but quietly.
Population control overseas became official U.S. policy in 1966 when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson tied foreign aid to India to population control,2 a policy Republican President Richard Nixon3 made permanent in 1974 with the infamous Kissinger Report, National Security Study Memorandum 2004 (which was not declassified until 1980). The Report laid out how Less Developed Countries (LDCs) were to be convinced to achieve Kissinger’s worldwide goal of 2.0 children per family. Section 33 of the Memorandum acknowledged the optics: “We must take care that our activities should not give the appearance to the LDCs of an industrialized country policy directed against the LDCs.” If anybody in the media noticed that the target populations of these official policies and funding from Washington were dark-skinned, nobody said so.
The 91st Congress (1969-1971) saw no fewer than 43 bills introduced about population control. The leading Senate advocate of population control was Republican Bob Packwood (OR). One of his proposals would have denied a tax exemption to more than two children per family. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Packwood made it clear that if voluntary controls on population did not work, “we may have to resort to mandatory controls.”5 The virtue-signaling of the day was that “this is a crisis. The world cannot survive unless we all do our part to save it from too many more babies.” Beginning in 1970, Earth Day was organized on college campuses across the country to spread the message among emerging leaders. In later years, Protestant prolifers remembered being told from the pulpit that they would be bad custodians of the earth if they had more than one or two children.
In that spirit of panic, then, on July 14, 1970, the U.S. Senate passed a billion-dollar birth control and “population research” authorization (Title X of the Public Health Service Act)—with not a single minute of debate, under a motion of unanimous consent, and with no record vote. No senator objected when it was brought to the floor with only three senators present. That was what “collegiality” and “cooperation across party lines” looked like in 1970. In remarks inserted afterwards into the Congressional Record, Senator Packwood (R-OR) complained that the bill was “not adequate.” But since there was no record vote, no senator could ever be held accountable afterwards. It came to the House floor as a result of the skillful “cooperation across party lines” (aka machinations) of a freshman Republican congressman from Texas named George H. W. Bush, whose diplomatic ability overcame long-standing opposition from Democratic (and Catholic) Speaker of the House John McCormack. It passed the House 298-32. There was no national debate, and there was no organized resistance. Nobody was paying attention—except a few Senate and House staffers.
In March 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill to create a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, something he had promised to do a year earlier. The chairman of the Commission was New York’s Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, about whom Nixon observed: “Perhaps no person in the world has been more closely or longer identified with this problem.”6 Very true: The Rockefeller Foundation, along with the Ford Foundation, had funded many of the studies and much of the propaganda behind the population control panic, and the Population Council, which Rockefeller founded and of which he was chair, funded the rest. Rockefeller’s grandmother Abby Rockefeller had been one of Margaret Sanger’s best friends and her largest donor. On the Council’s board were some of the most influential eugenicists of the previous generation. “Generating ideas, providing evidence, and delivering solutions that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” the tagline on its website reads today (developing the IUD and Norplant are two of its bragging points). The Rockefeller establishment, in other words, was (and still is) firmly on the side of population control—no matter what it entails. And Nelson Rockefeller and his country club cohort controlled the Republican Party.
The 1964 presidential nomination of “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), carved the first hole in the Rockefeller Establishment’s control of the Party, but most of the college-educated, mostly Northeastern young conservatives who gathered around Goldwater before and after 1964 were motivated more by libertarian than by traditional values: Their issues were national defense, limited government, and fiscal responsibility. For the whole of his career Goldwater remained firmly on the wrong side of the life issue. In 1970 he praised Packwood’s population control bill because “it is a must for the immediate future. It makes so much sense.”7
The Population Growth Commission’s report, submitted on March 27, 1972, directed its recommendations toward “increasing the public knowledge of the causes and consequences of population change, maximizing information about human reproduction and enabling individuals to avoid unwanted fertility.” The report examined and made recommendations regarding land use policy and hydrocarbon emissions, noted changes in Congressional representation because of population shifts, and urged “that federal, state, and local governments make funds available to support abortion services in states with liberalized statutes, and that abortion be specifically included in comprehensive health insurance benefits, both public and private.” It also acknowledged that “to improve the quality of our existence while slowing growth, will require nothing less than a basic recasting of American values”8 (emphasis added).
Read as the announcement of the coming of the Culture War, this may have been the understatement of the century. Less than a year later, Roe v. Wade was handed down.
Other than a statement from some Catholic cardinals, there was little objection to the decision when it happened. Remember, the Sixties were just over, and the Sexual Revolution, which began as the playground of affluent college kids and hippies, was moving up the career ladder. Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963, and her ideas were making their way into academia; inflammatory feminists were in demand on the college lecture circuit,9 and the message was trickling down into women’s magazines. Okies from Muskogee would still marry the girl if she got pregnant, but college-educated women wanted their fun with no consequences. The mainline religious denominations approved of Roe v. Wade, in part because it would save the world from overpopulation. The South was still solid,10 and Catholics were Democrats—as they had been since Catholic officialdom had wedded itself to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, as they had been since the nineteenth century, when the Democratic Party in Manhattan hired precinct captains who spoke Irish so they could recruit new immigrants into the party.11 An official Catholic establishment was not yet fully functional in the public policy arena of Washington, D.C.; what there was, was joined at the hip with the Democratic Party and mainly interested in promoting civil rights and the welfare state and opposing the war in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon’s presidency was undergoing the agony of Watergate in 1973; Nelson Rockefeller was Vice President of the United States from 1974 to 1977. Throughout the 1970s, Republicans at the highest level were explicit friends of population control and enemies of life. In a 1975 interview on Sixty Minutes, Betty Ford, wife of Republican President Gerald Ford, praised Roe v. Wade as a “great, great decision.”12 Ford’s appointee to chair of the Republican National Committee, Mary Louise Smith, was equally pro-choice.13
But by 1980 there was a pro-life plank in the GOP Platform. What happened? What changed?
Enter Paul Weyrich
Set aside the question of whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that the pro-life movement became political, and that the Republican Party became the pro-life party. The goal of this article is to answer the following question: Given this active hostility from the Republican quarter, how did “Republican” come to mean “pro-life”? That is where Paul Weyrich enters history.
Back in 1966, when Colorado was the first state to legalize abortion, a young news director at KQXI Denver named Paul Weyrich covered the story. He was about as serious-minded a young man as could be found. Six years out of high school, he was married with three children. He was Midwestern, a devout midcentury Catholic, formed in a unique place during a unique period in American Catholic history. In many ways, he was the very model of what Catholic education was meant to be: A high-achieving student who always believed what he learned from the nuns at St. Catherine’s High School in Racine, Wisconsin, he never wavered in his faith. His urban ethnic brand of old-fashioned Catholicism has long since disappeared, and Paul personifies its best final fruit.
His father had come to America in search of a better life. Seeking to earn enough money to buy a bicycle, Ignatius Weyrich had hired himself out one summer after World War I to work on a farm near Tauberbischofheim, Germany. At the end of the job, he stopped to buy a beer—and his whole summer’s wages went for the price of it. He realized if he stayed in Germany he would never be able to buy a bicycle. He found a book by a priest that urged young men to emigrate to America, and he wrote to the priest. The priest answered, sent him the fare, became his sponsor, and found him a job shoveling coal into the furnace in the basement of Saint Mary’s Hospital in Racine in 1923. Ignatius never left Saint Mary’s, even later when he could have earned more elsewhere. He was grateful because the nuns kept him on during the Depression—and his loyalty to them and to the church was deep and unchanging.
Ignatius talked a lot to his son about politics and religion, imparting to Paul an early 20th-century German Catholic perspective. Paul learned very young about sound economic policy: His father would never borrow money, and took a second job rather than get a loan. When neighbors who had escaped from post-World War II Eastern Europe arrived, they told of their lives in Lithuania, and he learned about socialism and Communism at the human level. When he was ten years old, he wore a Robert Taft for President button on his lapel. It was the only one in the school, since most blue-collar Catholics were Democrats, but Paul already knew to distrust creeping socialism— and to follow principle rather than public opinion.
In 1967, this faithful Catholic became Washington press secretary for Colorado Republican Senator Gordon Allott. He saw the population control juggernaut running full steam ahead on Capitol Hill. He had watched the emerging anti-poverty industry do a full-court press on the bills they wanted: He had seen the media operation gear up, and had watched the visitors come to the office to talk to the senator, and had counted the incoming letters from constituents. He knew the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had not even sent a letter to senators objecting to the “Population Research” bill.
He also realized, to his sorrow, that the next generation of young Catholics was not going to be defending Catholic morality, if they would even be living it. Writing about a 1970 Who’s Who Among American High School Students survey, Weyrich observed how well the population control propaganda had done its job. Would these high-achieving high school students be willing to limit their families to two children “in order to help population control”? Sixty-four percent said YES. Only 33 percent said NO. Asked whether they would have an abortion, 59 percent of all girls did not answer.
In that survey, 96 percent of Catholic students disapproved of hard drugs like LSD, and 59 percent of Catholic students (and Protestant students as well) had a negative opinion of pre-marital sex—but 49 percent of the Catholic students also favored legalized abortion. Asked whether they believed “in the use of contraceptives or other means of birth control,” only 21 percent of Catholic students said NO. Humanae Vitae had come out in 1968, and immediately dissenters had grabbed headlines. Weyrich and some likeminded Catholic laity tried to support D.C. Cardinal O’Boyle’s efforts to discipline the dissenting priests in Washington and to enforce loyalty to the magisterium among his clergy. But ultimately Rome told O’Boyle to stand down, and dissent carried that day—to be inherited as the birthright of future generations of American Catholics.
So when Bob Packwood lamented in 1970 that his population control bill wasn’t going to pass because “many Senators and Congressmen have given me verbal support but cannot see their way clear to vote favorably for my bill, either because they face re-election or they come from districts or states whose electorate is heavily Roman Catholic or politically very conservative,” it didn’t pass the smell test for Weyrich.
He knew that the Catholic Church presented no obstacle to the goals of the population controllers. “Great sums are spent to keep the Catholic Conference offices operating in Washington,” he wrote in The Wanderer14 after the final vote on Title X, “supposedly so that the Bishops will have their men following matters like this one. Not one word was said on this bill. If panic is justified, here is where it should be directed. The Catholics need truly Catholic lobbyists to represent their point of view in Washington.”
Writing an article in the weekly Catholic newspaper The Wanderer was about all this former journalist could do at the time to warn the faithful about the problems he saw on Capitol Hill. Paul firmly believed that most Americans shared his values—and that their energy in defense of traditional values could win the day in the American system of government—if only a way could be found to educate them and to organize and channel their energy.
Unlike Weyrich, who thought that legal abortion could be prevented if the American people could be educated and activated, others did not have his confidence in “the system.” On June 6, 1970, a group of young men led by L. Brent Bozell, William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law and editor of Triumph magazine, held a rally for life in downtown Washington and afterwards marched into an abortion clinic and disabled the machines. Weyrich raked Bozell over the coals for it in The Wanderer:
The great legislative battles on population and abortion and other key moral questions are yet to come. We may lose them. But we have not lost them yet. We have not even begun to work on the issue from our side. Despite my belief that the “establishment” is in many ways corrupt, and despite my lack of confidence in representative government in the 1970s, I have nevertheless seen many examples of the “power structure” being turned around, sometimes because just a handful of men with conviction knew what they were doing and acted in such a way as to succeed 15
Two years later, he warned: “Those who favor euthanasia, involuntary sterilization, involuntary control of family size, infanticide, and all similar horrors are now beginning to form their strategy, to put together their strange bedfellows, to form public opinion with the clear expectation that they will win in less than five years. By the time these matters get the full and serious attention of the President and the Congress, it will be too late to do anything about them.”16
Nine months later came Roe v. Wade.
It wasn’t until the end of 1975, almost three years after Roe v. Wade, that the Catholic Bishops adopted a pastoral plan for pro-life activities.17 In the meantime, the social gospel ruled the Catholic agenda: loud and clear for civil rights and expansion of the welfare state and against military action— and by the 1980s expending a lot of time, treasure, and talent to criticize the free market and boycott international corporations like Nestlé. Why these curious priorities?
The Catholic Establishment
Long before Weyrich was even born, the Washington Catholic establishment had firmly aligned itself with the American left wing.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops18 (NCCB) was officially created only after Vatican II’s 1966 requirement to establish national conferences of bishops.19 However, when the NCCB was established, it eased into the longstanding Catholic-leftwing alliance that went back to World War I. The Catholic War Council had been set up in 1917, then morphed into the National Catholic Welfare Council of 1919.
In 1922, Rome ordered the Welfare Council disbanded due to its sympathy with the Americanist heresy, but influential cardinals rescued it, and it continued as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, with the interesting proviso that not every bishop had to be a member of it and that the bishops who were involved were not to meet every year!20 For decades then, as it represented “official Catholicism” in Washington, it was a staff-run operation with very little accountability to any but like-minded bishops!
The Welfare Council’s Social Action division was led for decades by Msgr. John Ryan, whose 1919 “Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction” is considered a blueprint for FDR’s New Deal. In the 1930s Ryan was FDR’s main Catholic cheerleader, giving the invocation at his 1937 and 1945 inaugurations and leading campaigns for social justice, civil rights, and economic reform.21 When it morphed into the NCCB, the Welfare Council continued to pursue its agenda of welfare and world peace, and adopted the new brand name effortlessly. Republicans had opposed the New Deal, and by the late 1960s were identified with limited government, balanced budgets, and strong national defense—so a deep antipathy to anything Republican was part of the DNA of the official Catholic establishment in Washington from its very beginning.
The race to the left continued apace as the NCCB ramped up. Its first president was Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Dearden of Detroit, who had won fame as a voice for “reform” at Vatican II.22 One of Dearden’s first acts was to bring in Rev. Joseph Bernardin in 1968 to become the NCCB’s first General Secretary. Bernardin was a consummate ecclesiastical politician, a protégé of the most progressive bishops in America. He had worked under four bishops in Charleston, S.C., and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Atlanta even before he was ordained as bishop at age 38, the youngest in the country.23 In addition to Dearden, Bernardin was also mentored by Bishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, the national Catholic champion of racial equality and liturgical reform. With these guides, Bernardin’s progressive credentials were ensured.24
By the time Bernardin left the NCCB in 1972 to become bishop of Cincinnati, he had built it into an infrastructure based on Liberation Theology and community organizing—and had set its course for decades to come. Following the Second Vatican Council’s mandate that bishops “jointly exercise their pastoral office,”25 Bernardin operated through bishops’ committees with full-time staff secretariats. He cemented alliances with some of the most radical left-wingers in the country through millions of dollars’ worth of gifts from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). CCHD had been founded in 1969 by Msgr. John (“Jack”) Egan.26 It was Egan who persuaded Saul Alinsky to write his manual of urban revolution, Rules for Radicals, and arranged the first grant for Alinsky from the diocese of Chicago to start his community organizing career.27
Given the NCCB’s preoccupation with remaking the social order, protecting the basic human right to have children by opposing the drive for population control was simply not on their priority list. Nor was it politic to cross the Democratic Party on the abortion issue. By the time Bernardin delivered his “seamless garment” speech in 1983, it was clear that Washington’s mammoth Catholic bureaucracy was an impregnable fortress of the Left.
But by then there was a pro-life political movement that was well on its way to becoming a part of the Republican Party.
Part II of this article will appear in a subsequent issue.
1. Ehrlich, Mademoiselle, April 1970, quoted in https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/18-spectacularlywrong-predictions-made-around-the-time-of-first-earth-day-in-1970-expect-more-this-year-2/
5. Quoted by Paul M. Weyrich, “Anti-Life Forces Continue Gains,” Eastern Catholic Life, June 14, 1970 0.
6. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/17/archives/nixon-signs-bill-creating-commission-onpopulation.html. Accessed 2/8/2021.
7. Quoted by Weyrich, “Anti-Life Forces Continue Gains,” Eastern Catholic Life, June 14, 1970.
9. Very few resisted the new fashion. When Ti-Grace Atkinson insulted the Blessed Virgin Mary at Catholic University of America, however, Patricia Buckley Bozell’s objection made front-page news across the country: https://www.nytimes.com/1971/03/12/archives/sister-of-buckleys-slaps-atfeminist.html
10. “The Solid South” voted Democratic in just about every election since the end of Reconstruction in 1876.
11. Kenneth E. Nilsen, “The Irish Language in New York: 1850-1900”, p. 257. article in The New York Irish, edited by Ronald Bayor & Timothy Meagher, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/betty-ford-a-gift-to-america/
13. Weyrich, Paul M., “Senate Hands Catholics a Bitter Pill,” The Wanderer, Vol 104, No. 32, August 6, 1970.
14. Weyrich, Paul M., “Militancy and Responsibility: Some Reflections,” The Wanderer, June 18, 1970 and Eastern Catholic Life, June 28, 1970.
15. Weyrich, Paul M., “A Strategy Now May Lead to Later Success,” The Wanderer, April 13, 1972.
16. Winters, Michael Sean, p. 142, Left at the Altar, New York: Basic Books, 2008.
17. The U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) was established in 1966 (the two bureaucracies did not merge into the current USCCB until 2001), to deal with internal church matters.
18. Articulated in the motu proprio, Ecclesiae sanctae.
19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Catholic_Welfare_Council, accessed 9/13/2020.
20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_A._Ryan, accessed 9/13/2020.
21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dearden, accessed 9/13/2020.
22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Bernardin, accessed 9/13/2020.
23. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_John_Hallinan, accessed 9/13/2020.
24. Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church, #38.
25. Vadum, Matthew, Catholic World Report, April 2009, pages 42-43.
26. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Joseph_Egan, accessed 9/13/2020.
27. https://lepantoin.org/the-marxist-core-of-the-catholic-campaign-for-human-development/ accessed 9/13/2020
Connie Marshner is an occasional blogger for the Human Life Review website. She recently completed a full-length biography of Paul Weyrich. This is part one of a two-part article.