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The strange origins of America’s abortion fight

An abortion protest in Arkansas in 1998. Greg Smith/Corbis/Getty 

Far from being a deep and ancient cultural divide, says Jon Ronson in the podcast Things Fell Apart, America’s fight over abortion dates back just a few decades. In the 1970s, Christian evangelicals weren’t remotely interested in the issue, viewing it as a niche Catholic concern. It was an aspiring Hollywood director called Frank Schaeffer, the “errant son” of a revered Christian intellectual, who changed that. Tasked by his father with directing a religious documentary, Frank insisted they include two episodes attacking abortion. He felt strongly about the issue because he had kept – and loved – a baby he never wanted. “It was very personal,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the philosophical argument.”

But when the Schaeffers asked church leaders to promote the films, they got short shrift. Legendary mega-pastor Wallie Criswell told them he wanted nothing to do with it: “Why would I tell some girl who gets pregnant she’s got to have the baby?” The editorial board of Christianity Today magazine said it was an “ambivalent issue at best”.

All that changed when the New York Post ran a piece about the Schaeffers’ “weird, avant-garde anti-abortion film”. Feminist groups began picketing their events, and evangelicals – who already regarded feminists as the enemy – organised counter-protests. As these fights got more and more heated, they became big news around the country. That was the start of the pro-life movement as we know it today.