Won’t Someone Think About the Babies?
Talking with historian Gillian Frank about America’s journey to and from Roe
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell At Me a newsletter about the places our politics and personhood collide. Today’s issue is a long conversation with historian Gillian Frank about America’s history of progress and backlash toward human rights.
On Tuesday, the journalist Conor Friedersdorf tweeted a section of what he believed to be Pre-K curriculum, explaining in an age-appropriate way that some families look different than others.
It’s important to be clear there is no proof that what Friedersdorf tweeted is actually being taught in classrooms. Other people have linked the curriculum he tweeted to a Redditt conspiracy group.
Explaining that families look different has been part of children’s education since I’ve been a child, with Sesame Street and story lines about adoption and parents being incarcerated. Any cursory look through a children’s book section of a store or library will reveal multiple books that seek to reflect back to children that family is complicated and beautiful.
But Friedersdorf’s tweet invoked the specter of a national panic over the corruption of American children—the looming idea that children will somehow be corrupted by the understanding that some bodies and sexualities are different. Of course, children are actually raised by LGBTQ parents all the time and understand that just as well as they understand the plot of Cinderella. But reality isn’t the point. It’s the suggestion of the corruption of our children that raises the bile in our national throat.
In his research, historian Gillian Frank has encountered this poor child in need of saving—who has been invoked in debates over everything from Comstock laws to school integration. This theoretical child, according to Frank, is always in need of saving from imagined threats, at the expense of real threats such as poverty, formula shortages, and a childcare crisis.
Frank has done a lot of public writing on the intersectional history of abortion rights and is working on a book about the role of clergy in pre-Roe America. Frank is also the co-host of the podcast Sexing History, which unravels the history of sex and sexuality in America.
Frank’s work is about perspective, placing our panics and perceptions in their proper context and intersections, which helps us all see things a little more clearly. I asked him to talk to me to explain where our country has been in the battle over sexuality, the rights of women, and the purity of children, the radical clergy in pre-Roe America, and where we might be headed.
Lyz Lenz: Can you talk to me a little bit about your work and how you got into studying the history of sexuality?
Gil Frank: So I’ve been interested in the history of sexuality since I was an undergraduate. One of my mentors was an LGBTQ historian, a historian in sexuality more broadly. And when I took his courses, it was just eye-opening and transformative. We all had those inspiring profs. Mine was Mark Stein up at York University in Toronto, Canada. And I was just floored by what I was learning. At the same time, when it came time to do a senior thesis, I decided to write mine again about the backlash against disco music in 1979.
And thinking about how this popular cultural moment became this bit of widespread cultural backlash, I was like, “Why? Why did they hate music?” And so I developed that the next year, but my basic argument was that this was part of a larger anti-gay backlash located among predominantly white men who are anxious about queer and Black cultural forms.
That research sent me on a larger path to thinking about the ways in which right-wing movements use culture and politics to organize sexual behaviors, racial identities, social norms. And so I ended up writing my dissertation about conservative movements to regulate sexuality.
When we’re talking about sex, it’s never just about sex.
And so out of this dissertation, came my scholarship on anti-abortion movements, anti-gay movements, and anti-pornography movements, and anti-integration movements, I should say. And all of these movements converged on a single image, which was that of the sexually endangered child.
Conservatives love to talk about sex and children. And they love to protect imaginary children from all sorts of sexual dangers. And the contradiction of course, is that they’re not so good about actually giving welfare and material resources to better children’s lives across the board. They just want to be in perpetual anxiety about children and use that as a mode of policing all sorts of social boundaries and reaffirming certain power relationships.
And so we see that over the long course of 19th- and 20th-century American history. And what sort of happens in the 1960s, and we’re still living in that very long era, so now 60 years later is this rhetoric of save our children. Save our babies from X.
I mean, we saw this in the anti-bussing movements and the anti-integration movements. We saw this in the anti-abortion movements of the past. We saw this in the anti-pornography movement. You could see it, whether it was the anti-pornography movements of the late ’50s, early ’60s, or like in Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center that we’re seeing this again today.
This stuff is like zombie-ing on across the decades. So what’s really at stake here is a long history of social reproduction and reproducing certain values and excluding others. And so what conservatives learnt in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s was that if you want to counterbalance the political demands of minorities, whether it’s racial minorities, whether it’s trans people, this is later on, whether it’s gay folks, whether it’s feminist, just demonize them as endangering children. The rights are endangering the rights of our children. So this rhetoric has been an effective factor for close to half a century. So that is the historical long march that we’ve been on.
LL: Talk to me about this hypothetical child we’re saving, because it’s not a Black child, right? It’s not an immigrant child. This is a very specific American idealized child that we are supposed to be saving. Right?
GF: This is where it gets interesting. For the most part, it is a white child. The gender switches depending upon the social movement of cause. When it’s anti-integration, it’s typically presented as a white female child, right? Who’s going to be having sex, marrying a Black man.
Or sexually assaulted by them, depending on which version of that longstanding trope we’re using. When it is abortion, it depends on how they’re trying to tailor the message. Often they’ll use the white baby, but Black babies get strategically deployed when they want to enlist Black support.
And they want to talk about genocide or they want to say that Planned Parenthood is racist and we are the true guardians of human rights.
The pornography thing is typically white children being corrupted by outside influences, but not always. And it depends how big the conservative coalition wants to build it out. But when it’s white evangelicals or white Catholics talking to the in-group, they’re not making mention of racial diversity. It is a very Wonder Bread narrative.
“And so what conservatives learnt in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s was that if you want to counterbalance the political demands of minorities, whether it’s racial minorities, whether it’s trans people, this is later on, whether it’s gay folks, whether it’s feminist, just demonize them as endangering children. The rights are endangering the rights of our children.”
Lyz Lenz: Is there a moment in history where this fictional child comes into being?
GF: There’s a transformation in how we think about children at large in the 19th century. And so the sort of idea that childhood is something that needs to be a state of innocence and a state of prolonged adolescence, this is something that’s all happening in the 19th century. A rise of a very separate state.
And so historians like Philippe Ariès argued that there were different categories of childhood. But this privileged state of childhood, in a sense, and a very white privileged state of childhood, in a sense, was something that was bequeathed and invented and produced really in the 19th century. And this is the moment where we see a lot of these early child protection campaigns. Now some of these are child welfare campaigns.
They went from working and labor laws and also sexual assault laws and rape laws and forced marriage laws. But they also coincided with Comstock, which was about protecting the child from smut.
And so sexuality became the borderland of the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. Historians of African American life have argued that in many ways, constructing this sheltered childhood was the labor of Black parents because society didn’t deem them to be real children.
The uneven sentencing of the Black youth versus white youth and Black children, white children continued to reflect how white racism renders uninnocent Black bodies, even as the work of protecting these young, developmentally inexperienced kids falls to Black communities.
And so I’m not saying that developmentally appropriate changes didn’t exist, but there was a very different mindset about it in the 19th century. And it started to change with the rise of mandatory education and age-segregated institutions, which only picked up in the 20th century—with the sort of idea and the rise of youth culture as a separate entity and with the rise of consumer capitalism devoted to producing niche marketing.
These ideas of age-segregated phases of life only expand from the 19th to 20th century. And so with that came these ideas of innocence as something to be shared. You would find poets writing about the innocence of babes and all that, but in reality, this coincided in the 19th century with young kids laboring in factories.
LL: And like you point out, it’s not always such a bad thing, too, to have those laws. Yeah. Let’s not force 10 year old girls to get married or nine year olds to work 12 hour days.
GF: That’s a difference we should keep marked right now between child welfare, the welfare of children, and child symbolic protection.
LL: Something I’ve seen you tweet about is the history of how the Evangelical movement took up the anti-abortion crusade. Could you explain the real history of that? I’ve read a lot about it from Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer, a leader of the religious right, and historian Randall Balmer talks about this a lot. But you disagree with them?
GF: So I’m going to put this on the record: Randy Balmer is wrong.
People who share this narrative of the religious right suddenly taking up the cause of abortion need to be taken with a huge bucket of salt. And because Balmer wants to give this nonsense narrative that the religious right suddenly swooped in to go on abortion because they wanted to distract from their racism and their school tax credits issues. That is such a heap of shit.
So you can’t just arrive in 1978 and say, “Evangelicals, let’s all hate abortion now,” and have them flip on a dime, right? Evangelicals are deeply divided amongst themselves. They’re fiercely independent between their denominations, and they don’t move on a cultural moment just like that. It doesn’t happen that way.
Evangelicals started caring about abortion when abortion started coming to public consciousness in the 1960s. Like every other religious group, even Catholics, they were divided on abortion. You would have, not sermons, but op-eds by people like Billy Graham talking about abortion as murdering babies. This was in 1961.
Then in 1978, you would have Evangelicals writing in about and complaining about Sherri Finkbine getting an abortion in 1962. In Iowa in 1971, you would have Evangelicals writing into their representatives, complaining about abortion liberalization saying that, “You know what? We support therapeutic abortion. But elective abortion, abortion on demand? That is an abomination.”
You would have from early 1970s with the ERA when Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic, is going state to state getting into bed with Mormons and Evangelicals, catholicizing them, telling them that abortion is something feminists want and teaching them that it is a deviation from the holy vision, the divine vision of the family. Evangelical women got on board with that shit in the early ’70s.
They were learning this language that feminism equals abortion, equals ERA, equals gay marriage. And that was drummed into them from ’70 onwards. State by state campaigns happened as Evangelical women and their ministers got into bed with what was really a forming religious right. People were learning about the harms of abortion from Richard Nixon. And no big surprise, racist rhetoric happened alongside of it.
Racism didn’t go away in ’78 because people like Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich said, “Oh, let’s not do racism very publicly anymore.” Reagan did racism all the time.
From the specter of Black male criminals to the specter of the welfare queen driving the Cadillac, to the war on the New Deal. Racism was pervasive, and it didn’t disappear. It happened alongside of abortion.
Religious polarization on abortion and the sensitization of Evangelicals was happening over a multi-decade prompt.
And it was happening from the bottom up. The conservative surge towards abortion was happening in a long process of realignment starting in the ’60s and moving into the ’80s, right? The targeted attempts to peel away voters from the Democratic party. The attempts by folks to link their politics with one particular political party. This was all happening well before ’78. Well before ’80. And so we see Falwell and Dobson and others who we now call the new rights saying, “We are anti-abortion.” They were doing something that grassroots Evangelical women’s activists had already been doing.
But here’s the kicker. After Roe, the meaning of abortion changed. Right? It went from a debate between therapeutic abortion and abortion reform versus abortion repeal to what was called abortion on demand. And that got associated with feminism.
And that got associated with sexual license. And that did not sit well with middle American Evangelicals. We didn’t just see it as something that respectable women got because they needed it to prevent a deformed pregnancy or needed it to save the life of the mother. This was some sort of sexual license and degeneracy. Its meaning changed.
LL: Something that is depressing about history is seeing the progress both made and then unmade. What do you think our immediate future looks like?
GF: I think a lot of people get activated when they feel like their own rights are going to be taken away. They feel like privileges are being violated. And so we’re going to see folks who are already being pinched and affected, this is only going to be magnified. I think that what we are going to see very realistically, and let’s just assume that it actually only is a state-by-state effort and not a national abortion ban. I cannot make a prediction as to what’s going to happen next, but I’m going to give one scenario.
Let’s say that abortion rights are in fact kicked back to the state. We’re going to see vast deserts of medical scarcity and small islands of medical availability for abortion. We’re going to see abortion become much more costly, much more time consuming, and much more difficult to obtain, depending upon the extent of criminalization.
Whether it’s criminalization of travel, whether it’s criminalization of information, sharing, whether those are held up as constitutional or upheld by the courts, hard to say. But what will happen is that they’re going to have overtaxed medical resources in law jurisdictions where abortion will be offered. And there’s going to be an attempt to narrow the spaces where abortion can be offered.
So there’ll be safe havens. There’ll be places in California and Vermont and other places that will allow it. And then there’ll be some places that will allow it for a little while and then we’ll have those rights winnowed away, depending upon the political tides and campaign. But I think that what we are going to see is that these fights are going to become, as a result of no national protections anymore, intensely local and fought out in various spaces. So in the years leading up to Roe, there was a referendum in blue states. There was legislative hearings and battles in countless states. Well, I mean there’s only 50 states, but you know what I mean.
Where it was like state by state battles. And I think we’re going to see a return to this, where there’s going to be fights over abortion rights on a state level. And it’s going to become a magnification of these battles, especially in places where they try to take away rights and accentuate criminalization. That’s my prediction.
LL: Yeah. So this dovetails with your book about clergy who helped women find abortions before Roe v. Wade. I want to talk to you about what you’re learning in your research.
GF: On the eve of Roe v. Wade, the vast majority of Protestant and Jewish denominations supported abortion rights.
If not tight repeal of abortion laws. Right immediately before Roe and for the decade leading up to it, clergy had found themselves supporting the liberalization of abortion restrictions and increasingly they wanted it to be a private decision between a physician and a patient.
In 1967, what we saw was a public iteration of what had been going on for quite a while, which is to say a group of clergy got together, announced their presence on the front page of the New York Times, and said, “We are going to help women find abortion and safe abortions if they need it despite it being against the law. The law, we don’t know when it’s going to change, but right now there is a medical crisis.”
And so they formed a group called the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. Started in New York City and by its end in 1973 or a couple years after, depending on how long some of these branches lingered, they were in over 40 states. What they were doing was something clergy had been doing since the 1950s, which was helping women find abortions.
The difference was that it was public and organized, whereas before it was private, individual, idiosyncratic, which is to say that clergy before Roe saw a medical crisis unfolding. They saw women seeking out illegal abortions. They saw them getting mutilated by backstreet butchers. And they saw congregants, they saw family members, they saw their own partners have unwanted pregnancies and coming to them and saying, “What do I do now, Reverend or Rabi?”
And so these clergy were on the front lines of ministering to people with unwanted pregnancies or ministering to the family who had lost someone to a botched abortion, or at the bedside of someone who was in sepsis because of a botched abortion. They saw the tragedy unfolding and so increasingly in congregation by congregation, in denomination by denomination, there was a discussion about the morality of abortion restrictions.
What Protestants and Jews said, maybe not Protestants, but even Southern Baptist, although they were much more on the reform than the repeal, was that these laws are not moral, are not helping. They are creating harm and causing women to get harmed and harm themselves. Even from Unitarians to reform Jews, conservative Jews, to Episcopalians, to Methodist, American Baptist, etcetera, they were saying things like for women to actualize themselves fully in the society, they need the right to control their bodies. They need the right to choose.
And so, as they did so, they helped women, tens and tens of thousands find abortion before Roe v. Wade. They helped them travel across international borders or travel across state lines. When it became legalized in jurisdictions, they helped them travel there. They helped them process their decision, or they just helped them get to where they needed to go and judging them to be fully capable of moral agency.
LL: I think it’s worth pointing out there seems to be this narrative that’s like, “Well, religious people are against abortion and that’s religion in America,” but it’s far more complex than that.
GF: You hit the nail on the head. The public story that we tell about religion, the popular story, the religiously illiterate story about religion is the one that the religious right wants us to believe.
Which is capital R religion is opposed to abortion. And when you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that the history of religion and abortion is an inter- and intra-denominational conversation within and between different religious groups.
But when we look very closely, we see that many religious groups have and continue to support the right to reproductive choice, the right to access abortion. Judaism is a perfect example of this, where Jewish faith dictates that the life of the mother, the rights of the mother take precedence and that it is not a whole child. That it is a fetus.
And other faiths will say that it is potential life, but not life itself. And it’s to the speaker’s benefit, right?
The reason that the right-wing Evangelicals and Catholics want you to believe that religion opposes abortion is that they believe that they’re the true interpreters of religion. That they have a direct hotline to God, whereas those in the main line and perhaps reformed and conservative Jews is that there is a pluralistic vision of society.
That freedom of religion means freedom from religion and that creating secularism and pluralism means that we allow people to have the right to their conscience when it comes to their bodies. The folks who want to say that religion opposes abortion are the same ones that don’t believe in freedom of conscience. They want to impose their dogmas on people’s reproductive parts.
“That freedom of religion means freedom from religion and that creating secularism and pluralism means that we allow people to have the right to their conscience when it comes to their bodies. The folks who want to say that religion opposes abortion are the same ones that don’t believe in freedom of conscience. They want to impose their dogmas on people’s reproductive parts.”
LL: What are some historical parallels that are striking you as we live through this moment?
GF: We were talking about these intersections or the echoes between past and present or continuities of these struggles. We need to think about this anti-abortion backlash as connected to this anti-trans backlash, as connected to this anti-gay backlash, as connected to this anti-CRT backlash.
There are people who are actively working to make an unequal, fundamentally hierarchical society that are looking to roll back the projects that have stemmed from the New Deal to the present to give people basic dignity, both economic and social. They’re trying to roll back the expansion of social citizenship.
So what we’re seeing is a multi-pronged assault on social equality and bodily autonomy. These are intersectional. They’re not inseparable. And so when we think about this conversation on abortion rights, we need to see it as a part of the assault on trans people’s bodily dignity, and the right to access healthcare. On the rights of gay and lesbian people to have themselves dignified whether in their relationships or just in the social world in general, and certainly in the right to encounter the difficulties of the American past when it comes to racial differences. Fundamental rights of Black people not to be killed, another bodily autonomy issue right there. I mean these are all reproductive health issues on some level.