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Jon A. Shields

The Accidental Activists

An assumption-challenging study of the pro-life movement.

A colleague once quipped that the only problem with sociology is that it is overrun by sociologists. I am inclined to agree when reading sociological treatments of the abortion conflict. So it was a truly welcome surprise to read Ziad Munson's The Making of Pro-Life Activists, a book that quietly demolishes a lot of overrated sociology.

Munson conducted 82 life histories of pro-life activists in the service of asking a seemingly straightforward question: Who becomes a pro-life activist and why? One might suppose that those with strong pro-life sentiments simply join the movement. Yet Munson found that only 13 percent of the activists in his sample were "self starters"—citizens whose strong moral convictions led them to initiate contact with a pro-life organization. In addition, approximately half of the activists in Munson's sample were still ambivalent about abortion or even pro-choice prior to their participation in the pro-life movement. For these activists, pro-life sentiment was a consequence rather than the cause of participation in the right-to-life movement.

But why would the unconverted participate in the pro-life movement to begin with? As Munson explains, such reluctant participants often wanted to please a friend or colleague. One of his converts, for example, first attended a legislative hearing on abortion at the urging of her trusted pro-life physician. These unlikely activists simply "stumble[d] into contact with different pro-life organizations in the course of their daily lives." In other words, "activism emerged not because they consciously sought it out to express their beliefs but as an unintended result of their ordinary lives."

Turning other assumptions on their head, Munson also found that deeper religious conviction was often the result of movement participation rather than the cause. The most famous example of such a transformation, of course, is Bernard Nathanson, a former atheist and cofounder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who converted ...

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