Pregnant? Need Help?: Science, Narrative, and the North American Crisis Pregnancy Center, 1968-1991
This seminar draws on Dr Megann Licskai's book project which traces how anti-abortion movements in the United States and Canada developed medical and scientific technologies which, combined with the power of pro-life narratives, came to effect political influence.
While activists tried to distinguish their scientific pro-life work from “other” kinds of activism, these research programs were built on and then reinforced the movements pro-life scientists tried to distance themselves from. The larger project spans the three turbulent decades of pro-life activism that bridges the liberalization of American abortion laws to twenty-first-century abortion restrictions, beginning in the years preceding Roe v. Wade and then tracing the renegotation of pro-life goals, methods, and arguments following the 1973 decision to legalize abortion in the United States. Some activists grounded pro-life arguments in science, developing research programs and rhetorical strategies. By studying the evolution of a science that was largely published and circulated outside of the scientific mainstream, but that nevertheless had profound political impacts, this study provides insight into the development of authority claims that are so prominent in our current moment (such as “alternative facts,” and “fake news”). In short, this project uses anti-abortion activism to show how “alternative facts” came to have such cultural and political power.
This talk is centered on the Crisis Pregnancy Centers that equipped activists with technological and rhetorical expertise and became loci for the dissemination of anti-abortion information. The talk begins with an examination of the historical evolution of the CPC, founded in Toronto, Canada in the late 1960s by pro-life activist Louise Summerhill, which quickly spread across the southern border, and then overseas. Although pregnancy testing was a part of early CPC practice, these clinics grew more medicalized over time, gaining access to medical technologies like ultrasounds. It will then take up the mobilization and increasing radicalization of CPCs, particularly through a close examination of The Pearson Manual, a guidebook by Hawaii activist Robert Pearson for operating such centers, instructing volunteers how to run pregnancy tests, and counsel (and sometimes deceive) women. The talk will argue that the CPC, as a site that foregrounded the relationship between clinic operations, ideology, authority, and patient experience, provided a political blueprint for the legitimacy claims of other pro-life thinkers. This was a site where the pro-life movement became professional, medical, and developed compelling rhetoric about maternal and fetal health. Additionally, the talk will employ the “pro-life narrative” as an analytic; this is a genre that interacts with pro-life science and strategically employs tropes about gender, race, and personhood to frame abortion as unthinkable.