Unless a majority judge changes his mind before the court finalizes the ruling, the ruling would signal that the anti-abortion movement has changed the course of history. This success is the product of powerful conservative coalitions but, crucially, the anti-abortion movement has managed to co-opt and rework leftist rhetoric about rights.
As state legislatures in the late 1960s began to liberalize their abortion laws, the emerging anti-abortion movement faced serious cultural and political obstacles. Many Americans were skeptical of religious movements imposing their will on others. They also confronted a burgeoning feminist movement claiming that women were an oppressed class. Women’s inability to control their reproduction meant they could not be full citizens.
Recognizing the power of these claims, the nascent anti-abortion movement rejected the open crusade to regulate women’s sexuality embraced by the anti-birth control movement of the early 1960s. states had to punish promiscuity and the women who profited from it, anti-abortion activists understood that this explicit sexism and religiosity would no longer sell.
But the new language pioneered by the ascending rights movements of the decade — particularly the civil rights movement — offered a solution to this problem. These movements familiarized Americans with claims about the need for new laws to protect the rights of minority groups. As historian Sara Dubow and others have shown, anti-abortion activists have embraced this language, developing secular arguments centered on the civil rights of fetuses.
This formulation allowed them, for example, to compare abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. All three have devalued or eradicated human life, they claimed. But abortion was the worst of the three, according to anti-abortion activists. The growing number of abortions would eventually exceed the number of people murdered in the Holocaust or killed in the Civil War. It was also worse because the fetus was the ultimate innocent victim. An activist wrote to his Utah legislator in 1973: “As much as I [am] concerning [Roe v. Wade] is far more tragic than anything Hitler ever did, at least his victims weren’t completely helpless and could fight for themselves to some extent.
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Arguments about murder and rights became particularly powerful in the 1970s, as average Americans became more fully aware of the Holocaust and began to integrate the history of the civil rights movement into the story of American progress. The anti-abortion movement has put the emotional power of these stories to conservative ends.
Through this framework, fetuses became the ultimate victim of modern society, and white religious conservatives redefined themselves as abolitionists — not as people restricting women’s freedom. In fact, in the 1970s, they rarely talked about women or their rights.
While the early anti-abortion movement was overwhelmingly Catholic, by the late 1970s these arguments helped build a growing coalition that included white evangelical Christians and Mormons. A host of religious Americans had these arguments built into their faith practices. They might hear an anti-abortion sermon, get a friend’s political speech, or watch an anti-abortion movie in Sunday school.
But while those arguments have proven attractive to religious conservatives, they have not convinced Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion or refer the issue to state legislatures. Even Republicans elected by anti-abortion voters have rarely followed through with sufficient anti-abortion laws or the “right kind” of Supreme Court justices. President Ronald Reagan, for example, nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981 despite warnings from anti-abortion groups that she was not the kind of justice they wanted.
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Despite these setbacks, the anti-abortion movement leaned even more heavily into rights arguments in the 1980s and 1990s. Activists openly claimed the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. They argued that ‘they also defended those whom society devalued, while affirming that black people suffered only from abortion. The movement has always been overwhelmingly white, but it relied heavily on a handful of black activists to authenticate that claim. At anti-abortion events across the country, King’s niece, Alveda King, regularly argued that her famous uncle opposed abortion, even as his widow, Coretta Scott King, supported family planning under many forms and said her husband does too.
Activists have also aired these arguments in secular spaces. They presented them to school children under the guise of abstinence education. In crisis pregnancy centers, often anti-abortion clinics posing as abortion providers, pregnant women — but especially young women, uninsured women, and women of color — had to listen to a ” counselor” talk about the fetal body, the alleged harms of abortion and civil rights. By the end of the century, it was difficult for an American to completely avoid these arguments or the fetal images that accompanied them.
This language persisted because anti-abortion activists realized it was a way to distract from women seeking abortions. Women were the thorn in the side of the movement. If abortion was murder, who was the murderer? If fetal life was a right, then who was responsible for protecting that right and at what cost? Activists recognized that attacking women or even engaging in their assertion that abortion was a woman’s right would hurt their movement.
In 2000, Arizona Right to Life News explained the purpose of this strategy: “We need to frame the issue in a way that appeals to civil rights supporters, because we will lose if the public concludes that abortion is a civil right. By ignoring the women whose lives they were trying to dictate, the anti-abortion movement could claim there would be no cost to protecting fetal life.
Anti-abortion activists were the backbone of the rising religious right, whose members worried about transformations in American society with respect to gender, sexuality and race. This part of this socially conservative movement has remained determined to use the language of rights. This has allowed white conservatives, especially young people, to imagine themselves as part of the push for human and civil rights that is sweeping the world.
Alito’s leaked draft notice and the arguments in states across the country in favor of banning abortion represent the culmination of these efforts and framing. Alito’s draft opinion rejected the idea that the Constitution protects the right to abortion. It did not substantially address the ways in which the abortion ban may affect pregnant women. He also repeated the movement’s claims that black people suffer disproportionately from abortion.
In Oklahoma, in a debate over a total ban on abortion, there was another, even more revealing articulation of these policies. State Senator Warren Hamilton (right) wondered why ectopic pregnancies – when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus and cannot survive, while threatening the life of the pregnant woman or another pregnant person – were not included in the legislation. Excluding them, Hamilton said, violated the anti-abortion movement’s push for “justice for all.”
This comment sums up the rhetoric that has propelled the anti-abortion movement over the past 50 years. He appealed to people who were comfortable with changing sexual mores, especially women’s sexuality. He also appealed to religious conservatives who feared the federal government was oppressive; in fact, they believed, legal abortion proved that the government was genocidal. It attracted people who wanted to imagine themselves as part of American progress, without actually changing the social structures that defined American life.
The extraordinary grassroots work of the anti-abortion movement produced a politically significant and reliable electoral base for whom abortion was the most important issue. In the 21st century, this base elected Republicans to state and national offices who would not only say the right things during a campaign, but also follow through while in office. These elected officials and the judges they appointed are now – finally – ready to deliver on decades of promises.