This article is from the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Salvage.
In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, adopted a resolution calling on fellow Southern Baptists to work to make abortion legal under certain conditions, namely, ‘rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother’. In 1973, W A Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed his satisfaction with the Roe v Wade ruling:
I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.
Catholic religious leaders and grassroots activists had been organising against state abortion reform laws in the years leading up to Roe, but from the 1960s and into the late 1970s the vast majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists were ambivalent about the issue and, for most people, abortion was considered a personal issue, not a political one. Historian Daniel K. Williams discusses evangelical opinion on abortion in his book on the making of the Christian Right, God’s Own Party:
In 1970, a Baptist View poll showed that while 80 per cent of Southern Baptist pastors opposed ‘abortion on demand’, 70 per cent favored allowing abortion to protect the physical or mental health of a woman, and 64 per cent thought that state laws should permit abortion in cases of fetal deformity. 71 per cent had no objection to abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Today, politically conservative evangelical legislators and lobbyists are behind some of the most jaw-dropping anti-abortion bills, laws so sadistic they beggar belief. In Texas, SB 8–effective 1 September 2021–allows any private citizen anywhere in the country to sue anyone who performs an abortion or ‘aids or abets’ anyone seeking an abortion in the state after an embryo’s cardiac activity can be detected, often around six weeks into a pregnancy. Abortions in Texas dropped nearly 60 per cent in the first month that this, the most restrictive abortion law in the country, was in effect. At least seven states have introduced bills mimicking the Texas anti-abortion law since; Tennessee has proposed a bill that would ban all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest, and allow a rapist’s relatives to bring civil action against abortion providers. Indiana and about six other states require providers to share medically inaccurate information with patients about discontinuing medication-induced abortions after they are initiated, under so called ‘abortion-reversal’ laws. In April 2022, Oklahoma Republican governor Kevin Stitt signed a near-total abortion ban into law, which threatens prison for providers. Thirteen states currently have ‘trigger laws’ that would pass near-total abortion bans if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which is likely to happen in late June or early July 2022, as indicated in the recent leak of Justice Alito’s draft opinion. Twenty-six states in total are likely to ban abortion without the protections of Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
How did conservative evangelicals come to be so central to the anti-abortion movement? And how has the evangelical anti-abortion movement managed to wield such disproportionate political and cultural power, and without much effective opposition?
While fundamentalism and evangelicalism are often conflated, at various points in history there were significant differences between those who identified as evangelical or fundamentalist, and different levels of cooperation or disunity between the groups, which were not monolithic even in themselves. In the early 1940s, the first split grew between evangelicals and fundamentalists over how to apply the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith to the modern world. Evangelicals favoured engaging in the new modernist culture, and set themselves the task of making God relevant again in the face of increasing secularisation and a shift in cultural attitudes as millions moved from rural areas to cities and more women joined the workforce during World War Two. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, favoured separatism from the changing popular culture and consequently became isolated from those with political power in government. The formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942, the rise in popularity of the evangelical preacher Billy Graham in the late ’40s and ’50s, and the founding of the magazine Christianity Today in 1956 all raised the profile and influence of the evangelical movement and moniker. Because evangelical leaders were seen as less religiously extreme and more willing to adapt to changing norms, their political influence outpaced that of fundamentalist leaders in the mid 20th century. Later distinctions developed based on regional differences, commitment to biblical inerrancy, positions on the civil rights movement, and acceptance of Catholics as socially conservative allies.
The Politicisation of Evangelical America
In 1976, Jerry Falwell, the influential Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist, hosted a series of ‘I Love America’ rallies to grow his evangelical fan base and preach that the Christian way of life was under threat. He called religious conservatives to political action, breaking with decades of evangelical and fundamentalist belief that politics were tainted and that religious isolation was the best strategy for dealing with the country’s increasing secularisation. He proclaimed that separation of church and state was ‘invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.’ In 1979 Falwell co-founded the Moral Majority to organise conservative evangelicals into politics. The organisation would play a significant role in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, and claimed more than 4 million members and over 2 million donors at its peak in the early 1980s, and through direct mail, public rallies, and fundraising successfully encouraged evangelicals to become more politically active.
The activating issue for many conservative evangelicals was not abortion, as religious leaders like to claim in most revisionist histories, but white southerners’ reaction to desegregation. After ‘separate but equal’ provisions were ruled unconstitutional in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v Board of Education, religious leaders including Jerry Falwell claimed that the decision violated their religious freedom to practise segregation, and they set up church-affiliated schools across the South. These segregated academies, as private schools, were exempt from the Brown ruling, and were able to get generous tax subsidies through their ties to nonprofit religious institutions.
In 1968, a group of Black parents in Mississippi brought a suit against the state’s segregated academies and argued that schools that practised discrimination should not be tax exempt. The Supreme Court upheld the suit in Green v Connally in 1971 and President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to revoke tax exemptions for any segregated schools. Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders were outraged. ‘In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect’, said political scientist Corey Robin of Falwell’s perceived persecution. The government enforcement of desegregation was a political awakening for disengaged white evangelicals in the South. An administrator at fundamentalist college Bob Jones University, which went to court and spent years in legal battle over the Green decision, said that the tax exemption fight was ‘the major issue’ attracting the Christian school community, made up of conservative evangelicals, to politics.
The foundations were being laid for the Religious Right throughout the 1970s. The well executed political movement connected the interests of corporate conservatives working to grow the base of support for conservative economic policy with the growing flock of fundamentalist and evangelical white southerners reacting to the massive social changes of the previous decade. The creation of the Religious Right at the end of the 1970s is an important part of the story of how everyday evangelicals became more politically active, in the process rejecting decades of premillennialist theology that discouraged political action. What made their political involvement unique in the late ’70s was their partisan commitment. According to historian Daniel K Williams, evangelical leaders gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues, but because they were taking over the Republican Party.
Demographic changes partly accounted for the increased political influence of evangelicals, and their growing support of the Republican Party. As huge numbers of white, college-educated workers moved to Sunbelt suburbs after World War II and got jobs in the region’s growing defence industries, they favoured Republican politicians who supported a strong military and conservatives who called for ‘law and order’ to protect their neighbourhoods from the threat of rising crime. Many of these new residents joined the growing number of evangelical churches in the new suburbs, ‘shifting the nation’s religious balance of power from northern mainline Protestant denominations to predominately southern evangelical churches’, says Daniel K Williams. By the early 1970s, the nation’s ten largest churches were located in the South, West, and Midwest, and almost all were evangelical.
Republican politicians had been slowly gaining support from evangelical and fundamentalist leaders since the early Cold War, when they identified Republican leaders as more staunchly committed than Democrats to fighting ‘godless communism’ and more dedicated to militarism and patriotism. Billy Graham, arguably the most influential evangelical of the mid twentieth century, had close ties to Nixon and advised him on the best ways to win evangelical support; Graham encouraged Nixon campaign managers to view conservative evangelicals as a new voting bloc. ‘There is an emerging evangelical strength in this country that is going to have a strong bearing on social and political matters probably for a generation to come’, Graham told Nixon in 1972. To win reelection that year, Nixon reached out to conservatives in the suburbs of the Sunbelt and Midwest, and emphasised conservative social values and a commitment to law and order. ‘By bringing evangelicals and fundamentalists together with the promise of law and order, Nixon played a critical role in the formation of the Christian Right. If it had not been for Nixon’s evangelical “silent majority”, Falwell’s task of mobilizing a “moral majority” might have been much more difficult’, says Daniel K. Williams.
The build up of evangelical support for the Republican party was decades in the making, but it was a slow process that was not well organised until the arrival of the Christian Right. As reaction grew to the progressive movements of the 1960s, as young people flooded into evangelical churches in the 1970s, and as the number of abortions being performed post Roe began to rise, religious leaders and conservative political strategists began to use the issue of abortion–along with other conservative social issues–to bring greater numbers of religious conservatives to the GOP cause.
Evangelicals join the pro-life movement
Some evangelicals initially supported the Roe decision as a reflection of the proper separation between church and state. Lingering worries about the growing political power of Catholics, especially among fundamentalists, bolstered an interest in keeping the government from interfering in ways that would boost Catholic influence. Once the balance of power shifted and evangelicals had more political influence, the isolationist strategy was gradually abandoned and they began trying to use the state strategically to return the nation to its perceived conservative Christian foundations. Evangelicals therefore reinterpreted their instrumental use of religious liberty, instead adopting a posture of victimisation by laws that didn’t align with their particular religious viewpoint.
Fundamentalists and evangelicals saw the state abortion legalisation campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the latest liberal assault on Protestant morality in an escalating culture war. But because they were still politically and religiously isolated in the early 1970s and most refused to participate in Catholic pro-life organisations, their anti-abortion activity was largely ineffective. After Roe, evangelical minister and founder of the Christian Crusade Billy James Hargis created a new pro-life organisation, Americans Against Abortion, and fundamentalist publications published articles like, ‘Does a Woman Have a Right to Murder?’ and ‘The Sacrifice of Human Life Goes On.’
Even so, evangelicals and fundamentalists did not become organised en masse to support pro-life policies until the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, though some northern evangelicals joined the anti-abortion cause soon after Roe became law. Most Protestants before then thought of abortion as a Catholic issue, and the majority of fundmentalists and evangelicals were indifferent to, or even supportive of, pre-Roe state abortion reform laws. Southern Baptists were more tolerant of abortion than nothern evangelicals were, partly because abortion took longer to become a political issue in the South, and because they were more suspicious of Catholic causes and they lacked a clear theological tradition on abortion. A letter printed in the Baptist Press in the weeks following the Roe decision stated, ‘Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision’ and an editor responded to a question about whether the decision intrudes on religious life,
Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions.
Abortion was not seized on as an activating political issue by the conservative strategists and religious leaders who were the architects of the Religious Right until it became clear that segregation would no longer be an acceptable issue to organise people around. The crusade against school integration led by Jerry Falwell and supported by Paul Weyrich–an influential conservative strategist and founder of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation–was important for activating their base but was losing support among a general public that was coming to accept school integration and civil rights as the new norm. A movement built on maintaining white Christian privilege went in search of a new issue that would appeal to devoted fundamentalists and bring increasing numbers of cultural conservatives into a base that could be harnessed to support Republican candidates and causes. Casting around for new ideas, Weyrich described his plans to create a new political philosophy, ‘defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition.’
These architects of the new Religious Right needed an issue that provoked a powerful emotional reaction against the cultural changes underway. They saw how opposition to desegregation and to the Equal Rights Amendment and the reemerging feminist movement had effectively activated religious conservatives. Instead of openly cultivating racism and misogyny, which carried too much risk of backlash from a more tolerant general public, they needed a highly charged issue that could stand in for these deep-seated anxieties about changing racial and gender norms. Abortion was the perfect issue: a potent symbol to demonstrate to their religious base that they were serious about fighting to preserve a patriarchal Christian society which allowed them to present their views as mainstream moral objections.
Beginning in 1979, the Southern Baptist Convention underwent a conservative resurgence–an internal struggle for control aimed at reorienting the denomination away from what some considered a liberal trajectory–and a new conversative leadership was voted in who supported allocating more attention to the pro-life cause. In 1980, the SBC called for ‘legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.’
Though it’s clear that white conservative reaction against school integration played an important role in activating evangelicals as Republican voters and supporters of conservative social policy, segregation was only one part of a complex and multifaceted movement. By the 1970s, ‘there was an anti-abortion movement which was influential and pretty effective in the states that was ready for the new right to work with’, says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and the author of After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. And while the early grassroots anti-abortion movement that sprung up in states where abortion liberalisation laws were passed was predominately Catholic, it wouldn’t stay so for long.
The Shifting Theology of the Evangelical Movement
Christian eschatology, the part of theology focused on the final events of history, plays an important part in shaping how many evangelicals and fundamentalists understand world events and their role as social actors. The apocalyptic rhetoric used to express the desire of evangelical pro-life supporters to save the country from moral rot stems from a particular religious viewpoint that interprets catastrophic events or social turmoil as prophetic signs of the end of the world and God’s final judgement. According to many evangelicals and fundamentalists, Christian believers will rise into heaven and join Christ before the last judgement, an end times event sometimes referred to as the rapture.
During much of the nineteenth century, American Protestants believed they were living in special times and that current events were hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Undergirding this optimism was the doctrine of postmillennialism–the belief that the second coming, Jesus returning to earth, would take place after one thousand years of blissful peace and prosperity for the church. It was in Protestants’ interest to do all they could to build a harmonious world to assure themselves that the millennium and Christ’s return were near. Postmillennialism is associated with the Social Gospel movement of the 1880s-1930s, which emphasised good works as the path to salvation.
But after the American Civil War, and again after the devastating world wars of the first half of the twentieth century, premillennialism gained popularity. Premillennialism, the belief that the second coming would take place before the millennium, meant that fundamentalists didn’t need to fight for reforms or work to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. Because God would return to earth to herald the era of peace, they just needed to wait for Him to appear, and they saw the tumult of war, economic depression and political turmoil as signs that the end times were near. This led to an active avoidance of social causes and political involvement for many fundamentalists who subscribed to this premillennialist theology.
Changing demographics and cultural shifts in the 1970s led to the huge growth of the evangelical movement, especially in terms of the participation of young people, many of whom came from mainline Protestent backgrounds. The influx of people to the Sunbelt in the post-war period, where evangelicalism had long been particularly strong, enhanced the numbers and influence of the movement. This shift also began to close the wealth and education gap between evangelicals and mainline Protestants and made possible the creation of an evangelical subculture with associated private schools, radio and television shows, and bestselling books. By the beginning of the 1970s, mainline Protestant churches had begun to decline in membership, while evangelical congregations enjoyed rapid growth. Young people were being ‘born-again’ and deserting the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations of their parents. The Baptist Bible Fellowship, which had only 200 ministers in 1950, had more than 3,000 churches by 1977.
The increasing secularisation of the country in the 1960s, which seemed inconceivable a decade before, provoked a strong reaction among conservative Protestants, who became convinced that the family was under attack and the nation had lost its Christian identity. They pointed to the end of school prayer and increase in sex education, the sexual revolution and the growing feminist movement, and a loosening of pornography restrictions as signs of the country’s moral weakness. They considered these changes an aberration from historical Christian norms, and believers of end times theology saw this liberalisation as a sign of Christ’s imminent return.
Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, was one of many young people drawn to evangelicalism and to political conservatism in the 1970s. As second wave feminists advocated for legal abortion on the grounds of self-determination, Christian conservatives framed abortion within a wider context of the dissolution of the traditional family and the erosion of biblically-sanctioned gender roles. When Randall Terry and other young evangelicals who came of age in the 1970s counter-culture became interested in anti-abortion activism, they rejected the cultural and political isolation that characterised their religious communities. They were looking for religious justification to become active participants in social issues that they believed were threats to their Christian beliefs and identities.
Randall Terry had a born-again experience as a seventeen-year-old after dropping out of high school, experimenting with drugs and hitchhiking around the country. Garry Wills, in a 1989 New York Review of Books profile of Terry, described his parents as perfunctory in their religious commitments. But Terry went on to be greatly influenced by biblical fundamentalism and to bring that knowledge of scripture to religious justifications of anti-abortion direct action. He got his start street preaching outside of an abortion clinic in his hometown of Binghamton, New York in 1984, and within a few months he had recruited most of his fundamentalist church to join him and his wife Cindy in their ‘sidewalk counseling’ and picketing of the clinic. In 1986, Terry founded Operation Rescue, the largest and most influential of the militant anti-abortion direct action groups, and went on to become a controversial spokesperson for the anti-abortion movement.
Randall Terry cites the Presbyterian minister and American evangelical writer Francis Schaeffer as providing the fundamentalist framework for Operation Rescue’s activism. Schaeffer’s lectures, books and films in the last years of his life were focused on breaking fundamentalists free from the premillennial trap; his version of evangelicalism was a combination of fundamentalist ideology with a more activist approach to life that encouraged Christian conservatives to get involved in politics and social issues. By the late 1970s Schaeffer’s work was reaching young fundamentalists like Terry who were frustrated with the limitations of traditional Baptist teaching and the ineffective activism of mainstream pro-life organisations. Many militants in the anti-abortion movement of the 1980s saw groups like the majority-Catholic organisation National Right to Life Committee as too focused on gradual political lobbying efforts and insufficiently dedicated to the cause.
Terry appealed to evangelicals to get involved in pro-life activism using the language of biblical fundamentalism. Francis Schaeffer’s ‘higher law’ theories were at the heart of Terry’s scriptural pitch to his followers: breaking man’s law to obey God was not breaking the law at all. ‘Rescues’, the actions he organised in attempts to blockade and shut down abortion clinics, were more than civil disobedience. In Terry’s view, they were ‘biblical obedience’. Schaeffer’s hugely influential 1981 book A Christian Manifesto, which called on evangelicals to use civil disobedience to protest abortion, was in many ways the blueprint for Operation Rescue.
Schaeffer, in his last years, had fastened on abortion as the most important symptom of the age, the thing that might prompt Christians to the exercise of civil disobedience and motivate them to take a more active role in resisting the perceived threat of secular humanism that was eroding the nation’s Christian foundations. ‘In A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer made abortion the subject on which evangelicals could challenge the entire legitimacy of the secular modern state, withholding allegiance until the nation returns to its religious roots in matters like public prayer and religious education’, said Garry Wills in 1989. Schaeffer argued that because humanism had taken over and was subverting the Christian base of the American government, resistance was required of Christians, and civil disobedience was the best way to express resistance.
In 1979, Schaeffer teamed up with an evangelical doctor named C Everett Koop to make a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which they screened across the U.S. and UK to tens of thousands of people. The four part documentary series, along with the accompanying book, laid out the Christian case against abortion and euthanasia, and argued that the legalisation of abortion meant the decline of respect for human life and would lead to the killing of the elderly, the disabled, and others whose lives could be deemed not valuable to society. The most memorable scene of the series features a long shot of one thousand plastic baby dolls strewn along the shores of the Dead Sea while Schaeffer intones that at least 6 million unborn babies have been aborted since 1973. Oblivious to his own hypocrisy, Schaeffer lectures that women are blinded by selfishness and want the state to grant them privileges without the payment that our moral order demands; in his view, the woman that demeans the nurturing instinct and denies her own unique biological capabilities creates a new model of female being who becomes, in a metaphysical sense, a little bit less than human.
Schaeffer tied the issues of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia to slavery. One scene shows slaves walking up the steps of the Supreme Court building while Schaeffer explains that Black people were viewed as non-human for economic reasons. ‘In every age, there’s always someone branded as sub-human. It was once the Black; later the Jew; today it is the unborn and the child.’ Partly due to Schaeffer’s influence, pro-life activists have spent decades drawing comparisons between abortion and the horrors of the Holocaust and American Slavery; this rhetoric, and the casting of ‘the unborn’ as the latest oppressed group, remains powerful in the anti-abortion movement.
The film didn’t reach many beyond Schaeffer’s own evangelical circles, but it had a big impact on those who attended the screenings and turned many evangelicals in the younger generation onto the issue of abortion, and some into devoted activists for the first time. Francis’ son Frank, who was said to have pushed his father into taking on the abortion issue and who played a large role in making Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, said in an interview in 2009 that,
a lot of people were just waiting to draw the line somewhere against this rising tide of secularism […] They wanted to fight back. No one had showed them how, because you had to have an issue around which to coalesce, and abortion was a handy issue.
It was a potent symbol that became much more than symbolic to extremists like Randall Terry, who preached that the church had blood on its hands for ignoring abortion for more than a decade. To wash away the guilt, evangelicals had to do everything in their power to stop abortion.
Previous anti-abortion leaders had managed to recruit dozens of protestors for clinic ‘sit-ins’, but Terry turned out thousands in cities around the country. Operation Rescue turned what had been a small ragtag group of easily ignored protestors into a genuine movement and a national campaign that put the anti-abortion cause in the spotlight. They made headlines for being right-wing protestors who used left-wing style civil disobedience tactics, and eventually became the biggest social protest movement in the twenty years following the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. Operation Rescue activity resulted in more than 60,000 arrests from their founding in 1986 until the early 1990s, and their militancy brought thousands of new recruits into a movement promoting conservative family values and the rebuilding of a Christian nation. A strategy that had previously been attempted by Catholics building the anti-abortion sit-in movement was replicated much more successfully by Terry and his evangelical following. He recruited evangelical pastors and religious leaders, who would turn out their congregations for large scale rescues across the country. Many conservative Protestants were hesitant to join a Catholic-dominated movement that looked suspiciously like 1960s left-wing protest movements, but Terry won over his fellow evangelicals by translating anti-abortion protest into comprehensible bible-based language. Terry was fluent in fundamentalist rhetoric and motivations and could appeal to evangelicals in a way that previous Catholic anti-abortion leaders could not.
Operation Rescue was a key organisation in the growth of the evangelical anti-abortion movement. Putting into practice the religious justification for political action and civil disobedience theorised by Francis Schaeffer and offering young evangelicals a meaningful way to fight for their religious beliefs as activists, Operation Rescue inspired multiple generations of militant pro-life supporters unafraid of using extreme tactics. Eleven abortion providers have been murdered by anti-abortion extremists since 1977, many inspired by the militant rhetoric of Operation Rescue, whose slogan was ‘if you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.’ Agressive anti-abortion protests have never ceased in conservative states, but in the current political climate the rescue movement is stronger than it’s been in decades, with re-iterations like Red Rose Rescue and Pink Rose Rescue promoting old-school tactics like invading clinics and using civil disobedience to obstruct abortion care and intimidate patients and clinic staff.
The anti-abortion movement in the United States is poised for a major victory. After decades of organising from anti-abortion groups and the broader Religious Right, and the development of a Supreme Court packed with Federalist Society judges, the highest court in the land looks ready to undermine or overturn the federal right to legal abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973. Access to abortion has slowly eroded since the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which banned federal funding for abortion, limiting access for low income people on Medicaid. Since the 2010 wave of conservative victories in Congress and state legislatures, there has been an enormous increase in state-level abortion restrictions and a lack of access to abortion care primarily affecting low-income people in southern and midwestern states. Altogether, states have enacted an astounding 1,313 abortion restrictions since Roe–566 of them since the beginning of 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
If Roe is overturned, which now appears likely, twenty-six states have laws or constitutional amendments in place that would make them certain to attempt to ban abortion as quickly as possible. Pregnant people have long been criminalised for adverse pregnancy outcomes, and many expect this criminalisation to escalate as people increasingly rely on self-managed abortion in a post-Roe United States. The Religious Right can take most of the credit for the strength of the anti-abortion movement today, the culmination of thirty years of work to bring conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists to the centre of reproductive politics in the U.S..
The Way Forward
The anti-abortion Religious Right has recognised what many progressives have willfully ignored. Abortion is political. The Religious Right no longer views abortion as a personal decision but as a political issue; they are united in fighting for laws that criminalise those who provide abortion care and laws that give embryos and fetuses the same rights as pregnant people. Utilising human rights legal precedent and calling for fetal personhood, religious conservatives have successfully mobilised their base around ‘the right to life’ for the unborn. The anti-abortion movement is open about their next target after they succeed in overturning Roe: a federal six-week abortion ban and building support for the Life at Conception Act, which would recognise a fetus as a person with equal protections under the fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Though the contemporary anti-abortion mainstream and the more radical fringe of the movement benefit from obscuring their ties and shared commitments, the messaging across a range of anti-abortion groups is remarkably consistent. Jennifer Holland, author of Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement, has commented, ‘I don’t think that there were ever really meaningful differences in what this movement wanted, and thus it has been an incredibly powerful movement. Slightly different avenues–same goal.’
Can abortion supporters learn from the anti-abortion movement’s unity around a shared goal, and recognise that we will need a variety of tactics–legislative, judicial, grassroots direct action, service provision to those most in need–in order to realise our collective objective? Decisions about the political direction and strategy of the reproductive rights movement have long been left to major non-profits like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, which have effectively channeled support for abortion into donations for the largest providers and votes for pro-choice Democrats, who have not managed to protect–let alone expand–access to care. With the imminent fall of Roe, many abortion supporters are recognising that it will take a militant mass movement, and a new framework, to combat the Religious Right and win bodily autonomy for all.
Roe v Wade declared that women’s right to privacy gave them a constitutional right to abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and the mainstream reproductive rights movement has embraced the position that abortion is a private choice. The right to privacy is not only a shaky constitutional foundation for abortion, it’s also not firm ground to build a political movement on. Organising a mass movement in support of privacy rights and individual choice has not worked. Ceding the political terrain around abortion to the Religious Right has made it exceedingly difficult to break down the shame and stigma associated with reproductive healthcare decisions, making it even easier for anti-abortion religious conservatives to gain political power and influence public opinion. The mainstream reproductive rights non-profits are invested in keeping abortion within the personal sphere and have long discouraged radical collective action that might threaten the structures of power they currently depend on. Once the many issues connected to reproductive politics become clear, it makes more sense to see abortion as political, and in need of a political movement. Equally important is the right of everyone to have children and to raise those children in safe communities; this reproductive justice framework indicates the importance of building coalitions with those fighting for universal healthcare, LGBTQ rights and police and prison abolition.
Many people have no real choice when it comes to abortion; state restrictions, a lack of providers in rural areas, and high healthcare costs limit access for millions of people and also limit ‘choice’ as an organising framework for a mass movement for reproductive freedom.
Anti-abortion religious conservatives have a long history of manipulating ideology to serve a political goal. It’s time for abortion supporters to leave behind the insufficient rhetoric of privacy and framework of personal choice and unite around our own political goal: bodily autonomy and reproductive justice.
Anne Rumberger is an activist with NYC for Abortion Rights and NYC Democratic Socialists of America. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Left Voice, and Biopolitical Times.