On Roe v. Wade anniversary: The past – and future – of US abortion politics

The front lines of the abortion battle have shifted from the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics to state legislatures and the nation’s courts. The increasing professionalization of the antiabortion movement makes it clear that we are approaching a crossroads in the politics of abortion.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Anti-abortion activists are dusted with snow as they demonstrate in front of the White House, Jan. 21 ahead of the forty-first anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade.

Forty-one years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade it seems hard to imagine that resistance to legalized abortion was once marginalized as “a Catholic issue” and that the Christian Right did not exist. This, however, is what the political landscape looked like in the years immediately before and after the court’s ruling.

Following the various factors that led to the landscape we know today helps explain the shifting terrain of American abortion politics and its possible future. Whatever foundation the street protests of the 1980s and ’90s laid, the front line of the nation’s abortion battle has shifted away from the sidewalks in front of abortion clinics. Now, abortion policy is being formed in state legislatures and tested in the nation’s state and federal courts. 

Abortion was seized upon in the mid- to late 1970s as a means to mobilize conservative Protestants as a unified political force. Presented as a grave sin that threatened the nation’s existence, abortion proved unique in its ability to strike conservative Christian audiences at a visceral level and create the need for immediate action. Once formed, the early Christian Right invested its energy and hopes in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. 

Reagan’s victory brought with it the expectation that abortion would soon again be outlawed, but the antiabortion movement and the greater Christian Right saw no such victory or even concrete steps in that direction. The resulting frustration led to the formation of organizations that offered a means to directly fight abortion, and the large-scale clinic-front clashes of the 1980s and ’90s – sometimes referred to by organizers as “Rescues” – were born.

Abortion-rights activists countered their opponents’ direct attempts to shutter clinics by marshaling grass-roots tactics and employing trial-and-error legal regulation. The collection of injunctions and laws that they eventually secured – most notably the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act – combined with a spate of shootings and murders of abortion providers in the mid-1990s to end the era of Rescues. 

Today, massive clinic-front protests have largely disappeared, though stalwart antiabortion activists – fewer in number – still gather to attempt to dissuade women from entering, persisting as a real issue for clinics and those seeking to access them.  

Investing in traditional politics

The conditions for the dominant contemporary form of abortion politics were set during the height of Rescue-style activism. In 1989 and 1992 respectively, the United States Supreme Court decided two cases – Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey – in which it largely upheld individual states’ attempts to regulate and restrict access to abortion. These cases helped push the antiabortion movement and the greater Christian Right to invest heavily in traditional institutional politics. 

The ongoing clashes in front of clinics also contributed to the creation of the next phase of abortion politics by gathering the professionals needed to wage the institutional fight over abortion policy. Rescue-style protests resulted in activists being arrested and sometimes tried, while the clinics’ injunctions and the states’ laws regulating antiabortion activism produced constitutional legal challenges of their own. Both types of cases combined to bring sympathetic lawyers into the antiabortion movement. 

Large Christian Right public interest law firms and policy organizations such as the American Center for Law and Justice, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Liberty Counsel correspondingly began to appear in the mid-1990s. Unlike some of the Christian Right’s earlier attempts at entering traditional politics, these organizations are well funded, and staffed by experienced Christian lawyers and strategists. They possess realistic political expectations, have access to a diffuse network of like-minded professionals across the country, and focus on a mix of legislative, litigation-based, and grass-roots tactics. 

The Supreme Court’s recent hearing of a challenge to Massachusetts’ abortion clinic buffer zone law – McCullen v. Coakley – is a notable example of their work within the contemporary politics of abortion. 

While well equipped to wage these present-day fights, the training and recruitment efforts of these organizations reveal their interest in the future. The direct connection between some conservative Christian public interest law firms and like-minded law schools is particularly telling. Schools such as Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University Law School train the next generation of Christian lawyers and provide their students with direct access to Christian Right political and legal organizations through their faculty and established internship programs.  

The next battleground

This level of investment suggests that these organizations will continue to play significant roles in defining the future of abortion politics and related social issues.

The exact future and form of abortion politics is hard to predict because, as history has shown, it is so dependent upon a variety of contextual factors. A start to the unraveling of the legal means that clinics have used to regulate opposing activists will probably result in an increase of clinic-front activism, but it is unlikely to result in a return to Rescues.

The Supreme Court’s treatment of the ever-mounting pressure from antiabortion state legislative activity, however, provides a more compelling indication of where the next battleground may be. The court has recently refused to hear some lower court cases that have struck down state restrictions on abortion access, but the stream of such cases heading to the court is unaffected. The increasing professionalization of the antiabortion movement promises that these cases will persist, making it clear that we are approaching a significant crossroads in the ongoing politics of abortion.

 Joshua C. Wilson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. He is the author of “The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America’s Culture Wars.”

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