Understanding the social, political, and legal history of the anti-abortion movement

Daub, Holland, Murray

Why have anti-abortion movements been so successful? How did we get here and where are we going? For Jennifer Holland and Melissa Murray, understanding the history of this movement and the legal terrain of the abortion battle is essential for activists, scholars and policy makers who are on the ground, fighting to protect the right to abortion. Holland, an associate professor of U.S. history at the University Oklahoma, and Murray, the Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, joined Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub during a Clayman Conversations virtual event in early October. The event also addressed the gender and racial dimensions of the struggle for reproductive justice.

View event video

The recent abortion bans, such as SB 8 in Texas and the Gestational Age Act in Mississippi, are not new developments. Daub begins the event by stating that “the groundwork for potentially overturning Roe v. Wade has been laid for decades.” The goal of the anti-abortion movement is to make abortion illegal everywhere, with no exceptions. According to Holland, what began as a white Catholic movement was transformed into a multi-religious coalition of Catholics, Mormons and white evangelicals by the 1970s. Holland considers “the most successful political work [of the anti-abortion movement] was getting white religious people to center their identities to defending fetal life and ending abortion.” Holland notes that the 1970s was also a time when political parties in the United States were reorienting themselves around issues of feminism, abortion and race due to the women’s liberation and  civil rights movements. To shape policy, the anti-abortion movement needed a partisan vehicle, and the Republican party became the champion of their politics. But, the relationship between the party and the movement fluctuated, since Republicans at the time would say the right things to appease the movement but would not do anything substantial to help achieve its goal. Now, as Holland puts it, the movement has the backing of a Republican party that “pays out.” 

Murray argues, “This is a movement whose rhetorical sensibilities are constantly shifting and evolving in significant ways.”

Murray agrees and cites another critical point in the evolution of the movement: when it shifted its rhetoric on abortion to attract more supporters. Before the 1970s, the movement framed the fetus as a life itself, which turned potential supporters away because of the insinuation that women were not people but simply hosts for fetuses. Now, the movement’s rhetoric is more paternalistic, positioning itself as protecting maternal and women’s health, which is a more palatable message to a broader public. Murray argues, “This is a movement whose rhetorical sensibilities are constantly shifting and evolving in significant ways.” For Murray, this is happening right now as the anti-abortion movement is now framing abortion as a form of racial justice by claiming that Black women who have abortions are committing Black genocide\ To ensure the survival of the Black community, movement activists argue, abortion should be banned. Making such claims, Murray warns, allows people who are anti-choice to see themselves as the “saviors” of Black people “in a time when we are thinking about what it means to stand up and protest against the violence against Black bodies by individuals and the state.” Constitutional access to abortion, therefore, is now framed as a form of state violence by anti-choice activists.  

The anti-abortion movement has become more aggressive in the last four years due to political opportunities afforded by changes in the judiciary. The movement has been incredibly successful in getting judges on the bench. Currently, conservative judges make up a majority of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. During the question and answer session, an audience member asked if the solution was to add more justices to the Supreme Court. Although Murray is skeptical that a commission on judicial reform will recommend expanding the judiciary, she recognizes the importance of having people on the ground talking about the politicization of the Supreme Court because it is a form of political pressure. Murray reminds us that the “legitimacy of the court is based on people believing that [justices] are above the political climate.”

Considering the recent successes of the anti-abortion movement, Daub asks, “What are some of the things that we should be doing among the pro-choice movement?” Holland urges us to rethink the notion of red versus blue America, cautioning us from believing that things will be better if red America and its conservative majority are just cut off from the rest of the country. For Holland, “The hope for what comes next is coming [from] red America.” Holland argues that “reproductive justice groups in red states have been working in incredibly hostile environments for a long time, they have been innovating and strategizing, and if anyone has the knowledge about where to go next, it is the people who work in red states.” Murray also asks pro-choice activists to think about the way they talk about the courts. Murray observes that there is always this fury about the possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. But, “when the event that we expected did not happen, instead of pausing to probe what did happen, we immediately celebrated that Roe was saved. When in fact, what did happen is really bad.” Murray believes that pro-choice activists understand the nuance and the importance of opportunities to claim wins.

About 70 percent of people in the United States support the right to abortion, although they may disagree about the circumstances under which it should be allowed. Despite this widespread acceptance, the anti-abortion movement is close to achieving its goal. The event ended with a discussion about the role of reproductive justice in moves toward right-wing authoritarianism. For Murray, the anti-abortion movement is “the triumph of a minoritarian politics” in which a small group of people is shaping social policies that fundamentally impact everyone’s lives.