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The antiabortion movement’s powerful use of language paid off

Nearing an antiabortion victory five decades in the making

Supreme Court Police officers observe a crowd of antiabortion advocates in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on May 4. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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The antiabortion movement has almost won its holy grail. The leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. reported by Politico on Monday indicates that the Supreme Court is ready is overturn nearly 50 years of precedent and find that there is no constitutional right to an abortion.

Unless a justice in the majority changes his or her mind before the court finalizes the decision, the ruling would signal that the antiabortion movement has changed the tides of history. This success is the product of powerful conservative coalitions but, crucially, the antiabortion movement has successfully co-opted and reworked leftist rhetoric about rights.

As state legislatures in the late 1960s began to liberalize their abortion laws, the emerging antiabortion movement faced serious cultural and political obstacles. Many Americans were skeptical of religious movements imposing their will on others. They also confronted a rising feminist movement arguing 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 antiabortion movement rejected the open crusade to regulate women’s sexuality embraced by the anti-birth-control movement of the early 1960s. While anti-birth-control forces asserted that states should punish promiscuity and the women who enjoyed it, antiabortion activists understood that this explicit sexism and religiosity would no longer sell.

But the new language pioneered by the ascendant rights movements of the decade — especially the civil rights movement — offered a solution to this problem. These movements made Americans familiar with claims about the need for new laws to protect the rights of minority groups. As historian Sara Dubow and others have shown, antiabortion activists adopted 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 devalued or eradicated human life, they claimed. But abortion was the worst of the three, according to antiabortion activists. The growing number of abortions would eventually outpace the number of people murdered during the Holocaust or killed in the Civil War. It was also worse because the fetus was the ultimate innocent victim. One activist wrote to his Utah legislator in 1973: “As far as I [am] concerned [Roe v. Wade] is far more tragic than anything Hitler ever did, at least his victims weren’t completely helpless and could fight to a degree for themselves.”

The Reconstruction amendments matter when considering abortion rights

The arguments about murder and rights became especially potent in the 1970s, as average Americans became more fully aware of the Holocaust and began to incorporate the history of the civil rights movement into the story of American progress. The antiabortion movement put the emotional power of these histories to conservative ends.

Through this framing, fetuses became the ultimate victim of modern society and White religious conservatives recast themselves as abolitionists — not people restricting women’s freedom. In fact, in the 1970s, they rarely talked about women or their rights at all.

While the early antiabortion movement was predominantly 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 integrated into their practices of faith. They might hear an antiabortion sermon, get the political pitch from a friend or watch an antiabortion film in Sunday school.

But although these arguments proved attractive to religious conservatives, they did not convince Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would either outlaw abortion or return the issue to state legislatures. Even those Republicans elected by antiabortion voters rarely followed through with sufficient antiabortion 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 antiabortion groups that she was not the sort of justice they wanted.

Republicans could rue the Supreme Court ending abortion rights

Despite these setbacks, the antiabortion movement leaned even further into the rights arguments in the 1980s and 1990s. Activists overtly claimed the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. They argued that they too defended those that society devalued, while claiming that Black people suffered uniquely from abortion. The movement was always overwhelming White, but it relied heavily on a handful of Black activists to authenticate this claim. At antiabortion 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 in many forms and said her husband did as well.

Activists also spread these arguments into secular spaces. They presented them to schoolchildren under the guise of abstinence education. At crisis pregnancy centers, often antiabortion clinics deceptively masquerading as abortion providers, pregnant women — but most importantly, young women, uninsured women and women of color — had to listen to a “counselor” talk about fetal bodies, abortion’s alleged damage and civil rights. By the end of the century, it was hard for any American to completely avoid these arguments or the fetal imagery that accompanied them.

This language persisted because antiabortion activists understood it was a way to deflect attention away from the women who sought 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 bore the burden of protecting that right and at what cost? Activists recognized that attacking women or even engaging with their claim that abortion was a woman’s right would damage their movement.

In 2000, Arizona Right to Life News explained the purpose of this strategy: “We must frame the issue so as to attract 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 antiabortion movement could pretend there would be no cost to protecting fetal life.

Antiabortion activists were the backbone of the rising religious right, whose members agonized over the transformations in American society around gender, sexuality and race. This part of that socially conservative movement remained committed to using the language of rights. It enabled White conservatives, especially young ones, to imagine themselves as a part of the push for human and civil rights sweeping the globe.

Alito’s leaked draft opinion and the arguments in states around the country in favor of banning abortion represent the culmination of these efforts and this framing. Alito’s draft opinion dismissed the idea that the Constitution protects the right to abortion. He did not substantially address any ways that banning abortion may affect pregnant individuals. He also parroted the movement’s claims that Black people suffer disproportionately from abortion.

In Oklahoma, in a debate on a total abortion ban, there was another even more telling articulation of these politics. State Sen. Warren Hamilton (R) wondered why ectopic pregnancies — when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus and cannot survive, while also threatening the life of the pregnant woman or other pregnant individual — weren’t included in the legislation. Excluding them, Hamilton said, violated the antiabortion movement’s push for, “justice for all.”

This comment encapsulated the rhetoric that has propelled the antiabortion movement over the last 50 years. It appealed to people who were comfortable with changing sexual mores — especially women’s sexuality. It also appealed to conservative religious people who worried that the federal government was oppressive; in fact, they believed, legal abortion proved the government was genocidal. It drew in people who wanted to imagine themselves as a part of American progress, without actually changing social structures that defined American life.

The antiabortion movement’s extraordinary grass-roots work produced a politically significant and reliable voting base for whom abortion was the issue that mattered most. By the 21st century, that base was electing Republicans to state and national offices who would not only say the right things during a campaign, but also follow through while in office. Those elected officials and the justices they nominated are now — finally — ready to deliver on decades of promises.