The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Supreme Court’s abortion decision is based on a myth. Here’s why.

How a history rooted in White Christian nationalism drove the court’s reasoning, despite being false.

A family leaves church in the 1950s (iStock). (iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization argues that rights not mentioned in the Constitution are guaranteed only if they are “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” Abortion, he claims, is not such a right — despite historians arguing otherwise in amicus briefs submitted to the court. Instead, Alito dismisses their analysis and points to his own historical evidence to argue that abortion has always been unpopular and criminalized.

Because a draft of Alito’s opinion leaked in May, historians already have pointed out the untruths, cherry-picked facts and deliberate omissions in his opinion. They have noted that abortion was a common and accepted part of life throughout much of American history. In fact, it was so common that no one saw the need for men to comment on what was a ubiquitous feature of women’s private reproductive lives in documents like the Constitution.

But these historical facts don’t matter to Alito and the antiabortion movement because they undermine the version of American history they subscribe to — what sociologist Philip Gorski calls “white Christian nationalism.” The basic idea, Gorski writes, is that “America was founded as a Christian nation, by (white) Christians; and its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” (that is, Protestant) Christianity.” This, as he describes the viewpoint, has made America “divinely favored,” and the nation’s accumulation of wealth and power comes with a mission to maintain, enforce and spread its laws and institutions.

This mythic status is tied to the maintenance of strict gender roles, with America’s strength embedded in the White, traditional family headed by a patriarch.

Put simply, for a subset of the population, America’s core beliefs and morals are rooted in, as the common saying goes, “motherhood and apple pie.” This myth is as durable and powerful as it is flawed — and now it is responsible for taking a constitutional right away from American women in the name of maintaining the power of the family and the nation.

The White Christian nationalist myth dates to the founding and maps onto the idea of “republican motherhood.” In the Revolutionary era, the ideal woman was a married White Christian mother who would raise her children to be worthy, educated citizens. This meant raising sons who would lead the new republic, and giving daughters the tools to serve as mothers for the next generation. Women had few legal rights themselves, but their domestic and maternal roles were supposedly responsible for securing the survival of the new American experiment. This construct did not apply to women of color and to other mothers whose sons were not seen as future American leaders.

Building on these ideas, 19th-century society viewed married White Christian women as the moral center of the family — and of American life more broadly. Their alleged greater morality and gentle nature acted as a bulwark at home against the external world of vice and corruption. But this construct also reinforced the notion that these women belonged at home, lest their morality be scrubbed off by wading into the corrupt (male) realms of politics and the economy.

These ideas about gender became especially powerful in times of economic and political upheaval. The late 19th century, for example, was dominated by the expanding regime of Jim Crow segregation, backlash against the rising tide of immigrants from southeastern Europe, the emergence of eugenic theory and the growing women’s suffrage movement. These changes combined to further entrench traditional gender roles and white supremacy.

As Horatio Storer, the physician responsible for much of the literature that persuaded professional medical societies and state legislatures to rally behind restrictive abortion statutes in the 19th century, warned: “Do [white] women realize that in avoiding the duties and responsibilities of married life, they are, in effect living in a state of legalized prostitution? Shall we permit our broad and fertile prairies to be settled only by the children of aliens?” The United States had initially relied on Anglo-American common law, which permitted abortions before the mother felt fetal movement (a subjective standard known as “quickening”). But after Storer and his allies began their lobbying campaign, many state legislatures responded by passing laws between 1850 and 1900 that banned the procedure altogether. Storer’s purpose was clear: keeping women in their traditional role.

The myth of American women as domestic beings and the moral center of their families and the nation continued into the 20th century — surviving the achievement of women’s suffrage and the increasing number of women forced into the workforce by the Great Depression and World War II.

In the 1950s, these traditional gender roles were amplified as part of the United States’ Cold War competition with the Soviet Union — a nation where many women worked for the state alongside men, as their children went to state-run day cares. To demonstrate that the United States was different from (and superior to) its archenemy, old ideas about gender and family were rebranded. Government and media alike idealized what became called the “nuclear” family in this new atomic age: the White family headed by a heterosexual married couple with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker living in a suburban home with their children.

But the government did more than idealize the White nuclear family — it helped create more of them. The GI Bill offered predominantly White male veterans of World War II entry into a comfortable middle-class consumer lifestyle with a free college education and cheap, government-subsidized mortgages. White families, in turn, used those mortgages to purchase single-family homes in suburbs that excluded families of color. As a result, millions of White women who had worked outside the home were now out of jobs, with limited opportunities beyond child-rearing and homemaking.

In 1963, Betty Friedan’s best-selling book “The Feminine Mystique” would ask: “Is this all?” — echoing the dissatisfaction of millions of economically secure (typically White) women with their stultifying existence. As the feminist movement regained traction in the 1960s and 1970s, the push for equal rights grew to include liberalization of the strict abortion bans states enacted in the 19th century. Working with allies in the medical and legal communities, feminists succeeded in legalizing abortion (under certain circumstances) in 17 states plus the District of Columbia before the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right to abortion at the federal level in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Initially, Catholics, long-standing opponents of abortion, led the fight against liberalizing abortion laws. But in the wake of Roe, White Protestant evangelicals also became increasingly uneasy with abortion as a potential threat to what they considered to be divinely inspired traditional gender roles.

As Catholics and Protestants slowly joined forces in the 1970s, they developed, as scholar Seth Dowland has argued, a political rhetoric that began to focus on the demise of the “traditional” family. The civil rights movement, the political work of feminists and the emergent gay rights movement fueled the rise of a new politics that described the traditional American family as under attack from radical, even communist, forces that imperiled the strength of the nation.

A brochure for the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority group, formed in 1979, further strengthened the link between nation and family by declaring the new evangelical organization to be “pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-America.” As the Democratic Party moved to embrace legal abortion in the 1970s, this politics of “family values,” as it was known by the 1980s, enabled conservatives to gain control of the Republican Party by marginalizing moderates who had supported legal abortion and other feminist-backed changes.

In the ensuing decades, abortion became a partisan political issue centered on questions about women’s proper roles in the family and nation. In other words, should women retain control over their own bodies and reproduction, as feminists and other proponents of legal abortion argue, or should the state compel them to become mothers by carrying all pregnancies to term? Reproductive health research tell us that many people seeking abortions today (as in the past) are married women who are already parents but who see abortion as the best way to care for the children they already have. But this data disrupts a linchpin of the White Christian nationalist myth, suggesting that motherhood might not always be sacred, or that women might make decisions that value their own sexual and bodily autonomy.

As we now face a new era of making abortion illegal across America, that historical reality hasn’t shined through because it hasn’t been part of a cultural narrative as compellingly simple as the White Christian nationalist one at the heart of the opinion in Dobbs. In this sense, the fight for reproductive justice — like political debates about other issues such as climate change and how to teach the history of race — is a battle over the primacy of knowledge and expertise.