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.
By Joshua C. Wilson
DENVER — 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
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
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
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.”