life after roe

The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Divisions Suddenly Have Huge Consequences

Photo: Olliver Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Practically from the moment Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the anti-abortion movement it energized was beset by divisions over goals, strategies, and tactics. While some activists aimed for a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion nationwide, others focused on efforts to overturn the Supreme Court decision and return abortion policy to the states (though they would not be happy unless all states banned abortion entirely). The latter approach became the movement’s main strategy, but anti-abortion activists remained divided on how to proceed when they had opportunities to pass legislation. Should they enact laws that would be struck down by the courts, offending the many pro-choice voters? Or should they work more incrementally, painting themselves as reasonable by focusing on particular abortion practices that might not be as popular as the right to choose itself?

Now that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision has eliminated the constitutional right to choose, anti-abortion absolutists and incrementalists are fighting once again. And this time, there are real and immediate consequences for endangered abortion rights in the states ruled by Republicans.

As my colleague Irin Carmon explained at Salon in 2013, by the time the 21st century arrived, the anti-abortion movement had split into two large factions on the incrementalist-versus-absolutist question. The dominant incrementalist camp was represented by National Right to Life Committee attorney and Republican politician James Bopp, who laid out the strategy in a 2007 memo:

“A vital battle stratagem is to choose proper terrain — favorable to you, unfavorable to your foe,” he wrote. “To change the hearts and minds of the public on abortion, it is necessary for pro-lifers to frame the debate to their advantage. Pro-life leaders have wisely focused on this strategy.” The key example: “The debate over partial-birth abortion has furthered this strategy because it has forced the proabortion camp to publicly defend a particularly visible and gruesome practice.”

“Changing hearts and minds” without significantly reducing the number of legal abortions has always enraged the absolutists who regarded every abortion as a murder and legalized abortion as an American Holocaust.

Unsurprisingly, now that the Supreme Court has opened the door to all sorts of state abortion bans, the absolutist ranks seem to be expanding. After all, what’s the excuse for not “saving every baby” you can, now that the federal courts will no longer interfere?

“Hearts and minds,” though, matter more than ever with abortion policy entirely turned over to the states — and in the hands of public-opinion-sensitive governors and legislators in most cases. As the August 2 vote on an anti-abortion state constitutional amendment in Kansas showed, the public can rapidly take away from the anti-abortion movement what the Supreme Court gave it. And so, as Politico reports, former allies in the battle against reproductive rights are at one another’s throats:

Even as Indiana on Friday became the first to pass a new abortion ban since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, the state’s leading anti-abortion group said it was “disappointed” lawmakers failed to remove rape and incest exceptions from the bill. A Republican state senator left his caucus in the heat of the debate on the bill, which he believed didn’t go far enough to ban the procedure. And the GOP House speaker chastised a Republican representative multiple times for suggesting his more moderate colleagues were condoning murder.

“This bill is just another bill that regulates abortion, which is baby murder, that it says if you do this, if you fulfill this requirement, you can still murder your baby,” Indiana state Rep. John Jacob said during the debate. “There is still time to turn back to God before it’s too late and repent, and I will still pray for repentance for this chamber.”

Rape and incest exceptions are very popular, and the subject is especially sensitive in Indiana, where everyone is aware of the recent case of a 10-year-old rape victim who fled Ohio to get an abortion. Pre-Dobbs, anti-abortion incrementalists argued that training their fire on controversial but extremely rare late-term abortions was effective in undermining popular support for all abortions. Now, they say total bans will only make it easier for pro-choice advocates to use a similar tactic, attacking them for preventing rape and incest victims, a small minority of patients, from accessing abortion services. You can hear the same kinds of arguments between Republican legislators weighing different types of abortion bans (e.g., heartbeat bans at around six weeks of pregnancy versus fetal-pain bans at around 15 weeks). These differences of opinion were largely academic prior to June 24, when the Supreme Court dropped its bomb, but now they matter a great deal.

The rhetoric of the absolutists is not only hyperdivisive but hyperdestructive to the “reasonableness” the incrementalists crave while looking ahead to elections. That’s true even in states taking a hard line, as Politico notes:

[I]n West Virginia, a Republican lawmaker took to the Senate floor to eviscerate his colleagues’ bill to ban almost all abortions because it removed criminal penalties for doctors who perform the procedure and didn’t include strong enough reporting requirements for cases of rape and incest.

“We hear around here a lot that making legislation is like making sausage, and I’m going to tell you this right here is not the kind of sausage that you want to use for your biscuits and gravy,” said West Virginia State Sen. Robert Karnes. “This is a rancid sausage. It’s maggot filled — very little meat in this sausage, a lot of teeth and toenails, maybe. This is not a pro-life bill. This is a pro-abortion bill …”

It’s a battle to determine who gets to decide what is “pro-life” orthodoxy. And in a movement in which the argument that human life commences the moment an egg is fertilized has always assumed the high and principled ground, people who are “reasonable” are going to lose more often than not.

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Anti-Abortion Movement’s Divisions Now Have Big Consequences