When the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision on abortion rights, Roe vs. Wade, in 1973, the most adamant opponents of the ruling were not the legislatures of southern Bible Belt states such as Mississippi and Oklahoma. Indeed, physicians in many southern states—including Arkansas, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia—had performed legal hospital abortions for at least a few carefully defined “therapeutic” reasons during years before. deer. The state legislatures that presented the greatest challenge to the legalization of abortion were those in the heavily Catholic states of the Northeast. Barely 10% of Massachusetts lawmakers supported legalizing abortion in 1973, according to an American Civil Liberties Union file. Instead of allowing the procedure to the point of viability (about 28 weeks at the time), as ordered by the Supreme Court, the Massachusetts state legislature responded to deer by passing a bill banning abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. Rhode Island’s state house presented even stronger opposition: it kept abortion clinics out of state until 1975, when its anti-abortion law was struck down in federal court.
Today, of course, Massachusetts and the rest of New England are at the forefront of states that will protect abortion access if – when, as it now appears –Roe vs. Wade is canceled. And many southern states that liberalized their abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s are now at the forefront of the movement to restrict abortion.
It was not simply a geographic shift, exchanging one region for another, but a more fundamental transformation of the political ideology of the anti-abortion movement. In 1973, many of the most vocal opponents of abortion were Northern Democrats who believed in an expanded social welfare state and wanted to lower abortion rates through prenatal insurance and government-funded child care. federal. In 2022, most anti-abortion politicians are conservative Republicans who are skeptical of such measures. What happened was a seismic religious and political shift in opposition to abortion that has not happened in any other western country.
Prior to the mid-1970s, active opposition to abortion in the United States resembled almost exactly the opposition to abortion in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia: it was concentrated primarily among Catholics. As recently as 1980, 70% of the members of the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization, the National Right to Life Committee, were Catholic. As a result, the states most resistant to legalizing abortion were, in most cases, the states with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of whom were Northern and Democratic-leaning.
This fit the pattern across the Western world: countries with large numbers of devout Catholics restricted abortion, while those with majority Protestants did not. Sweden – where Catholics made up less than 1% of the population – legalized some abortions as early as the 1930s; Ireland only followed suit in 2018.
Had the United States followed this scenario, opposition to abortion would likely have weakened as Catholic church attendance rates declined. As in Canada and England, where the main conservative parties overwhelmingly support abortion rights, the Republican Party in the United States could have remained what it was for most of the 1970s: a strongly Protestant party whose leaders generally leaned in favor of the right to abortion.
But in the United States, the anti-abortion movement has not remained predominantly Catholic. Evangelical Protestants in the South, who had once been reluctant to embrace the anti-abortion movement thinking it was a bigoted Catholic campaign, began enlisting in the cause in the late 1970s and 80s. Motivated by the belief that Roe vs. Wade was the product of liberal social changes they opposed—including secularization, the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and a rights-conscious reading of the Constitution—they made opposition to power a centerpiece of the new Christian right. When they took control of the Republican Party in the late 20th century, they transformed the GOP from a northern-centric, moderately pro-abortion-rights central Protestant party into a hotbed of southern populism that mixed economic libertarianism with the moral regulation of the biblical belt.
The change was not instantaneous. Although the Republican Party endorsed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in its party platform in 1976, in part because of its desire to win over northern Catholics, the party initially gave the idea a bit more only lip service, and pro-abortion-rights conservatives continued to hold leadership positions in the GOP for several years. In 1983, the Republican-controlled Senate considered an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, but a third of Republican senators voted against it, condemning it to defeat. However, as evangelical Protestants in the South gained a greater majority stake in the GOP, Republicans found it harder to ignore their desire to restrict abortion. The crucial shift came in the 1994 midterm elections, when southern conservatives gave Republicans the votes they needed to take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” did not mention abortion, but southern evangelicals insisted the GOP needed to pay attention to the issue. When 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole tried to tone down the party’s platform statement on abortion, right-wing Christian activists blocked change.
But what really motivated anti-abortion activists to stick with the GOP was not just a platform statement, but the Supreme Court’s promise. They believed the Republican Party offered them the only path to a conservative justice system that would overthrow Roe vs. Wade. If this goal required them to accept a conservative economic platform at odds with the views that many in the movement previously held deerwell, that didn’t matter, because many evangelical Protestant anti-abortion supporters were political conservatives anyway.
As recently as the turn of this century, Texas still had a pro-abortion (Protestant) Republican senator, while Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota were still represented in Congress by anti-abortion Democrats who were Catholic. But as the historically Catholic population of the North became less devout and therefore less inclined to follow Church teaching on abortion — and a younger generation of progressive Democrats began to see reproductive rights as a non-negotiable part of the Democratic Party’s platform – anti-abortion influence in the politically liberal states of the Northeast has waned, while it has grown in the South.
The political priorities of the anti-abortion movement have changed accordingly. A movement that in the early 1970s attracted political progressives opposed to the Vietnam War and capital punishment became associated in the 1980s and 1990s with evangelical-inspired Christian-conservative nationalism. Early activists wanted to create a global “culture of life,” but many evangelicals who joined the movement in the late 20th century wanted to save America from secularism and take the nation back for God.
Only a minority of white evangelical Protestants were politically progressive; the majority (especially in the South) were conservative and combined their commitment to moral regulation with a faith in free market economics and an opposition to welfare spending. American evangelicalism has long been the most individualistic of the nation’s Christian traditions, and in accordance with this individualistic theology of sin and salvation, most white evangelicals believed that the government’s interest in morality extended only to the punishment of individual vice, not to the alleviation of poverty. . So, as the political influence of the anti-abortion movement shifted away from Catholic states toward evangelical-Protestant regions, it abandoned earlier calls for federal poverty programs, expanded maternal health insurance, and to federally funded child care centers, and instead focused exclusively on the narrower problem of reversal Roe vs. Wade and making abortion illegal.
A few activists (including a number of Catholic veterans from the north of the movement) have remained committed to the fight against poverty and an overarching culture of life ethic, but with the current unequivocal endorsement of the right to abortion by the Democratic Party, some of them felt politically homeless. These activists began voting Republican despite their reservations about the party’s positions on welfare issues, which led them to ally themselves with southern evangelical conservatives who now had the political power to restrict abortion in their region. .
The result is the map we have today: the states most likely to restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns deer are also among the States whose health policies are the least generous. Half a century ago, many liberal, northern, and anti-abortion Democrats saw a connection between poverty reduction and abortion prevention, but today most of those in the Bible Belt of the south who oppose abortion do not. They might soon: Because abortion rates are so closely tied to poverty, opponents of the procedure might find it difficult to reduce its prevalence without expanding Medicaid or adopting other anti-poverty measures.
The movement’s enthusiastic endorsement by white evangelicals in the Bible Belt was key to the movement’s political success. Yet the movement’s association with a brand of southern evangelical-conservative politics that opposes anti-poverty measures may also mean that the repeal of Roe vs. Wade will not reduce abortion rates as much as the movement expects. If these activists are serious about saving unborn lives, they may need to turn not only to the southern conservatives who currently lead the movement, but also to the northern social welfare advocates whose voices were once dominant in the movement but whose early influence has long been forgotten.