If, as the leak of Justice Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs suggests, the Supreme Court is about to overturn nearly fifty years of decisions claiming that access to abortion is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, there will indeed be much to celebrate. Such a move is undoubtedly a move toward making the U.S. a more just society, where its foundational political institutions will no longer be oriented toward protecting the unjust taking of innocent life.
But as Matthew Lee Anderson wrote recently in his newsletter, the occasion calls not just simply for celebration—or, perhaps better, it is celebration mixed with a realistic appraisal of the road ahead. For the goal was not, nor could it ever be, simply the reversal of Roe and Casey, nor was it, nor could it ever be, even simply the reform of our legal regime. The goal is, and ever should be, the creation of a social, political, economic, and legal order in which every human life is, as Richard John Neuhaus used to say, “protected in law and welcomed in life.” Achieving that goal will be very difficult, more difficult indeed than “merely” getting unjust legal decisions reversed.
Most obviously, what a Dobbs decision overruling Roe and Casey will do in practical terms is largely return the question of abortion to state legislatures. There will, of course, be efforts to codify guarantees of abortion rights in Congress or to use executive power to this end, but the main ground of dispute will be at the state level. And there, the question will be mostly a “democratic” one, in the sense that it will be democratic majorities and their representatives that will determine the shape of abortion law. This means, in the short term, that some states will impose significant restrictions and others will be entirely permissive, often even dedicating public resources to subsidize abortion services. Pro-life groups did good work in the late 1990s and early 2000s moving public opinion toward the pro-life side (helped by the commitment of pro-choice advocates to the protection of extreme and unpopular procedures like partial-birth abortions).
But if the pro-life movement wants to make progress in states—like New York, California, and Illinois—where there are strong pro-choice majorities and large numbers of abortions, there is significant work to be done. Two things come to mind in this regard. First, the pro-life movement needs to rebuild itself as a movement that goes beyond partisan divisions. Second, the movement also needs to intensify its commitment to building a culture in which life is supported and encouraged.
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Beyond Partisan Divides
It is true, of course, that the Democratic Party seems at this point deeply invested in extending abortion rights in ways that can only be described as “extremist.” But it’s worth recognizing that this is in spite of regular Democratic voters, not because of them. It is very much the case that the party leadership, so far as I can tell, is out of step with the rank and file, and the pro-life movement should see this as an opportunity. But it is an opportunity to try to reshape the direction of the Democratic party, not really an opportunity to try to recruit them into a (partially) pro-life Republican party. Perhaps that will happen in some cases, but the experience of the last fifty years with respect to African American Christians suggests that relying on partisan realignment may not be a winning strategy.
It bears emphasizing here that this division on race, where African Americans feel alienated from a politically conservative and disproportionately white pro-life movement, is one that must, must be overcome. Black Protestants in the United States have historically seen themselves as pro-life and yet they are largely nonexistent within the pro-life movement today and are seemingly not effective at moving Democratic party positions on abortion, even if they are crucial to Democratic political fortunes. A country in which black Christians are able to exert their influence within the Democratic Party on life issues is one where we can make real progress, even in places that currently seem almost hopeless.
But there’s something of a catch here. To the degree that Dobbs indeed does overrule Roe and Casey, pro-lifers will claim—with good reason—that they succeeded because they threw in with the GOP and, at least as far as the main national pro-life organizations are concerned, especially with Donald Trump. Though of course it is true that almost any Republican president would have nominated justices like Gorsuch and Barrett, Trump’s intransigence in support of his nominees proved of real value. It’s easy to scorn the “But he fights!” mantra among the pro-Trump folks, but it’s also hard to see George W. Bush being willing to endure the same criticisms, as evidenced by his withdrawal of his nomination of Harriet Miers.
But to the degree that the pro-life movement must now be especially attentive to winning democratic majorities over to its goals, it cannot simply be a constituent of the Republican Party. It will probably for the foreseeable future find a more natural home in the more conservative party, especially because of issues of sexuality and gender, but in broadening its base beyond those partisan divides, it must be willing to listen to and perhaps embrace positions that run afoul of what are deemed conservative political orthodoxies.
What I mean here is that if the pro-life movement is genuinely committed to advocating a social, political, and economic order where both law and culture make abortion vanishingly rare, it must listen to those outside of conservative politics, perhaps especially African Americans. And in listening to them, the movement will surely hear that getting to that place means more than just changing laws and hoping for or advocating changes in our sexual culture. (Though it doesn’t mean less, to be clear).
It means doing more to relieve parents of burdens that make abortion an attractive choice; it means, as Matthew Loftus has put it, making it easier for people to do the right thing. It is wrong to say that abortion in the U.S. is simply a function of poverty or inequality; there are plenty of places with lower levels of each with equivalent or higher abortion rates. But it is also wrong to deny that our levels of poverty and inequality contribute to abortion, and if the pro-life movement wants to win victories in places dominated by liberal politics, it will need to take seriously the claims offered by its potential allies there.
Supporting a Culture of Life
But that’s not all. The majority opinion in Casey suggested that one of the reasons the justices were reluctant to overrule Roe was just how much women in particular had come to rely on access to abortion in making their life plans. We can—and should—deeply lament the idea that many women feel as though their life’s success depends on their freedom to end the life of their unborn children. This feeling is sufficiently prevalent that a pro-life movement committed to democratic political success will need to think deeply and then act to help make it much less widely held.
Helping make abortion vanishingly rare means figuring out how to encourage marriage where it seems to be disappearing, and supporting efforts to make it easier for mothers (and fathers!) to better navigate family, community, and career. This could include things such as public subsidies for raising children, making our tax system tilted toward benefiting married couples, and making it easier to build housing that young families can afford. There aren’t, I’m sure, any cost-free answers here, but to the degree that public policy can help make marriage more plausible while also defusing the sense among some people that children are an impediment to everything else, we should work in that direction, even if it means running afoul of what have been, until recently, any number of conservative orthodoxies.
America’s current abortion regime is deeply unjust, as it permits (and in some cases publicly funds) the destruction of innocent human life. But it is an injustice that is intertwined with so much of contemporary social, political, and economic life. And it is an injustice whose results all too many of our fellow citizens treasure deeply. So it will not be enough simply to win legal battles or even just to win electoral victories in a handful of states. If the goal is to make abortion vanishingly rare on account of both law and culture, pro-lifers will need to seriously rethink their approaches. Otherwise, it very well could be that a legal win in Dobbs could turn out to be a classic pyrrhic victory, dethroning Roe but leaving in place or even strengthening abortion’s grip on our culture for another half century.