Roe v. Wade did far more than create a constitutional right to abortion—it crippled the pro-choice and energized the pro-life movement, creating one of the largest campaigns of moral suasion in American history. Even while nationalizing abortion politics, the Supreme Court’s decision also localized and personalized the issue by pushing it almost entirely out of legislatures, giving an unexpected opening to the pro-life movement to affect the culture, and in turn the wider political debate, in ways no one expected.
Before Roe, the pro-choice movement was truly a movement: It organized letter-writing campaigns, subverted restrictive abortion laws through underground networks of clergy and doctors, and eagerly sought opportunities to debate pro-life advocates. After Roe, obviated by its near-total victory, the movement almost collapsed. It has never fully recovered its former strength and energy.
Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who famously argued Roe itself, confessed that she “missed the energy of our pre-Roe crusade.” After Roe, “our energy and contributions sagged and we seemed only to plod forward. . . . When we talked about the importance of organizing and pro-choice voting, people tended to think, ‘Now, really, I’m so busy. And after all, Roe versus Wade decided the matter.’”
When Roe was threatened in the late 1980s, the pro-choice movement did rebound modestly, as it has done occasionally since in response to nominations of conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Yet these sporadic legal battles and confirmation struggles never demanded anything like the sustained, grassroots mobilization that characterized the pre-Roe campaign. In a few instances, pro-choice citizens did participate in large national marches, but such protests primarily offered a reminder to the nation—and pro-life opponents—that the movement could flex a bit of muscle, if it ever actually needed to do so.
The pro-choice campaign is now a largely conservative one defending the status quo. Pro-choice activists have become so cautious and conservative that they are often reluctant even simply to debate right-to-lifers. The Pro-Choice Action Network has said: “Along with most other pro-choice groups, we do not engage in debates with the anti-choice.” The movement was never so reluctant in the pre-Roe years, when it was desperate to change public opinion and revolutionize abortion policy.
While Roe bred apathy and conservatism in pro-choice ranks, it energized many pro-lifers. With the Supreme Court having removed abortion from the political process and deprived pro-lifers of normal avenues of political influence, some decided to blockade abortion clinics instead. Between 1977 and 1993, pro-life radicals orchestrated some six hundred blockades, leading to more than 33,000 arrests.
Most pro-life activists, however, dedicated their lives to changing the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens, rather than simply obstructing them from procuring abortions. The more Americans who opposed abortion on moral grounds or were offered practical alternatives to abortion, such activists reasoned, the fewer abortions, whatever the laws of the land. These pro-life advocates quietly began countless conversations with ordinary citizens and continue to do so in great numbers.
Some target college students. Groups such as Justice for All and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform have reached students at more than one hundred college campuses across the country. Campus activists use large graphic images of aborted embryos and fetuses to provoke philosophical discussions over the moral status of the embryo.
They further draw on well-honed arguments developed by pro-life intellectuals, such as Robert George and Patrick Lee. In this way, the divide between the academy and Christian activists is not always as large as elites on both sides of the culture wars assume.
I observed many such conversations at a Justice For All outreach event at the University of Colorado at Denver. Pro-life activists frequently pointed curious students to an exhibit panel that showed human life at various stages of development from conception to birth.
The students were then asked at what point human organisms acquire rights. When students ventured various answers, the activists would ask why such development markers were significant enough to distinguish rights-bearing humans from disposable ones. Through such conversations they elevate abortion politics above the shallow sloganeering that many presume are all the culture wars offer us.
Campus activists also help puncture the popular myth that pro-lifers offend the norms of a deliberative democracy by defending abortion on religious grounds. In fact, they generally seek just the opposite goal: They highlight the philosophical case against abortion so that the pro-life position is not dismissed as merely a religious issue. Pro-choice activists insist that the abortion question is inherently a religious one, and therefore safely beyond serious philosophical reflection or public debate.
Other groups focused on moral suasion take a more practical approach, suited to the needs of working-class citizens. Today, some three thousand pregnancy help centers, with tens of thousands of staffers and volunteers, provide over 2.3 million women in difficult pregnancies with alternatives to abortion by offering them resources and moral support. Pregnancy help centers are now more numerous than abortion clinics.
Thanks to the first systematic survey of these centers, by Laura Hussey of the University of Maryland, we know a lot more than we used to.
These pro-life centers are heavily dependent on volunteers: The average center has about one employee for every six volunteers. Though centers do not ask any financial contributions from their clients, many do expect them to participate in at least one class on parenting, health, or budgeting.
The women they serve are overwhelmingly poor and without full-time jobs, and so centers devote much energy and many resources to meeting the economic needs of their clients. The vast majority of centers provide clothing, car seats, strollers, and other baby items for new mothers and children. Some even provide resources for children older than five. Nearly all centers also help connect clients with welfare services by collaborating with departments of health and social services. In some cases, social workers even hold office hours in pregnancy help centers.
Pregnancy centers do especially important work at a time when the cultural divide between middle- and working-class America has widened. And they remind us that the culture wars do not merely address the interests and needs of the high-minded middle class by centering politics on symbols, values, and lifestyles. They address the material needs and aspirations of the poor, too.
The impressive efforts of pro-life citizens suggest that Roe did not render them powerless, as both liberals and conservatives sometimes assert. Yes, Roe effectively disenfranchised pro-life citizens by denying them the right to vote over the basic contours of abortion policy. But it also decimated the pro-choice movement and cleared the way for a massive campaign of moral suasion. Much like women in the nineteenth century, pro-life activists have found ways to shape our culture and politics without the franchise.
Skeptics might reasonably question the influence of the pro-life movement, especially since abortion opinion has hardly changed since Roe was decided. That fact alone, however, may indicate the power—not the weakness—of the pro-life movement.
While the country has become far more socially liberal on a large range of questions since Roe, abortion opinion has remained a strange outlier. In fact, pro-choice sentiment stopped increasing after Roe altogether, even though it had grown dramatically in years prior. Roe represented an end to the rapid liberalization of abortion attitudes, perhaps in part because of the utter collapse of the pro-choice movement. Recent surveys find that young Americans are less pro-choice than their elders, even though they are more secular and more likely to support same-sex marriage.
Abortion rates, meanwhile, have steadily declined by nearly a third since peaking in the early 1980s. Those rates would almost certainly have been higher absent the pro-life movement’s massive campaign of moral suasion.
With even more certainty we can conclude that the countless conversations cultivated by pro-lifers in front of abortion clinics, on college campuses, and in pregnancy centers were far more inclusive and democratic than the pre-Roe debates in state legislatures between lobbyists and elected representatives. The creation of these many islands of democracy below the level of the state itself has been especially welcome in an era in which partisans of all stripes have lamented the erosion of civic and democratic life.
And they should remind us that Roe did not simply nationalize the abortion controversy by moving it from state capitols to the Supreme Court. After all, the most popular varieties of pro-life activism happen in face-to-face relationships in ordinary American communities, rather than in the corridors of Washington or in state capitols.
Many pro-life activists fervently pray for Roe’s reversal. Yet Roe’s reversal would hardly represent a decisive victory for the pro-life movement. In fact, it would almost certainly revitalize a genuine movement for abortion rights. Pro-lifers need not make peace with Roe to recognize it has brought certain benefits.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.