In response to recent claims (including my own in First Things) that Roe aided pro-lifers in unexpected ways, Daniel Williams argues that such views are mistaken. The decision, according to Williams, neither hurt pro-choice momentum nor breathed new life into a fledgling right-to-life movement. Instead, it cut off public discussion over competing constitutional claims regarding the rights of women and unborn human organisms. In other words, Roe has no pro-life legacy.
I agree with Williams that Roe was not a blessing in disguise for pro-lifers, and did not mean to suggest otherwise. Instead, I tried to show how a decision that created an expansive constitutional right to abortion nonetheless offered some important compensating benefits. Like many pro-lifers, Williams seems wrongly to regard Roe as an unmitigated disaster. That is a mistake.
Consider trends in public opinion. Williams neglects the fact that pro-lifers were losing badly in the court of public opinion before they lost Roe in the Supreme Court. According to surveys from the National Opinion Research Center, pro-choice sentiment exploded between 1965 and 1973 before suddenly stabilizing in the aftermath of Roe.
In 1965 a mere 22 percent of the public agreed that abortion was acceptable in cases of economic hardship, but 53 percent of Americans did so by 1973. Likewise, while only 16 percent of the public approved of abortion when married women sought to limit the size of their families in 1965, some 48 percent of Americans did so just eight years later.
During this same period support for the abortion of disabled fetuses rose from 57 to 84 percent. Thus, pro-choice sentiment grew substantially year after year prior to 1973. Indeed, it grew at a much faster rate than support for gay marriage has since 1996, as a recent Pew study makes clear.
Why did pro-choicers stop winning the war for the hearts and minds of Americans in 1973? Of course, we can never know for sure why pro-choice sentiment suddenly ceased its meteoric climb in the very same year that Roe was decided. That would require us to rerun American history without the Roe decision. The most plausible explanation, however, points to the collapse of a grassroots, pro-choice movement working for radical changes in public opinion and policy. If this is right, then Roe did in fact halt some considerable pro-choice momentum. Roe, after all, seemed to end the dramatic liberalization of abortion attitudes and the movement that sustained it.
It is true that the pro-life movement was well organized in many states prior to 1973. But there is little question that the pro-life movement grew in subsequent years and reached new constituencies, especially conservative Protestants. More importantly, though, Roe compelled pro-lifers to engage in a far larger and more diverse campaign of moral suasion. As right-to-lifers turned their focus away from state legislatures and toward the broad American public, it discovered new and innovative ways of reaching ordinary citizens. Pro-lifers built thousands of crisis pregnancy centers, found really creative ways to engage millions of college students, and got better at talking to ordinary citizens outside abortion clinics. Today, there is nothing comparable to these efforts inside the pro-choice movement. Roe is a big part of that story.
How much such differences continue to matter is, of course, very hard to say. Yet it is striking that public opinion may be shifting once again in a pro-life direction. Young Americans are suddenly less pro-choice than older Americans. That is, they are more likely to find abortion unacceptable in the so-called soft cases, such as economic hardship, than their elders. In the latest edition of Understanding Public Opinion, Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr report that young Americans are not only less pro-choice than any other age group, but they are also markedly less pro-choice than any young cohort in any previous decade.
This development represents a profound shift from trends in the early 1970s when young Americans were far more pro-choice than their elders. Given the fact that young Americans are both less religious and more supportive of gay rights than their elders, we also would expect them to be the most pro-choice age cohort. Yet they are not. The future implications of this development could be great. As Wilcox and Carr conclude, the long-term stability in abortion attitudes may be about to change.
Roe also changed the way abortion is debated. Williams laments that it ended a serious constitutional debate over competing rights claims. But, if I’m right, Roe may have also broadened the public discussion. Prior to Roe, much of the public debate centered in state legislatures and courthouses. Now it is centered in local communities and engages more citizens in discussions about abortion. 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. Moreover, 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.
Even if I am correct, there is no gainsaying the fact that Roe was a remarkable political victory for the pro-choice movement. That is well established. Happily for pro-lifers, however, its legacy is more complicated than that. And if my disagreements with Williams demonstrate anything, untangling Roe’s legacy remains a knotted and difficult question some forty years later.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
“Roe’s Pro-Life Legacy,” Jon A. Shields
“The Real Reason to Criticize Roe,” Daniel K. Williams
“Behind Gay Marriage Momentum, Regional Gaps Persist,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
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