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Beginning with the Supreme Court’s Webster decision of last July, Americans were delighted, distressed, or simply puzzled to discover that abortion was back in the political arena. It had been abruptly “removed from politics” by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, when it became a question reserved to the Judiciary. That at least was the conventional wisdom. In fact, for the last two decades abortion has been the single most fervently controverted question in our public life. Dealing as it does with such “pre-political” matters as the meaning of human life and the question of who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility, the abortion debate is inescapably cast in terms of morality. And the source of public morality being what it is for most Americans, the debate is inescapably entangled with religion.

While Christianity from the beginning consistently opposed abortion, modern abortion law has more to do with medicine than with religion. Colonial America, for instance, had no statutes against abortion. But, beginning in the 1840s, states began to adopt restrictive abortion laws—or, put differently, laws to protect the unborn. While other factors were involved, the campaign for abortion law was led by the medical community, which in the nineteenth century was aspiring to the dignity of being a profession. The doctors’ purpose was to drive out of business the “quacks” who were involved in abortions and other practices that gave medicine a bad name. And, of course, abortion law advanced the monopoly of “certified” medicine. There was another major consideration. By the middle of the last century medical science knew that human life is a continuum from conception to death. Earlier ideas such as “quickening” and “ensoulment” fell to advancing science, not to be revived until Roe came up with the notion of “trimesters” as being somehow pertinent to the question of when life begins.

As doctors played the critical role in establishing abortion law, so doctors were critical to dismantling the law a century later. The “abortion reform” movement of the 1960s was strongly supported by a medical establishment that was by then not only securely respectable but almost unchallengeable in its social prestige. Doctors wanted no interference from the law in their control over all medical procedures, including abortion. In an interesting twist and twisting of history, the reformers blamed religion for the abortion law then in existence. And, sure enough, within a few years religion would be rallying to the defense of the abortion law that the medical profession had established but now wanted to abolish. The churches, instructed by medical science about the continuum of human life, would discern in that knowledge moral imperatives that were at odds with medical ambitions.

Nobody, neither the abortion reformers nor the defenders of the unborn, was prepared for Roe. As John T. Noonan, the distinguished legal scholar, has observed, this was not the reform or liberalizing of abortion law; this was something that no modern society had undertaken before, the total abolition of abortion law. To be sure, the misunderstanding would persist that Roe only established an absolute “right” to abortion in the first trimester. But in fact the Court had declared that any woman who would be emotionally distressed at not getting an abortion was entitled to an abortion at any point during pregnancy.

Although surprised by its broad sweep, the most influential opinion makers were pleased with Roe. The New York Times editorially declared the abortion debate to be “settled,” and Newsweek apparently thought it no big deal, giving it less than a page. The religious establishment largely followed suit. An editorial in the Christian Century declared that “this is a beautifully accurate balancing of individual vs. social rights . . . . It is a decision both proabortionists and antiabortionists can live with.” Few evangelicals, meanwhile, gave evidence of having pondered the implications of abortion. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, had “urged Baptists to work for legislation permitting abortion under certain conditions. These include: rape, incest, deformity, emotional health.” In 1973 most Baptists undoubtedly thought that Roe achieved what they had called for.

Seventeen unsettling years later, it is hard to believe that anyone ever thought that Roe had settled the question of abortion. The prolife movement was slow in getting off the ground, but today it is clearly a formidable force in national, state, and local politics. Unlike other movements of major social and political change in American history, it had no backing, in fact it had almost unanimous opposition, from the several establishments of the elite culture. The movements against slavery in the nineteenth century and for civil rights in the twentieth had powerful support from cultural control centers in the educational, communications, legal, and religious worlds. Although it is often forgotten, the same was true of the prohibition movement, which was originally considered part of the drive for “progressive” reform. In sharpest contrast to those movements, the prolife insurgency exemplified what in the 1960s was admiringly called “grassroots organization.”

Among establishment institutions, the Roman Catholic bishops were almost alone in support of the prolife position. Needless to say, many who were more firmly ensconced in the American establishment took this as further evidence that Roman Catholics were not really “one of us.” And, as the story is told by Catholic lay activists, the bishops took their sweet time in doing anything more than issuing occasional statements against what prolifers call the “abortion holocaust.” Nonetheless, it is acknowledged that the Roman Catholic bishops were in the vanguard of public dissent from the logic and policy prescriptions of Roe. The evangelicals and fundamentalists who would in a few years be dubbed the “Religious Right” began to flex their political muscles in the mid-seventies, but abortion was then not nearly as important to them as pornography, school prayer, rock music, national defense, and other issues. By the dawn of the eighties that would change dramatically.

The turnaround that brought the abortion question back into the arenas of democratic political discourse cannot be attributed entirely to the prolife movement. Millions of Americans who are not part of that movement, and may even be uneasy about it, are nonetheless made morally nervous by 1.5 million abortions per year, more than 25 million since Roe. They cannot stifle the suspicion that these statistics translate into dead babies. In addition, prochoice advocacy is popularly associated with radical feminism and other forces widely assumed to be linked to sexual promiscuity, divorce, pornography, homosexual activism, AIDS, and related ills producing what many see as the moral decay of American society.

Then there is the class factor. Kristen Luker of the University of California, who identifies with the prochoice position, insightfully analyzed this class division in Abortion Politics. It is commonly said that abortion is a “women’s issue,” but studies by Luker and others make clear that women are sharply divided. The upper middle class and the well off, especially those who tend to view their lives in terms of independence and career, are much more likely to be prochoice. Millions of other women find their fulfillment in marriage, family, and community involvement, and they deeply resent what they view as the feminist contempt heaped upon them by their social betters. Far from the prochoice position reflecting “the women’s viewpoint,” women are significantly more prolife than men. (The most consistently prochoice sector of the population is sexually active—read promiscuous—males. Their reason for favoring abortion should be no mystery.)

The many social and cultural factors involved make it apparent why abortion is the single most important battleground in what is no less than a Kulturkampf, a war over the definition of our common life. In addition to social and cultural factors, there is the not insignificant matter of the legal incoherence of Roe, which finally began to crumble under judicial examination. All that said, however, it is impossible to explain the return of abortion to the political process apart from the prolife movement, which in truth is a bewilderingly diverse concatenation of movements. Its leaders are understandably gratified by their successes since Roe. They are also vulnerable to the temptations of triumphalism, of overestimating the ground that they have won and the certainty of victories ahead.

Despite court rulings and the arguments joined in state legislatures, hardly a dent has been made in the abortion practices established by Roe. To the astonishment of many, there is evidence that the pro abortion argument is making a strong comeback in the political arena and the battle for public opinion. The apparently effective prochoice pitch, ironically, is vintage Reaganism—“Let’s get the government off our backs.” When the value of liberty is pitted against the value of life, many Americans are clearly inclined to opt for liberty. This does not mean they have changed their view of abortion. In some polls, a majority of those who say that the abortion decision should be up to the mother alone also say that they believe abortion is murder. It seems likely that over time people will not be satisfied with a position that, at least implicitly, supports legally approved murder. One obvious way to solve that problem is to stop thinking of abortion as murder. That is the outcome favored by the prochoice strategy of forcing a choice between liberty and life. Prolife leadership has to find better ways to persuade the public and their representatives that life and liberty (as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) require one another, that the first liberty is the right to life, that the refusal to defend the defenseless undermines liberty and life alike.

On the battle lines, the prochoice side is backed by the big money, the prestige media, the major foundations, and most of the elite institutions of the society. Prolifers have the advantage in unpaid activists and a vast, if loosely coordinated, network of churches and other voluntary organizations. The class factor was evident in a recent meeting of prolife leaders where the suggestion was made that they, like Planned Parenthood and its allies, should take out full page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post. A leading prolife strategist is reported to have quashed the idea. “I can’t imagine a bigger waste of money,” he said. “Our people don’t read those papers, and we aren’t going to change the minds of the people who do read them.”

That assumption, one might argue, guarantees that the prochoice forces will control the media “story line” of the abortion battles. On the other hand, over the past seventeen years that control has not been terribly effective in shaping popular attitudes. Consistent with its judgment that Roe had settled the abortion question, the Times in the years following did its best to ignore dissenters. When it did take note of prolifers, it generally portrayed them as socially marginal religious zealots. Yet in the week before the Webster decision, the Times ran as its lead story the results of its own poll showing that only 22 percent of those asked approved of the unconditional right to abortion established by Roe.

Social critics who worry about the influence of the media in our public life might draw comfort from the media’s inability, after two decades of concerted effort, to persuade Americans to give up their moral objections to abortion. At the same time, the media’s power to perpetuate misinformation is truly impressive, as witness the widespread belief that Roe permitted unquestioned access to abortion only in “the first trimester.” Nonetheless, the relevant survey research indicates that public opinion on abortion has been remarkably stable for more than ten years. About 20 percent of Americans favor an unconditional right to abortion, about 20 percent favor an absolute prohibition, and the remaining 60 percent think abortion should be legal in certain circumstances. When those “certain circumstances” are specified, it becomes evident that 75 percent of the people think that more than 95 percent of the abortions done today should not be allowed by law. In the post-Webster climate, however, the prochoice ploy of forcing a choice between liberty and life seems to have made headway in unsettling the previous stability of public opinion.

These realities of abortion politics appear to be lost on many politicians who say they want to be prolife. They are intimidated both by the media power of the prochoice side and by the not-one-inch adamancy of the absolute prohibitionists. Successful politics in America generally requires the avoidance of “extremism.” The oddity is that politicians who profess to be prolife recognize absolute prohibition as one “extreme” while failing to identify abortion on demand as the polar “extreme.” Once that point is established, politicians who have the wit for it can effectively argue that the goal of the first “extreme,” however desirable, is politically unobtainable, while the second “extreme” is morally intolerable. In this way they have the opportunity to identify themselves with the 60 percent of Americans who want comprehensive legal protection of the unborn, while allowing for some few and rare exceptions. That would seem to be the centrist or moderate position in abortion politics.

Moderation, compassion, progress—these are winning tickets in American politics. As prolife politics can be defined as moderate, so also it can persuasively be defined as compassionate, since it demonstrates concern not only for the unborn but for the severely handicapped, the “useless” aged, and all the others who do not pass the “quality of life” tests imposed by the powerful. And so too it can persuasively be defined as progressive, since it aims to move toward a “kinder, gentler America” beyond the wanton killing and lethal logic of Roe.

In fact, however, very few politicians and not enough leaders in the prolife movement seem to be working on such a redefinition of abortion politics. And that cannot help but be a comfort to the proponents of “choice” and “privacy” who confidently expect the continuation of abortion practice under Roe, even after Roe is no longer the law of the land.