During the past few days a number of commentators have discussed the numerous parallels between the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In neither case was the majority opinion grounded in the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, social conservatives are likely feeling a similar sense of disenfranchisement and betrayal. Social conservatives should, however, take heart. We are now in a much better situation today than we were in 1973. This is for three reasons:
1) Better Organization
When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973 there were no single-issue pro-life groups based in Washington, D.C. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) was still part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was not until May of 1973 that NRLC became incorporated as a separate entity.
Getting organized on a national level was not easy. Obviously there was no Internet, and direct mail was in its infancy. Also, nearly all of the previous political battles on the abortion issue had taken place at the state or local level. As such, there were significant challenges identifying and mobilizing like-minded people on a national scale. This hurt a nascent movement that was largely opposed by elites and relied heavily on grassroots support.
Now the social conservative movement has matured. The National Organization for Marriage is a single-issue group that effectively advocates on behalf of traditional marriage. There are also a range of social conservative groups that work on marriage including Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America. The Heritage Foundation has taken more interest in social issues in recent years and they have offered invaluable support to supporters of traditional marriage. These groups all provide key assistance with public relations, research, and outreach.
2) More Collaboration
During the 1970s much of the opposition to legal abortion came from the Catholic Church. In fact, during the 1970s many people saw abortion as largely a Catholic Issue. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that many Evangelical churches began to publicly speak out against legal abortion. Since that time, there has been fruitful collaboration between Catholics and Evangelicals on abortion, marriage, and a range of other issues of interest to Christians
Additionally, Mormons have taken an interest in the marriage issue and their support was invaluable during the Proposition 8 campaign in California in 2008. Furthermore, supporters of traditional marriage have already enjoyed more success reaching out to minority groups than pro-lifers have. Precious few African-American legislators support pro-life legislation, but many African-American state legislators have been willing to support legislation upholding traditional marriage. Furthermore, the annual March for Marriage always attracts a racially and ethnically diverse crowd.
3) More influence
The Roe v. Wade decision effectively nationalized the abortion issue. As was mentioned previously, nearly all of the political battles on the abortion issue had been fought at the state or local level. As such, relatively few U.S. Congressmen and U.S. Senators had taken a public position on the issue. Making matters worse, many elected officials were reluctant to engage the issue. Many were unsure how the issue would develop over time. As such, many elected officials offered vague statements of disapproval about the Roe v. Wade decision, but no promises to do anything tangible to reverse it.
Furthermore, pro-lifers had some trouble gaining influence in both political parties. The Republicans were home to many business interests who were indifferent to abortion and many high-income earners who were likely to support legal abortion. Additionally, political liberals and radical feminists were starting to exert more influence over the Democratic Party. As such, pro-lifers had few pressure points to exert influence over either federal legislation or the positions of Presidential candidates. Indeed during the 1976 Presidential election, neither Jimmy Carter nor Gerald Ford took a clear position on the abortion issue.
But since the 1970s the two parties have become more polarized along ideological lines. Social conservatives wield influence over a number of Republican elected officials and are an influential voting bloc during Republican Presidential primaries. There will be robust differences of opinion as to what kinds of conscience protection legislation we should support after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. There will also be differences of opinion over what sort of stance we would like Republican Presidential candidates to take on the marriage issue. That said, today supporters of traditional marriage have considerably more political influence than pro-lifers did forty years ago.
Overall, social conservatives have come a long way since the Roe v. Wade decision. We are more organized at the grassroots, there is an extensive history of collaboration among various faith traditions, and we have more influence over the Republican Party. That said, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision clearly poses serious challenges. We have lost some ground in the court of public opinion on the marriage issue and there will be a great deal of pressure from many elites to simply give up. As such, social conservatives will doubtless need to make wise decisions about how best to use our resources and influence.
Michael J. New is a visiting associate professor at Ave Maria University and an Associate Scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.