States Criminalize Abortion with Roe in Reach

In front of SCOTUS during March for Life Rally. January 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of Robin Marty.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday evening signed a bill into law intended to ban nearly all abortions and criminalize physicians who provide abortion care, and hours later the Missouri state senate approved legislation that ban abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

The Alabama Human Life Protection Act, slated to take effect in six months, prohibits abortion at any point in pregnancy, and makes performing an abortion or attempting to perform an abortion a felony. The law provides an exception if a physician determines a pregnancy must be terminated to prevent a pregnant person’s “death or to avert serious risk of substantial physical impairment of a major bodily function,” and there is also an exception for ectopic pregnancy or lethal anomaly.

Rep. Terri Collins (R-AL) said the law was explicitly intended to provoke litigation that would possibly result in a direct legal challenge to Roe: “My goal with this bill is not to hurt them in any way. My goal with this bill, and I think all of our goal, is to have Roe v. Wade turned over, and that decision be sent back to the states so that we can come up with our laws that address and include amendments and things that address those issues.”

President Donald Trump’s successful appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to replace former Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court shifted the ideological balance of the Court. The anti-abortion movement has exploited the Court’s new conservative majority, and state lawmakers have approved laws guaranteed to provoke litigation that would directly challenge the constitutional right to an abortion affirmed in the 1973 landmark decision of Roe v. Wade.

The anti-abortion movement has downplayed the importance of the overturning of Roe as a strategic goal, and some have even claimed that reproductive rights advocates’ warnings that the Court could overturn Roe were engaging in “scaremongering.” Despite the anti-abortion movements’ rhetoric, it is apparent that the movement has pivoted during the last two years, and has launched a direct legislative assault in the states aimed at Roe.

Trump’s judicial appointments fulfill a campaign pledge to the Christian Right, as conservative evangelicals were instrumental to his election. During the 2016 presidential campaign, prominent voices within the Christian Right urged social conservatives to support Trump as a means to an end of achieving a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the 1990s, the anti-abortion movement embraced an incremental strategy and advocated for policies that created barriers to access abortion, and instead of banning abortion would increasingly make abortion difficult to access. After the midterm elections of 2010, this strategy was aggressively pursued by state lawmakers. During the following eight years, state legislatures approved 424 laws that restrict reproductive rights.

The Family Research Council, among the most influential organizations of the Christian Right, characterized the law as “about ending abortion, period,” and Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that supports anti-abortion candidates, released a statement that it is “clearer than ever that Roe is far from being settled law.”

However, there are elements of the anti-abortion movement who remain unsatisfied.

Rusty Thomas, the leader of Operation Save America, wrote that while the law goes “furthest towards the truth than any other law before it,” he opposed the limited exceptions included in the law as well as the lack of criminal penalties for pregnant people seeking abortion.

“We cannot make truth claims like abortion is murder and then in the legal realm not hold all people involved in the murder accountable in a court of law. This must of necessity include the mother. If she pays somebody to murder her child, she is not a victim, but a criminal.”

The Alabama law is among the egregious legislative assaults on reproductive rights, and this year state lawmakers have considered various types of proposals which would seek to ban abortion and criminalize abortion providers. Among the most prevalent of these types of draconian proposals are so-called heartbeat bills, which would prohibit a physician from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected and would effectively ban abortion as early as six-weeks into pregnancy.

There has been an unprecedented surge in fetal heartbeat bills. During the first five months of 2019, there have been 36 bills introduced in fifteen states. During 2018, there were just 15 heartbeat bills introduced in seven states. Unlike many other types of abortion restrictions, heartbeat bills are not based on specific model legislation drafted and promoted by anti-abortion organizations.

This year fetal heartbeat bills have been introduced by lawmakers in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia; passed by at least one legislative chamber in Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee; and signed into law by the governors of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio.

While there has been much criticism of the 25 white male Republican state lawmakers who voted for final passage of the Alabama law, Collins is one of a number of white Republican women who are the primary sponsors of anti-abortion laws. Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R-MS) was the sponsor of the heartbeat ban signed into law by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, and Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-OH) was the sponsor of the heartbeat ban signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.

These laws have consistently been found to be unconstitutional by state and federal courts.

An Iowa state county district judge in January ruled that the state’s fetal heartbeat law, which would have banned nearly all abortions in the state as of July 2018, violated Iowa’s state constitution. Governor Kim Reynolds opted not to appeal the ruling. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin in March 2019 signed into law a heartbeat bill, and a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from implementing the law. Similar laws have also been struck down by courts in both Arkansas and North Dakota.

This surge in legislation to either ban abortion early in pregnancy or ban abortion at any point in pregnancy will result in an increased amount of litigation, and the overwhelming amount of anti-abortion cases pending in the courts is also part of the multipronged legal strategy of the anti-abortion movement. Laws that prohibit the most common type of second-trimester abortion care, as well as laws that ban abortion after 15-weeks of pregnancy, are also currently facing legal challenges.

It remains unclear if the Supreme Court will eventually take up challenges to laws similar to the one passed by Alabama, or if the Court will accept subtler restrictions as a vehicle to reconsider Roe. For now, anti-abortion measures at the state level are reaching a rolling boil.


Right Positions D&E Bill as the Next Big Challenge to Roe

Both anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates rally in front of the Supreme Court during the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case in June 2016. A lawsuit challenging Texas’s new ban on Dilation and Evacuation is likely to follow the same legal path to the Supreme Court. Photo: Victoria Pickering via Flickr.

On November 2, federal Judge Lee Yeakel began hearing arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton, a lawsuit challenging Texas’s new ban on Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) abortions. Yeakel’s hearing is just the first step in a process that is likely to mirror much of the same legal path to the Supreme Court as Texas’s last major abortion case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. And it could potentially leave thousands of pregnant people across the U.S. in rural and red states unable to access the safest means of terminating a pregnancy after 14 weeks, or in some cases accessing an abortion at all.

Since 2010 anti-abortion legal and political action groups such as Americans United for Life [AUL] and National Right to Life Committee [NRLC] have successfully introduced model legislation on a state-by-state basis throughout the U.S. Their goal? To whittle down abortion access bit by bit on a regional basis while at the same time provoking court challenges that could eventually make it to the Supreme Court and potentially overturn Roe v. Wade.

The 2010 midterm Republican sweep in state legislatures created the perfect opportunity for a course change in ending legal abortion. While a small portion of the anti-abortion movement continued to pursue total abortion bans, the majority moved into a state-based, incremental approach throttling the ability to obtain an abortion through mandatory waiting periods, clinic closures in response to medically unnecessary licensing rules, blocking of telemed abortion procedures and limits on how medication abortions could be performed. Together, the new laws were intended to place so many roadblocks to a legal termination that abortion would become inaccessible for many despite remaining technically legal in practice. Then when those laws would be challenged in multiple states, they would yield the lower court rulings needed to have a case heard by the Supreme Court.

Although the most recent attempt was unsuccessful, it is just the first of many to follow this pattern. Now, abortion opponents expect a D&E ban to accomplish what mandatory admitting privileges and clinic regulations could not: an opening to reexamine Roe and reevaluate whether each state should be required to have legal, accessible abortion until the point of fetal viability.

While Hellerstedt was based on the idea of “protecting women” by making clinics and abortions safer, even if the actual effects of those “protections” would close clinics all together, Paxton focuses on the fetus and what the procedure does to a “live” being. The law ignores the patient altogether in favor of a legal argument upholding the state’s alleged interest in promoting pregnancy and birth, treating the fetus as a living person with rights and dignity that must be protected.

Paxton focuses on the fetus and what the procedure does to a “live” being. The law ignores the patient altogether in favor of a legal argument upholding the state’s alleged interest in promoting pregnancy and birth.

“S.B. 8 prohibits dismemberment abortion because it involves the limb-by-limb destruction of a living unborn child, and our society has long recognized dismemberment of living beings as particularly cruel,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton writes in his legal briefings. Bill supporters also claim that that the ban would “promot[e] integrity and ethics of the medical profession.” The health, safety, rights or even existence of the lives of pregnant people—the entire justification for the abortion restrictions in Hellerstedt—remain virtually unmentioned in both bills and supporting legal briefs.

The erasure of the effects on those having the abortion is deliberate, especially since the crux of the state’s argument is that this is in fact not a blanket abortion ban at all. Like its predecessor, the intact D&E ban, a D&E can still be performed, they claim, as long as providers have verified that the fetal heartbeat has been stopped prior to the procedure. In essence, this applies the same restrictions as before, but for abortions performed far before the point of viability. Abortion opponents suggest that the use of an injection to stop the heartbeat can be used prior to the abortion itself, satisfying the state’s desire to protect the “dignity” of the unborn while allowing a pregnant person to still receive an abortion. The state brushes aside concerns that an injection—which is already typically used in most later abortions performed close to or past the point of viability—is more difficult to do in smaller, pre-viable fetuses, raising the risk of harm to pregnant patients without adding any benefit other than to assuage the whims of those who oppose abortion.

It will also increase the wait-time before patients can obtain an abortion, by requiring a second ultrasound to confirm there is no heartbeat. “Doing an injection to ensure fetal demise could add another day to the abortion, when patients are already waiting to schedule, then having an initial mandatory ultrasound and waiting 24 hours before the procedure, then returning again to actually have it,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, President and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, the plaintiffs in the Texas case, told PRA. “These are people who often are already struggling to jump through the hoops to terminate. This just adds one more unnecessary barrier to their ordeal, and one that has no medical benefit.”

When the case inevitably makes it to the Supreme Court, the question will be exactly how much physical effort, financial burden and even medical risk a patient should be reasonably expected to bear in order to protect the “dignity” of a fetus. If the court finds these new requirements constitutional, its decision won’t just affect Texas, but the seven other Southern or Midwest states that currently have their own laws enjoined, creating a block of states patients would need to leave in order to obtain a 15- to 20-week abortion without a multi-day procedure.

That would be a best-case scenario. A positive Supreme Court ruling could also inspire similar federal legislation which, depending on the make-up of Congress and the White House at that time, could mean every state in the nation would eventually be affected, severely restricting, if not eliminating, the ability to access an elective abortion after the first trimester.

Much like similar bills passed in seven other states, Texas S.B. 8 mandates that “fetal demise” must be confirmed before the remains can then be removed from the uterus. The laws so far have been challenged and successfully blocked in four states as representing an unconstitutional ban on abortion prior to viability. Abortion opponents’ best chance for changing that, however, is a path through the highly conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. To get there, the state first needs Yeakel’s final ruling that Texas’s law is also unconstitutional, which would provide Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton the opportunity to appeal to the Fifth Circuit in hopes that Yeakel will be overruled.

The Fifth can reasonably be called the most conservative and anti-abortion of all circuit courts. There are currently 13 judges on the bench and all but five are Republican nominees. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Fifth was known for decisions that championed civil rights, but that legacy ended abruptly as the court was stacked with conservative judges, including six appointed by President George W. Bush.

One current justice, Judge Edith Jones, argued during a WWH v. Hellerstedt hearing that forcing a woman to drive 300 miles round-trip for an abortion wasn’t an undue burden since patients could drive 75 miles per hour on the “particularly flat highway.” Another, Priscilla Owen, believes that minors shouldn’t be allowed judicial bypass from parental consent laws for terminating a pregnancy. Meanwhile, there are four current vacancies waiting to be filled by President Donald Trump, whose appointments so far have included a lawyer who represented Hobby Lobby in its suit against the Affordable Care Act and a former clerk for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The conservative Fifth may move even further to the Right by the time an appeal is heard—exactly the scenario abortion opponents are hoping for.

Both sides assume that Yeakel will block the D&E ban, and that the state will appeal that ruling to the Fifth, which would reverse the injunction. That would lead the plaintiffs to appeal to the Supreme Court for a final ruling, giving the high court a second, landscape altering challenge to Roe v. Wade within the next few years.

The Supreme Court that hears this case could look quite different than it did in 2016 when they ruled against H.B. 2, Texas’ omnibus abortion bill that shut down most abortion clinics in the state by requiring mandatory hospital admitting privileges and expensive and medically unnecessary building regulations. At a minimum, it will have nine judges on the bench. The seat held by Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, was left empty until after the 2016 presidential election. Justice Neil Gorsuch was sworn into office on April 10, 2017. Gorsuch, praised by Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser for his opinions in the Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases, is expected to be as conservative as his predecessor, if not more so. And should any other judge leave the court in the next three years, he or she would likely be replaced by Trump, almost undoubtedly moving the court even further to the Right. So far predictions for potential nominees have included Michigan’s Diane Sykes, who tried to reinstate Wisconsin’s unconstitutional voter ID law; Alabama’s William Pryor, who called Roe “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history”; and, should Trump go even more conservative, the Fifth Circuit’s own Edith Jones.

Even without another appointment, abortion opponents believe that unlike WWH v. Hellerstedt, WWH v. Paxton can sway centrist Justice Anthony Kennedy to side with the court’s right wing and uphold the ban, despite his decision to side with liberals in 2016. The legislation in question, S.B. 8, was drafted by the National Right to Life Committee to appeal directly to Kennedy, who wrote the 2007 majority opinion for Gonzales v. Carhart —the so-called “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban,” which prohibited “intact” Dilation and Extraction. In Kennedy’s opinion, he wrote that both intact and non-intact D&Es have the potential to “devalue human life” and that many would view it with “the most severe moral condemnation.” In writing the model legislation on which S.B. 8 was based, the NRLC used exactly these words to describe what they claim is the “inhumane” and “gruesome” nature of the D&E procedure itself.

Despite the positive ruling from the Supreme Court in 2016, it’s clear that the right to accessible, safe abortion is actually more at risk than ever before. What was seen as a victory for abortion rights in June—when admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements were struck down as unconstitutional—takes a different tone following a surprise Republican presidential win, a razor thin loss by Democrats to flip the Senate, and a Supreme Court that has again veered Right and may go even further in that direction over the next few years.

Once again, Whole Woman’s Health is the bellwether testing the court’s devotion to the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, and once again Justice Kennedy will be the key figure weighing the rights of a fetus against the rights of the person carrying it. And once more we are hoping for a surprise victory, because a loss this time could bring Roe—and safe, legal abortion—to an end.



Prenatal Diagnosis, Reproductive Rights, and the Specter of Eugenics

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This article appears in the Fall 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In 2014, the state of Virginia enacted legislation shielding healthcare workers who provide genetic counseling from lawsuits if they withhold test results they think might dispose a woman to have an abortion. Although counselors can’t lie about results, they no longer have to disclose them. As the executive director of the Virginia ACLU noted, “The way the law is written, if a genetic counselor doesn’t think a patient will make ‘the right choice’ with the information you give them, well, then you don’t have to tell them.”1

Advocacy of such “conscience clauses” is but one element in a recently accelerating campaign to restrict reproductive rights.2  As Frederick Clarkson has found, a raft of state-level legislative and regulatory restrictions on access to abortion followed the “wave election” of 2010.3 As Republicans have continued to consolidate their control of state legislatures and governorships, the stream of restrictions has turned into a flood, with the Trump election further emboldening anti-abortion activists. But a closely related trend has gone less noticed: the increasingly successful movement to bar or discourage the practice of selective abortion; that is, pregnancy termination based on a determination of fetal sex, race, or—far more commonly—genetic abnormality. Conservative anti-abortion activists have certainly fought to restrict abortion in general, but increasingly their strategies focus on banning abortions sought for specific reasons.4 In their campaign against selective abortion, conservatives sometimes find de facto allies among groups that lean Left politically but share conservatives’ unease with the use of prenatal diagnosis (PND) to avoid the birth of children with disabilities.

On both the political Right and Left, some groups find this use of PND repugnant, and charge that it constitutes “eugenics.” Recent changes in medical-practice guidelines and in the technology of testing have heralded a major expansion in the use of PND. The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 ushered in “a new generation of prenatal screening tests,” as journalist Beth Daley has noted.5 A particularly significant development has been the advent of non-invasive prenatal testing, which unlike conventional procedures such as amniocentesis, involves only a simple blood test. Critics of selective abortion are alarmed by these developments; the new tests can make PND easier and cheaper and eliminate risks to the fetus. Consequently, they could greatly expand both the uptake and scope of testing, and thus the rate of termination for fetal anomaly. The belief that we are on the cusp of a major expansion of PND has fueled a multi-pronged effort both to regulate what healthcare providers can say to their patients about prenatal tests and to legislatively restrict the use of such tests. This increasing legislative concern with pregnant women’s decisions all adds up to what law professor Rachel Rebouché has called a “regulatory moment for prenatal health care.”6

What is Eugenics Anyway?

The word “eugenics” was first coined by Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The word “eugenics” was first coined by Sir Francis Galton, a British polymath and half-cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton believed that differences in heredity explained differences in human intellect, character, and social success, and that the environments in which individuals are raised are far less important than the hereditary traits they inherited from their parents. He also thought that those with the best heredity were being outbred by those with the worst, and that civilization was doomed unless the principle of “breeding from the best” was applied to humans and not just plants and other animals. In 1883, Galton termed this idea “eugenics” (from the Greek eugenes, to refer to one born “good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities”).

Galton, who knew that opposition from Catholics, Whigs hostile to government intervention, and the organized working class would doom any legislative program in Britain, consistently characterized eugenics as a “science” or “study”—not a state prescription. Had it remained such, it’s unlikely that there would be much interest in the subject today. But around 1910, eugenic aims began to inspire an organized social movement, the changing fortunes and reputation of which have informed what the term has come to mean to us. In the 1910s and ‘20s, that movement was both international and widely supported. Eugenics attracted adherents across the political spectrum, appealing to social radicals and conservatives, militarists and pacifists, feminists and misogynists, racists and critics of racism. What united these disparate enthusiasts was the conviction that differences in heredity explained why some people were weak in mind and body while others were strong, and that the least fit members of society, including “mental defectives,” criminals, and the shiftless were breeding more prolifically than the intelligent, prudent, and industrious.

Ultimately, eugenics fell into disrepute. World War II and the revulsion against the Holocaust and specific Nazi programs (such as the murder of mentally ill patients) was long considered a watershed event in eugenics’ popular demise. More recently, though, historians have stressed how little actually changed in its immediate aftermath.7 Although criticism increased after 1945, it was only in the 1960s that eugenic sterilizations began to decline in the U.S.,8 and elsewhere the practice often continued, with and without legal authorization. What ultimately made eugenics disreputable were not revelations of Nazi atrocities but the social movements of the 1970s, especially second-wave feminism, with its maxim that women had a right to control over their own bodies. By the 1980s, the term “eugenics” had acquired highly pejorative connotations.

Once the term became stigmatizing, it also acquired value as a political resource. To claim that a policy or practice constitutes eugenics became implicitly to condemn it. Critics of birth control and reproductive genetic services such as PND and the selection of embryos created via in vitro fertilization would strive to associate them with eugenics. And the criticisms crossed traditional culture-war divides. Catholic disability-rights advocate Mark Leach compared the rationales for past eugenics and contemporary prenatal testing, concluding that the latter “is factually eugenic.” Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly warned that, “There are appearing in our days troubling manifestations of this hateful practice [of eugenics],” suggesting that practices such as the selection of embryos and prenatal testing would lead to abortion.9

Supporters of these practices strenuously reject efforts to link them to eugenics. Ellen Painter Dollar, a pro-choice disability-rights advocate, acknowledged that prenatal testing would lead to “babies with genes defined as ‘undesirable’ [not being] born.” But she denies that such testing constitutes eugenics, writing:

Historically, “eugenics” refers to social movements, supported by governments, institutions, or influential public figures, that had a stated goal of purifying the gene pool either positively (by enabling those with traits perceived as positive to reproduce) or negatively (by forcibly sterilizing or otherwise limiting the reproductive capacity of those with traits perceived as negative). In contrast, procreative decisions today … are largely private decisions made by expectant parents primarily concerned with the well-being of their family, not the genetic make-up of society at large.10

Historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan would agree. In her view, “Prenatal diagnosis has almost nothing in common with eugenics, neither historically nor technologically.”11

Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and Eugenics

Perhaps the most emotionally charged debate has concerned the issue of how to characterize Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, the organization she founded. Anti-abortion activists frequently charge that Sanger harbored a deep prejudice against people with disabilities and even that she supported Nazi programs to rid the world of undesirables. In discussing Sanger, anti-abortion websites and blogs abound with words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” and images of swastikas. (This despite Sanger’s condemnation of Nazism, her marriage to a Jewish architect, her support for anti-Fascist organizations, and, ironically, her opposition to abortion.12)

Sanger’s statements and writing, especially on the subject of race, are constantly misrepresented by anti-abortion activists.

She is also frequently accused of having aimed to rid the world of Black people: Thus, at a campaign stop in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 2015, then-presidential candidate and current HUD Secretary Ben Carson claimed that Sanger believed that Blacks “should be eliminated,” while Herman Cain, an earlier conservative Black Republican presidential candidate, asserted that “Planned Parenthood’s early mission was to ‘help kill black babies before they came into the world’” (a claim PolitiFact New Hampshire rated as a “Pants on Fire” untruth).13 A former speaker of the New Hampshire House would even claim that Sanger had been an “an active participant in the Ku Klux Klan.”14 (Sanger once addressed a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, as part of a widespread “whistle stop” family planning information campaign, an episode that she described in her autobiography.15) The evidence associating Sanger with “Black genocide” (when any evidence is cited) usually turns out to be the “Negro Project,” an effort Sanger initiated in 1939, in conjunction with Black ministers and physicians, to make birth control available in poor, Black communities, mostly in the South.16

In response to the onslaught of half-truths and outright lies, Sanger’s defenders tend to deny that she and her organization had anything at all to do with eugenics. The reality is more complicated. Sanger was an enthusiast for some eugenic goals and practices.17 But this did not distinguish her from many political progressives in the 1920s and ‘30s, including Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, Helen Keller, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her writings contain no hint of racism, much less sympathy for Fascism, and in her own time, her views on selective breeding could best be characterized as mainstream.18 Nonetheless, Sanger’s statements and writing, especially on the subject of race, are constantly misrepresented by anti-abortion activists. These misleading claims are on par with the Right’s distortions of science in the service of an anti-abortion agenda. As Alex DiBranco recently noted, specious claims about the existence of scientific or medical uncertainty when there is in fact a consensus among experts abound. So do claims of causal links, for example between abortion and breast cancer, when no such connection has been established.19

Conflicting Perspectives on the Eugenics-Reproductive Genetics Relationship

Today, we can broadly distinguish three perspectives on the relation of eugenics to reproductive genetics.20 The first is that they have little in common. In this perspective, the eugenics movements that flourished in the early decades of the 20th Century are epitomized by Nazi efforts to breed a master race and eliminate those considered undesirable. Contemporary reproductive genetics could hardly be more different, since, according to this view, it doesn’t target racial or ethnic minorities, concerns disease rather than ill-defined traits like “feeblemindedness,” and conceives of disability as a personal and not a societal matter. Above all, it lacks the coercive power of the state. Indeed, the oft-stated point of the enterprise is to increase reproductive choices. Science journalist Matt Ridley (as well as Ellen Painter Dollar and Ruth Schwartz Cowan) expresses this perspective when he writes, “the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed, or to survive, for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics.”21

A second perspective is that reproductive genetics is indeed eugenics, but that fact does not condemn it. Thus, Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu writes, “in point of fact, we practice eugenics when we screen for Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities.’’22 In the view of Savulescu and several other philosophers, scientists and science journalists, PND may be eugenics — but not the worrying kind. In their view, eugenics can be good or bad depending on the specific form it takes, and PND is benign.23

In the third perspective—more common than Savulescu’s argument—reproductive genetics is also assumed to be eugenics, and as such, unreservedly bad. This attitude is shared by many politically Left and feminist critics of biotechnology as well as Catholics and disability-rights advocates. Like Savulescu, these critics define eugenics broadly. In their view, it need not involve government coercion (as with the sterilization laws adopted at earlier points by 33 American states and many countries). It can instead come through the “back door,” to use a phrase popularized by sociologist Troy Duster, chosen by women and their partners responding to social norms of health, attractiveness, and so forth.

For these critics, eugenics is fundamentally about attitudes, not state intervention. In their view, PND involves judgments about which traits are desirable or undesirable that reflect socially prejudicial assumptions, with some lives viewed as inherently defective. On the feminist Left, political scientist and historian of technology Joan Rothschild exemplifies this perspective when she writes:

Science and technology, medical professionals, and parents meet in the doctor’s office. This privatized setting is the site for individual decisions…whether to keep a pregnancy or terminate it, and for which diagnosed “defect.” Each decision becomes another judgment as to which conditions, and which children, are acceptable or not. As they aggregate over time, individual decisions add up to a selection process, marking the imperfect, those who may be dispensed with, while certifying those worthy to be born.24

A similar viewpoint is expressed by Mark Leach when he asks:

why is the existence of a governmental policy the critical element for raising moral concerns about the eugenic implications of prenatal genetic testing? Is the lesson of the previous eugenics atrocities that viewing others as burdensome defectives ripe for elimination is wrong only when a governmental policy says so? Or, is not the lesson that it is wrong to view another human life as defective, as a burden, regardless of whether there is a governmental policy or not?25

The Expansion of Prenatal Testing: New Practice Guidelines and New Technologies

The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of prenatal genetic testing. One factor has been a recommendation by professional societies to eliminate maternal age as a criterion for amniocentesis and another less-common test, chorionic villus sampling (CVS). In 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a new Practice Bulletin recommending that PND for aneuploidy (the gain or loss of a chromosome) be made available to all women, regardless of maternal age, who were less than 20 weeks pregnant at the time of their first prenatal visit. The American College of Medical Genetics soon followed suit.26 To opponents of selective abortion, these new guidelines seemed to presage an imminent expansion of prenatal testing and hence increase in terminations for fetal anomaly.

An even more important cause has been the advent of non-invasive prenatal testing, a technique that analyzes fragments of cell-free fetal DNA found in pregnant women’s blood. First introduced in Hong Kong in 2011, the technology has spread across the globe, and is now available in more than 90 countries. 27 Until quite recently, its dissemination occurred almost exclusively through the commercial sector. (Six companies, four based in the U.S. and two in China, own most of the relevant patents and other intellectual property). The vast potential market for non-invasive tests provided correspondingly huge incentives to market directly to consumers and to continuously expand the tests’ scope in order to obtain an edge over the competition.28 With demand driven by aggressive consumer advertising, the uptake of such tests occurred prior to their clinical validation and in advance of their endorsement by relevant professional societies or a regulatory framework for their use. However, in response to consumer demand, such testing is increasingly reimbursed by health insurance in the U.S., and several countries now include it in their national prenatal screening programs.29

Although professional societies currently recommend that non-invasive tests only be used for screening, not diagnosis, both the excitement and anxiety the technology has generated arises from its potential to replace amniocentesis and CVS. Non-invasive testing can be offered earlier in pregnancy than amniocentesis, creating less anxiety and potentially allowing abortions to be medical rather than surgical. Non-invasive testing is also cheaper than conventional PND, and it removes the roughly 0.5-1 percent risk to the fetus.

Due to the risk of miscarriage associated with invasive procedures, their cost, and the stage of gestation at which decisions are made, PND is not now universally offered. Instead, maternal serum tests and ultrasound are employed as screening tests to limit invasive procedures to those pregnancies considered “at risk.” But with non-invasive testing, all the factors that have constrained the offer of testing are removed. In the future, it will likely be possible to combine non-invasive testing with full genome-wide analysis, enabling the detection of any genetic condition, predisposition, or even non-medical trait.30

The rapid dissemination of non-invasive testing has understandably alarmed those opposed to selective abortion. Although some of their concerns, especially around the commercial sector’s dominance of this field, are shared by other groups, Catholics and social conservatives have been particularly vocal. Writing in the National Catholic Register, journalist Celeste McGovern summarizes, “Rather than saving lives, pro-lifers see this test as an enhanced ‘search and destroy’ diagnostic tool that exponentially expands the genetic information available on unborn babies—so that parents may have up to 3,500 genetic possibilities to weigh into a decision about whether or not to have an abortion.” David Prentice, a Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council, similarly argues, “for the most part, this is just a further slide down the eugenics slope.” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, sees the PrenaTest as “eugenics, pure and simple,” and asks, “Is the infernal term ‘life unworthy of life’ going to become reality again?”31

A “Regulatory Moment” for Prenatal Diagnosis

Concerns related to the expansion of non-invasive testing are international—as is the backlash.32 In the U.S., these concerns have spurred a variety of federal and state regulatory efforts to bar or discourage selective abortion. One form such efforts have taken is regulation of the kinds of information that health-care providers provide to pregnant women. Recent laws in Virginia and Nebraska allow genetic counselors to refuse to share any information that conflicts with their moral or religious beliefs, while laws in Arizona and Oklahoma protect physicians who fail to disclose fetal abnormalities.33 These laws are part of a more general movement over the past two decades to expand so-called conscience clauses that allow healthcare workers to opt out of providing services they disagree with, and to enact regulations that claim to protect women from themselves.

The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of prenatal genetic testing. Photo: Alex Proimos via Flickr.

A less controversial effort aims to require objectivity in the information provided to pregnant women. This “pro-information” movement, which began about a decade ago, assumes that many women choose pregnancy termination because the information they receive from health care providers is biased. On this view, obstetricians and gynecologists, genetic counselors, and other providers all believe that life with Down syndrome—the near-exclusive focus of the movement—is exceedingly burdensome to the individual and family. Disability-rights and anti-abortion activists say that assumption is wrong. (These two very different groups of activists sometimes overlap, but their positions aren’t identical, since the latter oppose abortion per se, whereas many disability-rights activists are only critical of selective abortion, which they would discourage but not necessarily ban.) They point to statistics indicating that people with Down syndrome and their families are satisfied with their lives. They want prospective parents to be given literature they have produced or vetted and to be referred to their organizations for further information and support.

This campaign resulted in a 2008 federal law, the “Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act,” co-sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), which aimed to strengthen patient support networks, increase referrals to support services for women who receive a positive diagnosis, and guarantee that they’re given accurate information about test results and the range of outcomes associated with the diagnosed conditions.34 But no funds were appropriated for the law, which also lacked any enforcement provision. As individuals and organizations realized that the statute would have little if any impact, they began to mobilize at the state level. To date, 17 U.S. states have enacted pro-information statutes.35 Given that it’s difficult to argue against “information,” which is often taken to be an unqualified good, such proposals are often passed unanimously or by overwhelming majorities.

Those who support such laws often emphasize that the movement is merely pro-information, not anti-abortion. However, to the frustration of many Down Syndrome associations, this effort to bridge the abortion divide has increasingly been hijacked by right-to-life organizations. Thus, Louisiana’s law prohibits the state from recognizing materials that “explicitly or implicitly present termination as a neutral or acceptable choice,” and recently, Indiana and Texas have followed suit.36 David Perry, an influential disability-rights activist who is also pro-choice, has written that right-wing legislators’ efforts to use the pro-information movement to restrict reproductive choice has forced him to question whether he can continue to advocate for pro-information laws. “In general, conservative legislatures pass anti-choice bills while simultaneously removing social supports for poor families,” he said. “Even when the bills explicitly deal with disability-selection abortions… they are not disability rights legislation. They are attempts to divide and conquer.”

“Even when the bills explicitly deal with disability-selection abortions… they are not disability rights legislation. They are attempts to divide and conquer.”

A more direct effort to limit abortion would ban providers from performing the procedure if they knew it was sought for specified reasons. This strategy is congruent with the incremental restrictions on abortion that have largely supplanted attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the federal level, Prenatal Nondiscrimination Acts (PRENDAs) to bar abortion based on the sex (or in most versions, both sex and race) of the fetus have been proposed nearly every year since 2008. The 2012 bill passed the House by a vote of 246 to 168, with only seven Republicans opposed (and 20 Democrats voting in favor), but as it was brought up under a rule suspension that limited debate, it required a two-thirds majority to pass.38 At the time of this writing, the 2017 PRENDA has 64 co-sponsors, 63 of whom are Republicans. Should it be enacted, medical professionals could be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment for performing an abortion sought because of fetal sex or race.39

PRENDA, Feminism, and Racial Justice

The language of feminism, civil rights, and racial justice suffuses these bills; indeed, they were originally titled the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Acts. But it’s obvious from the records of their sponsors that these bills have nothing to do with either feminism or racial justice. All the PRENDA bills have been introduced in the House by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), a “Freedom Caucus” member and the driving force behind other anti-abortion legislation, including a bill to ban all abortions after 20 weeks even in cases of rape and incest. In Franks’ own words: “I’ve introduced every pro-life effort you can think of.”40 As journalist Kate Sheppard remarked of the 2012 version, “The lawmakers behind it haven’t been particularly interested in women or people of color after they exit the womb in the past, opposing measures to require equal pay for women and to renew the Voting Rights Act, and most recently gutting the Violence Against Women Act.”41 The real agenda is also evident in the fact that the bills only target abortion and not any other means for practicing sex- or race-selection such as the choice of which embryos to implant as the result of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. At the state level, race-selective abortion bans have been approved by legislatures and governors in two states, while sex-selective abortion bans have been introduced in over 20 and approved in nine.42

Laws barring race-selective abortion are part of an effort to link relatively high rates of abortion in the African-American community to eugenics. As noted in PRA’s “Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit,” a key event in this effort was the 2010 “Too Many Aborted” billboard campaign sponsored by the Radiance Foundation. A parallel campaign, sponsored by a different group, erected billboards with images of Barack Obama and the legend, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible LEADER is ABORTED.” Recently, anti-abortion activists have taken up the language of “Black Lives Matter.” Trading on the emotional resonance of that phrase, Americans United for Life (AUL) has sponsored a “#BlackWomenMatter” campaign.43 (Such efforts frequently reference Sanger’s “Negro Project.”44) But implicit in PRENDA laws is the assumption that women of color practice racial discrimination against their own fetuses, an assumption that, as Rep. John Conyers commented, “is absurd on its face.”45 Race and sex-selective abortion are rarities in the U.S. The legal prohibitions against them are introduced not to counter actual practices but to make liberals and leftists look like hypocrites.

The legal prohibitions against them are introduced not to counter actual practices but to make liberals and leftists look like hypocrites.

Abortion for fetal anomalies, on the other hand, is widespread. Indeed, in at least 11 states, a diagnosis of serious fetal defect was a recognized exception to pre-Roe v. Wade laws barring abortion. And in the post-Roe era, at least six states explicitly allowed late abortions for fetal anomaly.46 Thus, efforts to legislatively discourage the practice by requiring special counseling when an abortion is sought for that reason or banning it outright are far more controversial. Nevertheless, as part of its “Infants’ Protection Project,” the AUL proposed model legislation “protecting unborn infants from eugenics” by banning abortions performed because of genetic abnormalities.47 In 2013, North Dakota became the first state to approve such a statute. Louisiana and Indiana followed in 2016, although implementation of the law in those states has been temporarily enjoined by court order.

A Concluding Caution

This history holds a warning for those who would like to see Donald Trump removed from office and replaced by his VP. It was after all then-Governor Mike Pence who signed Indiana’s uniquely expansive PRENDA bill—the first to bar abortion based on all three criteria of race, sex, and suspected genetic abnormalities and to penalize doctors who performed an abortion motivated by these reasons—as well as a host of other restrictive provisions and laws, including requirements that women receive an ultrasound before an abortion and that fetal tissue be buried or cremated by a funeral home. That Pence was responsible for making Indiana a leader in curbing access to abortion explains why, according to reporter Todd Zwillich, at least some conservative evangelicals believe that “God is using Trump to deliver Pence to the WH, & that Trump will be eliminated.”48 At least in respect to reproductive rights, there could be even worse fates than continuation of the Trumpian status quo.

Of course, many who would like to see Trump removed from office recognize that Pence would likely be even more destructive to the cause of reproductive rights. But given the nature and extent of Trump’s other flaws, they are willing to accept the trade-off. The moral to be drawn from the history of efforts to discourage prenatal diagnosis is not that progressives should prefer Trump to Pence but that they should be exceedingly wary of engaging in de facto alliances with the Right. The history of PRENDA laws, whose advocates have managed to wrap their anti-choice agenda in the mantle of feminism and racial justice, and the sad fate of the “pro-information” movement, illustrates how easily the efforts of feminists, disability and civil-rights activists can be co-opted for ends they would find repugnant. As a 14th Century proverb has it: “He who would sup with the devil had better have a long spoon.”


1 Molly Redden, “This Law Allows Genetic Counselors to Turn Away Gays and Unwed Parents,” Mother Jones, March 25, 2014, Redden notes that the law was signed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. For the Act:

2 For a recent, excellent analysis of abortion law, policy, and politics, see Carol Sanger, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

3 Frederick Clarkson’s forthcoming Political Research Associates report on the Right’s successful maneuvers to cut off access to abortion in the states since 2010.

4 Jaime S. King, “Politics and Fetal Diagnostics Collide,” Nature 491, November 1, 2012, p. 33.

5 Beth Daley, “Oversold and Misunderstood: Prenatal Screening Tests Prompt Abortions,” New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Dec. 13. 2014,

6 Rachel Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing, Non-Invasive Counseling,” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 43 (2015): 228–240, on p. 228.

7 Alison Bashford, “Where Did Eugenics Go?”, in Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, eds. Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010), 539-558.

8 Pauline Mazumdar, “‘Reform Eugenics’ and the Decline of Mendelism,” Trends in Genetics 18, 1 (2002): 48-52, on p. 51.

9 Mark Leach, “Eugenics: then and now in the era of prenatal testing for Down syndrome,” March 31, 2016,; “Pope speaks out against ‘new eugenics,’ Church, Feb. 25, 2009,

10 Ellen Painter Dollar, “Does Prenatal Testing Equal Eugenics?” Patheos, August 8, 2012,

11 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Heredity and Hope: The Case for Genetic Screening (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 114.

12 On Sanger’s anti-Fascist attitudes and activities, see “The Sanger-Hitler Equation” (Newsletter #32 (Winter 2002-03), and her 1939 statement on “Hitler and War”,

13 Clay Wirestone, “Did Margaret Sanger believe African-Americans “should be eliminated”? PolitiFact New Hampshire, Oct. 5, 2015,

14 Clay Wirestone, “NH Rep. Bill O’Brien says Margaret Sanger was active participant in KKK,” PolitiFact New Hampshire, March 18, 2015,

15 For an account of the history of the claim that Sanger admired the KKK and of the sometimes doctored photographs published in support of that claim, see Kim LaCapria, “Klanned Parenthood,” Sept. 30, 2015,

16 For a nuanced account of the project, see “Birth Control or Race Control: Sanger and the Negro Project,” The Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Newsletter #28 (Fall 2001), See also Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, 2nd ed, (New York: Vintage Books, 2016).

17 The slogan of the Birth Control Review was “To Breed a Race of Thoroughbreds.” And according to the “Aims and Principles” of the American Birth Control League, of which Sanger was President: “Everywhere we see poverty and large families going hand in hand.  Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. Funds that should be used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to the maintenance of those who should never have been born.” Reprinted in The Pivot of Civilization (NY: Brentano’s, 1922), 279.

18 For a fuller analysis of the controversy, see the PolitiFact articles by Wirestone cited above and the blogpost by Taylor Sullivan, “The ’Feeble-Minded’ and the ‘Fit’: What Sanger Meant When She Talked about Dysgenics,’ Margaret Sanger Papers Project,

19 Alex DiBranco, “Whole Woman’s Heath’s Unexpected Win for Science,” The Public Eye, Oct. 28, 2016, See also Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda,” The Public Eye, June 4, 2006,

20 For a fuller version of this argument, see Diane B. Paul, “What Was Wrong with Eugenics? Conflicting Narratives and Disputed Interpretations,” Science & Education 23 (2014): 259-271.

21 Matt Ridley, “Gene Editing Isn’t a Slippery Slope to Eugenics,” The Times (London), May 16, 2016.

22 Quoted in John Sutherland, “The ideas interview: Julian Savulescu. Eugenics need not be Nazi, and drugs in sport are good, Oxford’s leading ethicist tells John Sutherland,” The Guardian, 9 October 2005.

23 Other examples include Philip Kitcher, The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities. (New York: Free Press, 1997), Daniel Wikler, “Can We Learn from Eugenics? Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (1999): 183-194; Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), Jonathan Glover. Choosing Children: Genes, Disability, and Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

24 Joan Rothschild, Dream of the Perfect Child (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 3-4.

25 Mark Leach, “A Eugenics Common Sense?.” Public Discourse, July 31, 2012,

26 ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 77: screening for fetal chromosomal abnormalities. Obstetrics and Gynecology 109, 1 (2007): 217-27; Deborah A. Driscoll and Susan J. Gross, “First Trimester Diagnosis and Screening for Fetal Aneuploidy,” Genetics in Medicine 10, 1 (2008): 73-75.

27 M. Allyse, M.A. Minear, E. Berson et al. “Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing: A Review of International Implementation and Challenges,” International Journal of Women’s Health 7 (2015): 113–126; J. Mozersky, V. Ravitsky, R, Rapp, M. Michie, S. Chandrasekharan, and M. Allyse, “Toward an Ethically Sensitive Implementation of Noninvasive Prenatal Screening in the Global Context,” Hastings Center Report 47, 2 (2017): 41-49. European Union regulations prohibit direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs but not genetic tests. For the current state of play in the EU and its member states see Louiza Kalokairinou, Pascal Borry, and Heidi Carmen Howard, “Regulating the advertising of genetic tests in Europe: a balancing act,” Journal of Medical Genetics. Published Online First. (22 July 2017). doi: 10.11361.

28 A. Agarwal, L.C. Sayres, M.K. Cho, R. Cook-Deegan, and S. Chandrasekharan, “Commercial landscape of noninvasive prenatal testing in the United States,” Prenatal Diagnosis 33 (2013): 521–531. doi:10.1002/pd.4101; P. Twiss, M. Hill, R. Daley, and L.S. Chitty, “Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing for Down Syndrome.” In Seminars in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine 19, 1: 9-14 (Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 2014).

29 Lisa Hui, et al. “Population-based impact of noninvasive prenatal screening on screening and diagnostic testing for fetal aneuploidy.” Genetics in Medicine (2017). Epub ahead of print.

30 Vardit Ravitsky, “Non-Invasive Prenatal Genetic Testing: Social and Ethical Challenges.” Panel on NIPT, Harvard Law School, 6 November 6, 2014.

31 The McGovern and Prentice quotes are from Celeste McGovern, “New Prenatal Testing Could Drastically Increase Abortion Rate,” National Catholic Register, June 25, 2012. Cardinal Schönborn is quoted in Johannes Bucher, “New Prenatal Test Will Bring Eugenics Back to Germany,” Human Life International (2012),

32 In 2012, Down Syndrome International, a federation of 30 organizations from 16 countries, filed an objection to the sale of the PrenaTest at the European Court of Human Rights. The filing argued that since most pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome are terminated, the test violates the right to life of individuals with that condition. In several countries that are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, disability-rights groups have invoked the convention to try to change policy that they believe favors disability-selective abortion.

33 Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing,” 228.

34 For the text of the Act:

35 For a list, see “Pro-Information Laws & Toolkit,” National Down Syndrome Society.

36 Nancy McCrae Iannone, “Keep Abortion Politics Out of the Pro-Information Movement,” June 21, 2014:; David M. Perry, “Faux-Information: Indiana and the Collapse of the Pro-Information Coalition,” Jan. 19, 2015:; Mark W. Leach, “Pro-life should not hijack pro-information,” Jan. 21, 2015:; Mark W. Leach ,”The Down Syndrome Information Act: Balancing the Advances of Prenatal Testing Through Public Policy,” Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” 54 (2016): 84-93.

37 David M Perry, “Anti-Women, Anti-Information: Indiana abortion bill advances,” Feb. 21, 2015.

38 Kate Sheppard, “House GOP’s ‘Prenatal Non-Discrimination’ Bill Fails,” May 31, 2017. (For the current bill:

39 Sital Kilantry, “Here’s Why that Race-Sex Selection Bill is so Discriminatory,” We•news, April 19, 2016,

40 Quoted in Joseph Guzman, Cronkite News, “Glendale congressman hopeful for ‘born alive’ abortion bill with Trump in White House,” Arizona Republic,” Jan. 26, 2017.

41 Sheppard, “House GOP’s ‘Prenatal Non-Discrimination’ Bill Fails.”

42 Abortion Bans in Cases of Race or Sex Selection or Genetic Anomaly [As of June 1, 2017]. Guttmacher Institute.; Kilantry, “Here’s Why.”

43 Olga Khazan, “Planning the End of Abortion,” The Atlantic, July 16, 2015:

44 Willoughby Mariano, “Cain claims Planned Parenthood founded for ‘planned genocide,’” PolitiFact Georgia, March 15, 2011,

45 Quoted in Kalantry, “Here’s Why that Race-Sex Selection Bill is so Discriminatory.”

46 On the eugenic abortion exception pre-Roe, see Charles P. Kindregan, “Eugenic Abortion,” Suffolk University Law Review (1972) 6: 405-60 (1972), on p. 405, note 2; see also pp. 421-23 on the wording of these laws. On the passage of post-Roe laws allowing late-term abortion for fetal anomaly, see Rebouché, “Non-Invasive Testing,” 232.

47 “Infants’ Protection Project,” Americans United for Life,

48 Dan Vergano, “8 Ways Trump’s VP Pick Made Indiana An Extreme Anti-Abortion State, “Buzzfeed News (Oct. 19, 2016). The quotation appeared in a comment by Todd Zwillich. On Pence’s anti-abortion efforts see also Monica Davey and Michael Barbaro, “How Mike Pence Became a Conservative Hero: Unwavering Opposition to Abortion,” New York Times, July 16, 2016.

#First100Days Crash Course: Week 11

Coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in Office — a period of time historically used as a benchmark to measure the potential of a new president — PRA will share readings, videos, and tools for organizing to inform our collective resistance based on principles for engaging the regime, defending human rights, and preventing authoritarianism. Daily readings will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and archived HERE.

Week 11: Reproductive justice

The more recent trend in anti-reproductive justice attacks is a state-by-state approach designed to gradually chip away at existing rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the 40+ years since Roe v. Wade, states have enacted over 1,000 abortion restrictions. These laws and policies have expanded requirements for parental involvement and abortion counseling, and apply limits to medication abortions, later abortions, and coverage requirements from private insurance companies. Other strategies, such as the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), effectively manipulate the language of equality and exploit negative stereotypes about women of color in order to advance their agenda. Additionally, the Right’s redefinition of religious liberty — as exemplified in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling — represents a serious threat to reproductive justice and civil liberties more broadly.

Featured resources:

Additional Readings:


The National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund has developed the Queering Reproductive Justice toolkit to support the integration of repro* and LGBTQ advocacy. The toolkit aims to help advocates understand the intersection and allow them to better reflect and serve the repro* needs of LGBTQ people.

Whole Woman’s Health’s Unexpected Win for Science

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In June 2016, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-abortion TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law that threatened to shutter all but a handful of the state’s clinics by requiring them to meet costly ambulatory surgical center standards and for their doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals.

The law, known as Texas Senate Bill 5, was an example of how the anti-abortion movement has used false scientific claims to incrementally cut off abortion rights. Americans United for Life (AUL), a “bill mill” that provides anti-abortion model legislation for conservative lawmakers,1)Erica Hellerstein, “Inside The Highly Sophisticated Group That’s Quietly Making It Much Harder To Get An Abortion,” Think Progress, December 2, 2014, available at: recommends these restrictions under the guise of its “Women’s Protection Project,” which deploys false claims about women’s health to enact medically unnecessary regulatory obstacles that force many clinics to close.2)Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: (Meeting detailed ambulatory surgical standards, for instance, would require prohibitively expensive renovations for most reproductive health clinics without improving quality of care. And requiring hospital admitting privileges presents a particularly absurd catch-22, since some hospitals only grant privileges to doctors regularly needing to hospitalize patients—a rarity for abortion providers.3)American Civil Liberties Union, “TRAP FAQ Fact Sheet,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: ) This has been an effective tactic; by the time of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling, at least 18 clinics in Texas had closed due to the law’s requirements.4)Brittney Martin, “Abortion down 14 percent in Texas since new restrictions closed clinics,” accessed October 17, 2016, available at:

Prior SCOTUS decisions upholding abortion restrictions deterred advocates from attempting legal challenges to much of the legislation chipping away at reproductive rights. But this time, the Supreme Court delivered a significant victory. Writing the majority opinion in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the lower court’s argument “that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty,” such as whether Texas’ restrictions were medically warranted. Ironically, Breyer’s opinion built on case law established by a prior ruling that upheld restrictions on abortion access, but which also established that the “Court retains an independent constitutional duty to review factual findings where constitutional rights are at stake.”5)Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, June 27, 2016, available at:

Beyond protecting the rights of Texas women, with this ruling Breyer established a new standard: no longer would the courts turn a blind eye while conservative state legislators use junk science and specious claims about women’s health to circumvent the prohibition enshrined in Roe v. Wade on creating an “undue burden” to abortion access.

The ruling established a new standard: no longer would the courts turn a blind eye while conservative state legislators use junk science and specious claims about women’s health to circumvent the prohibition enshrined in Roe v. Wade on creating an “undue burden” to abortion access.

It’s been a longstanding right-wing tactic to deploy false evidence to support TRAP laws such as the one at stake in Whole Woman’s Health, and to misleadingly claim that there is scientific uncertainty around an issue or procedure by putting forward its own dubious research. Writing for The Public Eye a decade ago, Pam Chamberlain concluded that advocates of “Biased, Agenda-Driven” science should be seen as “efficient cogs in the machinery that drives the current movement to limit women’s reproductive health and freedom.”6)Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda.” June 4, 2006, available at: Devoted to undermining medical evidence as “fraudulent,” anti-abortion scientists substitute their own discredited “facts”: for instance, the persistent claim that abortion causes breast cancer, which disregards the findings of multiple large-scale peer-reviewed studies and conclusions from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.7)Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield, “From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims,” July 13, 2016, available at:

This right-wing research almost never makes it into peer-reviewed journals that screen for flaws in methodology or analysis that yield biased results. For instance, the American Cancer Society details the methods of rigorous studies on abortion and breast cancer, explaining how factors such as recall bias, in which “women with breast cancer are more likely to accurately report their reproductive histories, including a history of having an abortion,” can produce the appearance of a link where none exists.8)American Cancer Society, “Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: In a rare case in which a study claiming a link between abortion and mental illness successfully passed itself off as legitimate, journal editors later discovered significant errors that led them to disavow the finding as unsupported by the data.9)Sharon Begley, “Journal disavows study touted by U.S. abortion foes.” March 7, 2012, available at: So when scientists talk about reaching “scientific consensus,” they mean findings supported by overwhelming agreement from peer-reviewed sources and experts—not from a proliferation of illegitimate, ideologically-driven studies.

But that’s not the way “science” is being used in making anti-abortion law. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) coined the incendiary nonmedical term “partial-birth” abortion to help pass a federal ban on a late-term procedure.10)Julie Rovner, “‘Partial-Birth Abortion:’ Separating Fact from Spin,” February 21, 2006, available at: The resulting 2003 Act asserted, “A moral, medical, and ethical consensus exists that the practice of performing a partial-birth abortion … is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.”11)Partial-Birth Abortion Act, Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: Reproductive rights advocates challenged the ban in Gonzales v. Carhart for denying access to a standard late-term abortion practice, intact dilation and extraction (intact D&E, also known as D&X) without an exception to protect women’s health.

Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

Rally in front of the Supreme Court during the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt hearing on March 2nd, 2016. Photo: Victoria Pickering via Flickr. License:

In explaining the Carhart decision, which upheld the ban, swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy assumed (admitting he lacked “reliable data”) that some women suffer regret and depression after abortion and would “struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound” upon learning details of the procedure. This concern suggests the influence of a popular piece of anti-abortion science, “Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome,” a condition not recognized by the American Psychological Association or American Psychiatric Association in which women are supposedly traumatized by regret.12)Susan A. Cohen, “Abortion and Mental Health: Myths and Realities.” Guttmacher Policy Review. August 1, 2006, available at: Kennedy further wrote, “There is documented medical disagreement [on] whether the Act’s prohibition would ever impose significant health risks on women…The Court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”13)Gonzales v. Carhart, April 18, 2007, available at:

However, as a press release from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pointed out at the time, this was not in fact an area of medical uncertainty. Rather, the release explained, “This decision discounts and disregards the medical consensus that intact D&E is safest and offers significant benefits for women suffering from certain conditions that make the potential complications of non-intact D&E especially dangerous.”14)The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “ACOG Statement on the US Supreme Court Decision Upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.” April 18, 2007, available at:

In affirming the unfounded argument offered by the ban’s defenders regarding “scientific uncertainty,” the Court set a disheartening precedent for reproductive rights advocates—and provided encouragement for anti-abortion advocates seeking to undermine the meaning of scientific uncertainty by stacking their own flawed studies against peer-reviewed research.

NRLC argued in a January 2015 memo that Carhart would support their new legislative focus, the “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” which again used nonmedical terminology to stir emotion while obfuscating the actual practice being restricted—dilation and evacuation, the non-intact D&E procedure that Carhart pointed to as a sufficient alternative.15)Mary Spaulding Balch, “Constitutionality of the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” January 2015, available at: The NRLC aims to appeal to Justice Kennedy’s apparent personal discomfort with abortion with this as well as another legislative focus: 20-week abortion bans that are based on an alleged fetal capacity for pain, despite medical evidence to the contrary.16)Amy Littlefield, “Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year,’” July 12, 2016, available at:

The recent decision in Whole Woman’s Health, though, breathes meaning back into science and cracks the foundation of the right-wing strategy of using manipulative, junk research. The ruling immediately thwarted efforts to maintain similar TRAP laws in Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin.17)Laurel Raymond, “The Texas SCOTUS Decision Is Already Toppling Other Abortion Restrictions,” June 28, 2016, available at: . In August, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), whose lawyer Stephanie Toti argued the Whole Woman’s Health case, threatened legal action if Texas enacts legislation based on a new AUL model bill that would require abortion providers to bury or cremate aborted fetuses. This measure is intended to raise clinic costs by claiming ludicrous public health risks (like HIV contamination of the water supply) and using manipulative rhetoric about fetal dignity.18)Teddy Wilson, “Texas’ ‘Fetal Remains’ Rule Could Draw Legal Action,” August 2, 2016, available at: A CRR press release stated: “the regulations offer no public health or safety benefit and therefore fly directly in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt.”19)Center for Reproductive Rights, “Center for Reproductive Rights Calls on Texas to Abandon Latest Unconstitutional Attempt to Restrict Safe, Legal Abortion,” August 2, 2016, available at: .

The Whole Woman’s Health decision and the reasoning given for it provided an energizing victory not just for reproductive rights and justice supporters, but more broadly for policy grounded in rigorous, evidence-based science. The Right relies on biased science in other areas as well, such as abstinence-only education or denying transgender rights. Whole Woman’s Health has already motivated lower courts to strike down voting restrictions that are based on “mostly phantom election fraud.”20)Mark Joseph Stern, “Voting Rights on the March,” August 1, 2016, available at: .

The impact of the assault on science goes beyond the courts and legislative arena to influence conservative movement mobilization as well. From the 72 percent of Republicans who deny human causes of climate change to the 40-odd percent of Americans who believe in creationism over evolution, the confident dismissal of reputable scientific sources is a core part of the U.S. right-wing identity today.21)Zach Kopplin, “ ‘I Believe in Science’ Should Not Be a Showstopper,” July 29, 2016, available at: . In studying the persistence of climate change doubt in the face of 97 percent scientific consensus,22)John Cook, et al. “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming,” April 13, 2016, available at: Yale University professor Dan Kahan found that “people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview.”23)Joel Achenbach, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” March 2015, available at:

Right-wing organizations can take advantage of this disposition by broadcasting misinformation suited to their agenda. For example, at the July 2016 NRLC convention, one workshop promised to expose the fraud behind “a cold, callous, commercial abortion and aborted baby parts trafficking chain”—an attack on Planned Parenthood, which was falsely portrayed as selling fetal tissue in manipulated footage released in 2015 by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group presenting itself as a legitimate medical watchdog organization.24)National Right to Life Committee, “Schedule NRLC 2016.” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at: (The workshop was led by Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of The Radiance Foundation, infamous for putting up billboards claiming that abortion is a form of “black genocide.”25)Malika Redmond, “Profiles on the Right: Ryan Bomberger.” September 12, 2013, available at: .)

Planned Parenthood protest in Washington, D.C. Photo: American Life League via Flickr. License:

Planned Parenthood protest in Washington, D.C. Photo: American Life League via Flickr. License:

These approaches may be based on fabrications, but they serve their function well: energizing believers and providing an enemy—the “fraudulent” scientific establishment—to rally against. And sometimes, a justification to go further. As former PRA analyst Chip Berlet has written, “coded” rhetoric in which leaders rely on demonization and conspiracy theories often helps incite “scripted violence,” where leaders can engender a violent response from followers without technically calling for an attack.26)Chip Berlet, “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” 2014, in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1954. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag; “Toxic to Democracy,”; “What is Demonization,” . When violence occurs, the broader movement can dismiss the perpetrator as mentally disturbed or a lone wolf. (Some commenters have referred to this psychological phenomenon as “stochastic terrorism.”27)David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” August 9, 2016, available at: .)

Although multiple Republican-led investigations of Planned Parenthood following the “fetal tissue” videos failed to yield evidence of wrongdoing (and one actually indicted the video producers instead), blockades, threats, and violence targeting abortion providers increased.28)Charlotte Alter, “T here Was a Dramatic Spike in Threats Against Abortion Providers After the Planned Parenthood Videos,” April 5, 2016, available at: . In November 2015, three people were fatally shot at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.29)Carol Joffe, “Anti-Choice Violence: Why Colorado Springs Is Different.” December 2, 2016, available at: . The confessed shooter stated his belief that Planned Parenthood sold “baby parts” as motivating the attack.30)Matt Vasilogambros, “What the Planned Parenthood Shooter Wanted,” April 12, 2016, available at: .

These attacks demonstrate the uniquely dangerous confluence of false science and coded rhetoric in the movement against abortion rights. Illegitimate science has provided an effective tool to conservatives in blocking vital policy initiatives—even life-saving policies at a global scale, as with climate change. In addition to endangering women’s health by abridging reproductive rights, the tenor of anti-abortion science creates a further hazard of imminent violence against reproductive health providers and bystanders.

Despite Whole Woman’s Health’s stand for scientific integrity, the Right won’t readily abandon a strategy that’s long helped it mobilize supporters and pass legislation. Anti-abortion advocates hold out hope that many restrictions will continue to pass constitutional muster and tout the importance of the next Supreme Court nominee. Meanwhile, AUL and NRLC continue to offer a large repertoire of model bills based on junk science,31)Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: . from the 20-week “fetal pain” bans, to requiring doctors to read scripts fabricating risks from abortions, to banning telemedicine services for rural areas only for abortion and not other medical care.32)National Right to Life Committee, “Webcam Abortion Bans,” July 7, 2016, available at: . Until they’re brought under court scrutiny, laws undermining reproductive rights based on misinformation and fraudulent science will stand across the country.

About the Author

Alex DiBranco is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale, studying the U.S. New Right. She was formerly PRA’s Communications Director and has written for outlets such as Alternet, The Nation, and

References   [ + ]

1. Erica Hellerstein, “Inside The Highly Sophisticated Group That’s Quietly Making It Much Harder To Get An Abortion,” Think Progress, December 2, 2014, available at:
2. Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
3. American Civil Liberties Union, “TRAP FAQ Fact Sheet,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
4. Brittney Martin, “Abortion down 14 percent in Texas since new restrictions closed clinics,” accessed October 17, 2016, available at:
5. Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, June 27, 2016, available at:
6. Pam Chamberlain, “Politicized Science: How Anti-Abortion Myths Feed the Christian Right Agenda.” June 4, 2006, available at:
7. Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield, “From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims,” July 13, 2016, available at:
8. American Cancer Society, “Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
9. Sharon Begley, “Journal disavows study touted by U.S. abortion foes.” March 7, 2012, available at:
10. Julie Rovner, “‘Partial-Birth Abortion:’ Separating Fact from Spin,” February 21, 2006, available at:
11. Partial-Birth Abortion Act, Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
12. Susan A. Cohen, “Abortion and Mental Health: Myths and Realities.” Guttmacher Policy Review. August 1, 2006, available at:
13. Gonzales v. Carhart, April 18, 2007, available at:
14. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “ACOG Statement on the US Supreme Court Decision Upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.” April 18, 2007, available at:
15. Mary Spaulding Balch, “Constitutionality of the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act,” January 2015, available at:
16. Amy Littlefield, “Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year,’” July 12, 2016, available at:
17. Laurel Raymond, “The Texas SCOTUS Decision Is Already Toppling Other Abortion Restrictions,” June 28, 2016, available at: .
18. Teddy Wilson, “Texas’ ‘Fetal Remains’ Rule Could Draw Legal Action,” August 2, 2016, available at:
19. Center for Reproductive Rights, “Center for Reproductive Rights Calls on Texas to Abandon Latest Unconstitutional Attempt to Restrict Safe, Legal Abortion,” August 2, 2016, available at: .
20. Mark Joseph Stern, “Voting Rights on the March,” August 1, 2016, available at: .
21. Zach Kopplin, “ ‘I Believe in Science’ Should Not Be a Showstopper,” July 29, 2016, available at: .
22. John Cook, et al. “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming,” April 13, 2016, available at:
23. Joel Achenbach, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” March 2015, available at:
24. National Right to Life Committee, “Schedule NRLC 2016.” Accessed August 26, 2016, available at:
25. Malika Redmond, “Profiles on the Right: Ryan Bomberger.” September 12, 2013, available at: .
26. Chip Berlet, “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” 2014, in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1954. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag; “Toxic to Democracy,”; “What is Demonization,” .
27. David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” August 9, 2016, available at: .
28. Charlotte Alter, “T here Was a Dramatic Spike in Threats Against Abortion Providers After the Planned Parenthood Videos,” April 5, 2016, available at: .
29. Carol Joffe, “Anti-Choice Violence: Why Colorado Springs Is Different.” December 2, 2016, available at: .
30. Matt Vasilogambros, “What the Planned Parenthood Shooter Wanted,” April 12, 2016, available at: .
31. Americans United for Life, “Defending Life 2016,” accessed August 26, 2016, available at: .
32. National Right to Life Committee, “Webcam Abortion Bans,” July 7, 2016, available at: .

Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege

Co-authored by Jean Hardisty

Jean Hardisty is Executive Director of Political Research Associates.

A woman’s ability to control her reproductive decisions- her reproductive rights- involves more than her right to safe and legal abortion. Reproductive rights encompass the right to bear and raise children, the right to access adequate reproductive health care, and the right to prevent pregnancy or terminate an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. In the almost thirty years since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, much of the public’s attention has been absorbed with the struggle over the right to abortion. The US political right wing has played a central role in that struggle, with nearly every right-wing politician promising a “litmus test” of opposition to abortion for government and judicial appointments. But the right’s attack on women’s reproductive rights goes far beyond its attack on the right to abortion. The same political forces that work to deny women access to abortion and birth control often simultaneously work to deny women their full range of reproductive rights.

Nevertheless, the centerpiece of the right’s attack is the abortion issue. Abortion is not simply a medical procedure or a moral question. It is a political issue that will never go away. Its supporters and foes are locked in an ever-changing struggle. In the 1990s, that struggle became more violent. Abortion rights activists, always demonized and threatened by anti-abortion activists, now actually fear for their safety. What is the make-up of the anti-abortion movement, how does it relate to the larger attack on reproductive rights, and how can women expect their rights to be attacked in the future?

The Right’s Attack on Choice

The anti-abortion movement was active in this country long before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision provoked its revitalization. But prompted by that decision, the movement shifted into high gear, gaining greater prominence and experiencing a dramatic jump in membership. In addition to its enormous influence within the arena of reproductive rights in the US, the effort to prohibit abortion played a crucial role in the emergence of the New Right at the end of the 1970s. The New Right used the abortion issue to recruit members to its larger agenda. Reaching out to virtually every sector within the anti-abortion movement, the New Right’s leaders argued that their family values agenda would restore the country to an imagined earlier period of morality and virtue.

The anti-abortion movement’s membership is largely made up of conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. Some of these conservative Christians are also members of the larger Christian Right, which has become a political powerhouse since being nurtured by the New Right to become politically active. The Christian Right now wields considerable power within the electoral right in this country. Because Christian Right activists are uncompromisingly anti-abortion, the anti-abortion movement benefits from the Christian Right’s political strength.

While the anti-abortion movement is part of the right today, the right does not “own” the anti-abortion movement. Nor does the Catholic Church. In fact, the anti-choice movement is made up of a number of competing sectors, each often accountable only to itself. Adherents of the sectors range from conservativeRoman Catholic traditionalists to members of far right paramilitary organizations. The sectors’ diversity can be confusing to pro-choice activists, who often assume that the movement is uniform in its beliefs and political strategies.

Loosely defined, the sectors of the anti-abortion movement are: conservative Catholics and the official Catholic Church establishment; conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants; hard right paramilitary formations, which are often, but not always, openly white supremacist and/or anti-Semitic. A small anti-choice constituency comes from more progressive, evangelical religious organizations.1 While many anti-abortion activities are affiliated with one or more of these sectors, many people who oppose abortion are not affiliated with any formal anti-choice organization. The three dominant sectors of the anti-abortion movement are usually in some relationship with the right. The sectors themselves have porous and imprecise boundaries. Some anti-abortion activists “travel” from sector to sector, and the sectors themselves change over time. The sectors often disagree with each other and occasionally there is realignment, as those disagreements cleave a sector and cause some of its adherents to change their views.

Often anti-abortion activists respond to political defeats by becoming more extreme and more rigid in their ideology and actions. Within the movement, they often compete for dominance. Internal disagreements can create the impression that the anti-abortion movement holds contradictory and incompatible views. Visualizing the anti-abortion movement as composed of various sectors helps explain differences of opinion within the movement and the coexistence within it of very different tactics for effecting change. Pro-choice activists need to understand the complexity that exists within the anti-abortion movement when they find themselves dealing with different types of opposition.

The sectors are tied together by shared political and religious principles, which emphasize the “morality” of what they call “traditional family values,” the evil of “godless” secular humanism, and the necessity for “personal responsibility.” These common elements make up the worldview of many within the anti-abortion movement.

Beyond this shared worldview, the leaders and strategists of the movement construct ways of presenting abortion to the public (“framing” the issue) that are intended to capture public opinion and turn it against women who have abortions or medical providers who provide abortions. The various movement sectors often “frame” abortion differently, each attempting to mold the public’s understanding of abortion in order to reinforce its own position. A successful “frame” convincingly connects with and manipulates public opinion on the issue. If the sector presents its position in ways that capture the public’s imagination, resonates with widely held beliefs, and/or teaches people a new way to see the issue, it has created a powerful “frame.”

The effort to prohibit abortion played a crucial role in the emergence of the New Right at the end of the 1970s. The New Right used the abortion issue to recruit members to its larger agenda.

Sometimes the political “frame” promoted by the anti-abortion movement is meant to deceive the public. For instance, the anti-abortion movement would have us believe that it is simply anti-abortion; in reality, it is more broadly a movement that opposes reproductive rights, since it seeks not only to eradicate abortion, but to limit or prohibit other reproductive decisions by women. It is important for pro-choice activists to understand the larger agenda of the anti-abortion movement, and to see it for the broad-based attack on reproductive rights that it is.

Early Alignments

The formation of anti-abortion sectors developed over time. Their roots stretch back to the earliest organized resistance to abortion in this country, when physicians reacted to unregulated abortion practitioners in the 19th century. In 1847, doctors created the American Medical Association to delegitimize their non-licensed competition (who were often midwives and/or successful businesswomen) and retain control over gynecology. They claimed that the widespread practice of abortion was dangerous for women’s health.2 Throughout the early 20th century, many states passed legislation outlawing the practice of abortion at the state level. By 1967, it was illegal to obtain an abortion in any of the 50 states unless the life of the mother was threatened by her pregnancy.3

The 1960s

In the 1960s, when Catholics who were engaged in social justice work and feminist activism increasingly challenged the Church’s prohibition against abortion, the Catholic Church responded with a reassertion of its long-standing condemnation of abortion, along with contraception, extra-marital sex, and homosexuality. Throughout the 1960s, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States organized against birth control. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) was founded in 1966 to condemn government support of contraception.

The 1970s

In the 1970s, state-level abortion reform laws and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision provoked intense anti-abortion organizing. The Catholic Church augmented its existing institutional infrastructure by using the Bishops’ organization to work directly against abortion. In 1973, NCCB’s Pro-Family Division formed the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Recognizing the great potential for organizing, the NRLC and its elaborate structure of state and local affiliates used parishes and pulpits to recruit members to their ranks and to influence legislation.

After the Roe decision, “pro-life” advocates saw that they were on the defensive and recognized the impossibility of overturning the decision with the then-current makeup of the US Supreme Court. And the Court would not change without a sufficiently conservative President. Other approaches were necessary. For the next nine years, the NRLC focused on Congress in an unsuccessful attempt to re-criminalize abortion through a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution.

American Catholics were used to hearing their priests encouraging them to vote based on their religious principles, but it soon became clear that a mass anti-abortion movement could not be built with Catholics alone. For one thing, many American Catholics no longer agreed with their church leadership’s positions on reproductive health issues. And the leadership wasn’t about to budge in its dogmatic stance in order to win new recruits. The movement needed other sources of membership.

Evangelical Protestants began to emerge as a prominent social and political force in the 1970s. As church membership in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian congregations grew substantially in this decade, New Right strategists including Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie took careful notice. The New Right of the late 1970s was crafted by its strategists to carry its agenda in large part through a revitalization of the Republican Party. But it needed mass numbers of new voters willing to support its issues, and it needed a cause that could attract some former Democrats. Christian fundamentalists had largely retreated from the political arena after the embarrassment of the Scopes creationist trail and the failure of Prohibition. The strategists’ challenge was to convince these individuals to vote again. The 1976 election of Jimmy Carter – the country’s first born-again President – primed the pump.

Weyrich and Viguerie recruited Jerry Falwell, the successful Lynchburg, Virginia preacher who was busy building a national televangelist empire with adjunct services.4 Together, in 1979, they created the Moral Majority, a group designed to mobilize conservative Christians to become politically active. They sought and received support from Focus on the Family, another burgeoning organization founded in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist and Christian family counselor. Abortion proved to be a powerful lightning rod that attracted members to these groups, which in turn formed the core of the Christian Right. The New Right thus mobilized an arm, the Christian Right, that was intended to lure both Protestants and Catholic voters away from their traditionally Democratic leanings.5

An influential married team, J.C. and Barbara Willke, marriage counselors and Catholic Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.28.45 PMsex educators, were recruited into the work by Catholic anti-abortion militant Father Paul Marx, the founder of Human Life International. The Willkes knew the power of visual aids from their sex education work, and their gruesome 1971 set of photos and illustrations of aborted fetuses circulate widely to this day. They are often used in clinic protests or in educational sessions to recruit new members.6 Originally designed as deterrents for women considering an abortion, these pictures also function as motivation for highly charged emotional reactions to abortion and appear to contribute to violent anti-abortion activity. John Salvi, the killer in the December 1994 Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings, was among those who distributed them.7

The 1980s

Ronald Reagan’s election as President in 1980 was an enormous boon to the anti-abortion movement, but Reagan proved reluctant to be publicly wedded to anti-abortion forces because he saw the issue as too divisive and explosive to be politically wise. Though Reagan himself was a true believer, he did not prioritize abortion as uncompromisingly as his New Right supporters expected. He did, however, appoint avid anti-abortion activists to positions within his administrative bureaucracy and issued executive decisions hidden in his administration’s bureaucracy.8 These anti-abortion appointments included the heads of the Federal Office of Personnel Management and the Centers for Disease Control, the Surgeon General, and members of the White House Staff. The work of Reagan appointees sympathetic to the pro-life position and nested within the Executive branch resulted in setbacks to abortion rights such as removal of insurance coverage for abortion costs from federal employees’ benefits and the elimination of Planned Parenthood from the payroll deduction plan for federal charitable giving.

New Right strategists recognized that the Reagan Administration presented an opportunity to change the political balance of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Reagan moved Justice William Rehnquist up to the position of Chief Justice in 1986, and Antonin Scalia filled his slot. Both are anti-abortion. Reagan’s second nomination for a Supreme Court seat, anti-choice candidate Anthony Kennedy, was also approved. (His nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, however, was more troublesome to anti-choice watchdogs, since her record as an Arizona state representative had been mildly pro-choice, despite her personal opposition to abortion.) Reagan’s judicial appointments to the federal courts were consistently pro-life. Moreover, under him, the process for appointing federal judges changed, and powerful Republican leaders like Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) helped control the flow of pro-life nominations. As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thurmond shortened the review periods, increased the number of hearings per day, making it more difficult for Democrats to challenge nominees.9

But it was advisors close to Reagan, like Chief of Staff Patrick Buchanan, who inserted multiple anti-choice strategies into the everyday decision-making at the White House, from scrutiny of family planning programs in the US and abroad to strategizing ways to deny access to abortion. Bureaucratic moves such as these did more than appease pro-life forces in Washington. It gave their members a sense of empowerment and helped to craft anti-choice positions as the New Right litmus test.

Blockbuster groups helped swell the ranks of the New Right. Christian Right organizations such as Focus on the Family grew enormously in the decade following Roe, thanks in part to the popularity of the “family-oriented” themes the New Right showcased. The frame of “traditional family values” was a wise choice because it described the challenge of modern life in terms that reassured many conservative Christians. The “ills befalling our culture” were reduced to a simple target- straying from God, or secular humanism.

The New Right’s agenda was broader than abortion, but its web of issues was entirely compatible with an anti-choice world view. Conservative Christian definitions of the family and its traditional values were fast becoming household topics. A strong heterosexual, nuclear family, according to conservative Christians, will protect its members from outside corruption. Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority, explains that the purpose of such families is to “insulate the Christian home against all evil forces.”10

In the decade after Roe, the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and other well-funded multi-issue national organizations joined single-issue groups like the National Right to Life Committee and its Life Amendment Political Action Committee (LAPAC) in their fight to eradicate abortion. LAPAC was created in 1977 to persuade Congress to pass a Human Life Amendment to the US Constitution. Because the work of these mainstream pro-life organizations resulted in only torturously slow progress toward their goal of banning all abortions, more extremist pro-life organizations grew bolder and began to advance a different sort of program. Their committed, charismatic leaders were impatient with failed attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade and were itching to try something else. Some of these leaders share with their less radical associates a fundamental agreement on the importance of pro-life activism.

Timothy and Beverly LaHaye came to pro-life work through their Baptist marriage counseling company, Family Life Seminars. Tim, another invitee at the founding of the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell, had been prominent on the right since the 1970s through the authorship of best selling non-fiction Christian titles and in the 1990s gained new celebrity co-authoring apocalyptic novels. His wife Beverly was the founder in 1979 of Concerned Women for America, the premier Christian anti-feminist women’s organization. They both are Christian theocrats, believing that the United States should be governed by biblical law.

Some individual leaders were dissatisfied with the strategies of the New Right’s leadership. They struck out on their own, creating somewhat free-standing groups focussed exclusively on ending abortion. Chicago-based Joseph Scheidler founded the Pro-Life Action League in 1980 after being ousted from other pro-life groups for his resistance to compromise. A master of public relations and a former journalism professor, Scheidler knew how to draw mainstream media attention. In 1985, he published a provocative tract,Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, in which he suggested that civil disobedience, harassment, and militant direct action were justified interventions where abortion was concerned. Scheidler argued that because the act of abortion was murder, it must be prevented at all costs.

Perhaps more important, Scheidler influenced other confrontational pro-lifers like the founder of Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, and his successor, Flip Benham. Rochester-born Terry, “born-again” at seventeen and a graduate of Elim Bible Institute, began his Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.38.34 PMabortion clinic protests alongside his wife in 1983 when he was in his early 20’s. Twelve years older than Terry, Benham was a bar owner before his conversion in 1976. After a stint as an evangelical pastor, he founded Operation Rescue Dallas/Fort Worth in 1988 and succeeded Terry in the National Director’s slot in 1994.

Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, founded in 1989, the same year the Moral Majority disbanded, also shared the right’s vision. The Christian Coalition was to rise to prominence under its first executive director, the charismatic Ralph Reed, Jr. Robertson’s explicit goal was to “give Christians a voice in government.” These mass movement organizations were determined in their campaigns to send Christians to the polls. Robertson’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 had given him national prominence and a platform for his erratic conservative Christian views.

The 1990s

During the 1990s, the anti-choice movement continued its campaign to erode abortion rights for women. Frustrated in its larger goal of eliminating abortion, the movement became more militant and increasingly resorted to violence. Far right white supremacist and neo-Nazi individuals publicly joined forces with anti-choice militants. The far right’s ideological agenda addresses women’s reproductive rights in a variety of ways. White supremacist, white separatist, and neo-Nazi organizations attract members who may hold pro-life beliefs and attitudes. But central to their worldview is a belief in the absolute nature of race and the genetic superiority of a white race over its perceived enemies- Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, and gays. Groups such as White Aryan Resistance, Aryan Nations, and the Ku Klux Klan believe that the increased number of people of color in this country threatens to diminish the power of whites. So, they may oppose abortion among whites as a form of “racial genocide” while advocating the use of abortion as a way to control the birthrate of people of color.

Evidence exists linking individuals who commit arson, bombing and murder against abortion providers with the KKK, the Christian Patriot movement and other far right ideologies such as Christian Identity.

However, public advocacy of abortion for women of color might alienate potential far right supporters who oppose all abortion. For many in the far right, selective abortion as a tool of eugenics might be acceptable on pragmatic grounds, but abortion should be discouraged as a practice, not only because it is immoral, but because it is politically unwise. For instance, David Duke- ex-KKK leader, anti-Semite, and white supremacist- has avoided openly advocating abortion for women of color by focusing more generally on the “taxpayer subsidy of massive welfare-financed illegitimate birthrates.”11

Other leaders emerged who were not far right but whose “pro-life” activism became more militant and hard core. Mark Crutcher is an example of an activist who turned to more Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.43.59 PMextreme tactics. As president of the Texas-based Life Dynamics, Inc., Crutcher’s focus has shifted from simple harassment strategies, such as encouraging his allies to call clinics and tie up their toll-free phone lines, to a more elaborate set of tactics, which he calls “a guerrilla strategy for a pro-life America.”12 These more extreme activities attempt to limit the accessibility of abortions by decreasing the number of doctors who perform the procedure. His tactics are shameless attempts at disinformation. For instance, Crutcher uses crude jokes in direct mail campaigns to medical students and new doctors in order to convince them of the low status of “abortionists.”13 He claims abortion providers engage in a black market trade of fetal body parts. But his most sophisticated activism is his traveling seminar, in which his staff trains lawyers in the details of successful medical malpractice suits against abortion providers.

Collaboration between far right groups and pro-life activists has apparently produced some of the more violent anti-abortion acts. Evidence exists linking individuals who commit arson, bombing and murder against abortion providers with the KKK, the Christian Patriot movement and other far right ideologies such as Christian Identitya loose configuration of theologically-oriented white supremacist groups.14

The Importance of the Political “Framing” of Abortion

Both leaders and strategists on the right skillfully manipulate their language and the images they use to create the context for their public education or framing of the debate. How activists who are anti-abortion frame the issue can affect whether or not people are attracted to their cause. But a frame that attracts some followers can simultaneously repel others. Some abortion-related concepts used by organizations on the right alternately unify, splinter or expand their ranks. It is useful to understand how the right constructs these ideas and uses them to attract and maintain members.

In the case of conservative Christians¾ especially conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics¾ a strict interpretation of the Bible or church dogma often drives their opposition to abortion. Many of these individuals have been influenced by the political messages of New Right strategists like Paul Weyrich , Richard Vigurie, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Beverly and Tim LaHaye, who frame the issue as one of morality. By using such a powerfully positive concept, anti-abortion strategists move people to act, whether through mainstream legislative work or more radical direct action. This device also places pro-choice activists — their opponents — outside the frame of morality, objectifying them as “other” in the eyes of anti-choice activists.

The more militant sectors of the anti-abortion movement, such as Flip Benham’s Operation Rescue, Mark Crutcher’s Life Dynamics and Joseph Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League, reflect the influence of the ultra-conservative Christian belief that the United States should be governed by “biblical law.” These theocraticChristians frame abortion as murder and justify civil disobedience and other law-breaking activities as answering to a higher moral code than the US judicial system. Their frame of the issue opens the door to a frightening range of demonizing and coercive actions in the name of saving lives.

Most single-issue anti-abortion organizations associated with the New Right address abortion as separate from other reproductive rights issues such as contraception, women’s health care, and access to sexuality education. Groups like the National Right to Life Committee, the Pro-Life Action League, and The American Life League resist making connections with other aspects of the right’s agenda for fear of losing members or diluting the potency of their own message. Evangelical Protestants will sometimes “stray” from a single-issue focus on abortion by repeatedly referring in their literature to infanticide, euthanasia, and murder. The list strategically moves abortion beyond the narrower debate over the “morality” of abortion to associate its practice with a violation of “the sanctity of human life.” It is no coincidence that this precise list consistently appears in various materials published by these groups and their supporters.

Language has always played a key role in the process of framing. Abortion opponents began to describe themselves as “pro-life,” to distinguish their position from what they described as abortion activists’ “culture of death.” This choice of language helps position the anti-abortion movement as a force for something positive, not simply as an opposition movement. In this frame, euthanasia and infanticide become symbols of the type of heinous acts that a pro-life worldview must reject.

Rather than use scientific descriptions such as fetus or embryo, many pro-life advocates consistently use “baby,” “unborn baby,” “unborn child,” or even “pre-born child.”15 Such language makes it easier to claim that life begins at conception and reinforces the concept of the personhood of a fetus. It also makes the discussion more personal, especially to parents and women of childbearing age. And it can help an undecided pregnant woman to decide against abortion, since often women intending to bring a fetus to term refer to the fetus as a baby and feel conflict about destroying a child. In fact, much of the diction and rhetoric of abortion opponents blatantly exploit any moral ambiguity or conflicting emotions anyone may feel on the subject of abortion. Because the arguments are framed as absolute, they act as catalysts for self-doubt and uncertainty, with women as the primary target.

The frame of an anti-choice position is notable not just for what it includes but also for what is absent. Traditionally anti-abortion groups have avoided pitting the rights of the fetus against the rights of the mother, since to do so would acknowledge the validity of any argument for mother’s rights. By avoiding discussion about women’s rights altogether, this approach sidesteps the difficulties of resolving a competing rights struggle (between fetus and mother) and returns the ball of an untenable argument to the court of reproductive rights activists. Anti-abortion groups do this either by omitting references to the needs of the woman altogether or by trivializing the rights of pregnant women and women in general.

One of the most glaring, visual examples of this strategy is the 1984 pro-life documentary, “The Silent Scream,” which portrays an abortion through the subjective lens of ultrasound pictures of a dilation and curettage, a common abortion procedure. Although extremely disturbing to watch, the film (and its video, available on the Internet) is a skillful illustration of constructed anti-abortion rhetoric. Despite multiple references to the fetus and the abortion provider, there is no mention, and no image, of the woman undergoing the procedure. She is completely absent from the scene. The focus of the camera remains on the fetus and the narrator, Bernard Nathanson, a “reformed abortionist” and anti-choice spokesman.

This strategy of removing women and their rights and needs from the debate pulls the abortion discussion away from the reality of women’s lives. It thereby “erases” or makes invisible the basis for much of the pro-choice feminist position. It contributes to the general public’s feeling that no real dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice proponents can take place. Further it opens the door for people – especially anti-abortion activists-to see pro-choice activists as selfish or insensitive to the life or death issues associated with “fetal rights.” As medical technology advances the practice of fetal surgery and premature infant intensive care, we are experiencing more debate about the “legal rights of the fetus.”

Anti-abortion activists find fetal rights arguments useful tools in constructing an analysis that eliminates a woman’s own right to choose. Abortion opponents who argue that fetuses have rights are attempting to blur the legal distinctions between a fetus and an already born baby. A fetus’s status as a person, they argue, allows for litigation on its behalf. At the same time, by representing the fetus as vulnerable, fragile and unable to defend itself, these activists reinforce the rightness of people other than the mother to act on the fetus’s behalf, if they see her as not acting in its best interests. One important strength of the argument is that it appears secular and legal rather than religious.

But such an argument also appeals to fundamentalist Christians who, interpreting the Bible literally, often discount secular arguments and usually will reject scientific or legal arguments that are incompatible with their beliefs. Believing the fetus to have feelings and a personality — in essence to be a person — allows a spokesperson like James Dobson of Focus on the Family to condemn abortion as a sin, since it kills a creature of God.

The Right’s Misogyny

Pro-lifers’ often over-simplify their arguments. While they ground their arguments in scriptural interpretation and legal language, they make no reference to the social, economic or historical context of women’s lives that create the need for women’s reproductive freedom. This lack of context gives credibility to a debate about morality that ignores women’s reality. Many anti-abortion groups, both conservative Christian and secular, promote extremely traditional family structures and are explicitly anti-feminist. Most attribute women’s use of abortion to a so-called disintegration of traditional family values, the alleged promiscuity of poor women, permissiveness supposedly promoted by liberalism, and the secularization of American culture.

Mirroring a common practice by the right in general, anti-choice activists claim ownership of the debate on women’s issues. Although silent about women’s role in the process of abortion (where the focus is on the fetus), pro-life advocates aggressively categorize women who seek abortions as “selfish” or sinful, because they do not place the value of the fetus above themselves.

In this rigidly traditional vision of the family, a woman who describes her pregnancy as “unwanted” is refusing to accept her natural role as wife, mother, and childcare provider…and…(i)n this frame, it becomes legitimate to criticize, shame, and even demonize her. Such a worldview, which describes itself as “profamily,” is more accurately anti-woman.

“Traditional family values,” as defined by such spokespeople for the Christian Right as Gary Bauer or Jerry Falwell, rely on a willingness by both men and women to accept the sex roles inherent in a heterosexual, nuclear family. In this context, a woman must abstain from sex until marriage, marry, maintain a monogamous relationship with her husband, and willingly bear him children. Any diversion from this track – such as pre-marital or extra-marital sex, deciding on her own how many children to have, or living as a lesbian — is not only alien to the principles of a conservative evangelical Christian family, it is self-indulgent and sinful. A woman who refuses to place the needs of others (the fetus, in particular) ahead of her own is not making the sacrifices required of family members to maintain these principles.

The Christian Right considers social, economic, or for that matter any other reasons that may influence a woman’s thinking about her pregnancy as secondary to this principle of maintaining strict family traditions. In this rigidly traditional vision of the family, a woman who describes her pregnancy as “unwanted” is refusing to accept her natural role as wife, mother, and childcare provider. And any woman who lives, acts, or even thinks outside that prescribed role threatens such a system. In this frame, it becomes legitimate to criticize, shame, and even demonize her. Such a worldview, which describes itself as “profamily,” is more accurately anti-woman.16

While the Christian Right has correctly identified such “uppity women” and the feminist movement that supports them as threats to its traditional perspective, the more secular right also condemns women who renounce their traditional roles. In this case, it is not God who is being defied, but the needs of society for strong traditional families and adherence to sex roles as a necessary component of the family.17

Shifting Dominance

From the perspective of anti-abortion activists, the end of the 1980s saw only meager progress toward the goal of eliminating abortion, either within Congress or in the Supreme Court. The Human Life Amendment, intended to make abortion unconstitutional, had been defeated in 1983. In 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services technically upheld Roe, but it gave states the freedom to place restrictions on access to and choice about abortion. The decision demonstrated that while the Supreme Court had moved to the right, there were not enough votes to overturn Roe fully. Anti-abortion groups were dissatisfied with bureaucratic victories, including the appointment by President Ronald Reagan of pro-life C. Everett Koop as the Surgeon General. Although in 1980 the Supreme Court finally declared the Hyde Amendment constitutional, and Reagan’s staff issued a pro-life tract under his name,18 the prospects for eliminating a woman’s right to abortion at the federal level looked bleak.

Mainstream anti-choice leaders were frustrated, as were many of their members. Impatience seemed to breed further hostility and resentment against the apparent ineffectiveness, not only of Reagan and Bush, but of the pro-life movement. In repeated moves that were to be mirrored throughout the rest of the century, individuals began to defect from anti-abortion groups or were asked to leave by the group leaders when they voiced their willingness to engage in more militant tactics, including violence.

During the 1980s, non-violent groups headed by Catholic pacifists like John O’Keefe in Wahington, DC and Sam Lee in St. Louis started to lose members to fringe groups influenced by Scheidler’s Closed, 99 Ways to Stop Abortion and the Army of God Manual, an instruction book on how to use violence to end abortion. Occasional acts of violence, such as the kidnapping of Hector Zevallos, an abortion provider, outside of St. Louis in 1982, began a wave of violence directed at clinic staff that quickly escalated. Over 300 acts of violence occurred against clinics between January 1983 and March 1985. In his important book on the anti-abortion movement, researcher Dallas Blanchard documents the movement’s change “from polite to fiery protest.” He maintains that the movement’s disappointed expectations under the first Reagan/Bush Administration and members’ frustration with the lack of progress caused the shift in tone and action. Not until Reagan spoke out against the clinic violence did it abate temporarily.19

In 1987, Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue in a bid to replace Scheidler’s Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) with a more strident voice. Operation Rescue enjoyed four years of notoriety, while its charismatic leader engineered hundreds of sit-ins and clinic blockades Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.52.09 PMacross the country, taunting police to arrest protesters and receiving massive publicity. Rev. Jerry Falwell demonstrated his support for Operation Rescue’s tactics at a press conference in front of an Atlanta clinic protest in 1987. The height of Operation Rescue’s influence came in Wichita, Kansas when Pat Robertsonspoke at a 1991 rally attended by 25,000 pro-life supporters at the culmination of Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy.” As Terry began to sound more apocalyptic as well as more critical of other pro-life activists, he lost his hold on the organization. Operation Rescue declined as a force within the anti-abortion movement and, by Spring 1992, an Operation Rescue event in Buffalo attracted few protesters. Terry’s less skilled, but equally boisterous lieutenant, Flip Benham, became Operation Rescue’s head in 1994.

The anti-abortion movement was losing ground in public opinion as well. Approval of abortion rights grew substantially in the decade between the mid-60s to the mid-70s and then leveled off without significant overall change in either direction.20 Although pro-life advocates enlisted their own pollster (Richard Wirthlin who worked for Reagan as his adman and strategist at the White House) and elaborately distorted polling results,21 they could not increase their hard core support. Six to eight percent of respondents, a very small percentage of the US public, wanted to prohibit abortion under almost all circumstances. Hard core pro-choice advocates, on the other hand, who believed in a woman’s right to an abortion under almost all circumstances, hovered at about 32 percent. The remainder of Americans, about 60 percent, were willing to support abortion with some restrictions. After Roe and through most of the 1980s, anti-choice activity could not really budge these figures, and by 1990 support for the “pro-life” movement began to decline.22

Despite this appearance of failure, the anti-abortion movement has seriously eroded the reproductive rights of US women. One of the most significant losses resulted from the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funding for abortions, leaving poor women relying on Medicaid with no healthinsurance for the procedure. In order to receive abortion coverage, such women needed to live in states that fully fund Medicaid abortions with state money. Sixteen states currently use their own money to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions. This number has fluctuated over the years due both to state level court orders and to voluntary policy change. The Hyde Amendment, and its many incarnations, was the most visible of a series of successful anti-abortion initiatives in Congress. Despite prolonged debate over its constitutionality, it ultimately represented a major victory for anti-abortion forces.23 It is a painful reminder for poor women and their allies of the powerful impact that pro-life activity has unleashed at the federal level.

Restrictive anti-abortion laws passed by state legislatures across the country also have slowly and steadily eroded a woman’s right to abortion. One restriction, mandatory counseling for a pregnant woman seeking abortion, can create emotional trauma or intimidation. Waiting periods in which women are required to return to an abortion facility after waiting at least one day after their initial appointment place unfair emotional and financial burdens on rural and other women who must leave work and travel for treatment. Parental consent for minors, requiring one or both parents’ permission or a judge’s decision before an abortion on a minor can take place burdens adolescent women, especially those with potential violence at home, more than adults. In each case, pro-choice activists have had to mount a legal challenge to the state law, pursuing it to state Supreme courts and federal courts. The mixed rulings often resulted in additional loss of abortion access despite substantial pro-choice resources being spent on the defense of a women’s right to choose.

The Hyde Amendment, and its many incarnations…is a painful reminder for poor women and their allies of the powerful impact that pro-life activity has unleashed at the federal level.

As early as the late 1970s, the anti-abortion movement had created “counseling centers” that offered pregnancy tests, then showed women videos and offered “advice” designed to dissuade them from having abortions. Over time, the use of deceptive advertising became a standard feature at these “clinics.” Women went to them expecting to receive health care and genuine counseling concerning their crisis pregnancy, only to find that they were exposed to violent and distorted representations of the moral, psychological, and medical effects of abortion.

During the late 1980s and through the 1990s the right has tried to curtail sexuality education in American public schools. At a time of increased awareness and a need for accurate and thorough information about pregnancy, sexual development, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, a well-funded campaign exists to replace comprehensive sexuality education with abstinence-only curricula in schools.

Proponents of abstinence-only curricula reflect the larger anti-choice movement’s strategies: claim moral superiority to your opponents; misrepresent the truth behind your own claims and those of the opposition; and attempt to use legislation and public funds to codify the favored position in law and practice.

Any comprehensive sexuality education program stresses abstinence as a necessary part of pregnancyand disease prevention, but supporters of abstinence-only materials insist that their approach is the onlyeffective method. Abstinence-only approaches to sexuality education have been criticized as religious-based and sternly moralistic. In addition, abstinence-only curricula omit essential information needed by young people and distort other material in an attempt to frighten them away from pre-marital sex and abortion. Multiple abstinence-only curricula are now marketed as part of a campaign by various sectors of the right to require their use in public schools.24 Congress has already earmarked $50 million per year through 2002 for the use of abstinence-only curricula, and many state legislatures have taken up bills that help appropriate matching funds and highlight local debate.

This effort may appear to be a series of grassroots efforts in local communities or educational programs based at universities, but local groups are actually coordinated at the national level by large, well-funded groups such as Focus on the Family, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Concerned Women for America, and the Christian Coalition.25 This effort is entirely consistent with the right’s larger crusade to control access to information and services related to reproductive rights. Because abstinence-only education focuses on adolescents and children, however, the right has used it as a parental rights issue, thereby claiming the right to control access to information about reproduction, as well as requiring parental consent for contraceptive or abortion services. Proponents of abstinence-only curricula reflect the larger anti-choice movement’s strategies: claim moral superiority to your opponents; misrepresent the truth behind your own claims and those of the opposition; and attempt to use legislation and public funds to codify the favored position in law and practice.


The 1990s saw a continuation of the anti-abortion violence of the 1980s. After a period of relative quiet at the end of the 1980s, the level of violent incidents escalated, including arson, bombings, butyric acid attacks, shootings, and murder. In the early 1990s, a series of shootings aimed at abortion providers shocked the country. Although the individuals who committed these actions appeared to be acting alone, they were familiar with the inflammatory rhetoric widely circulated among clinic protesters. Pamphlets such as the anonymously authored “Army of God Manual” and activist Michael Bray’s 1994 book, Time To Kill, encouraged protesters to respond to the “violence” of abortion with “appropriate” action. For instance, Operation Rescue’s motto became, “If you think abortion is murder, act like it.”

This apparent pattern of loners choosing violent tactics to express their anti-abortion sentiments reveals a familiar phenomenon in the development of hard right and far right activity. Individual zealots are driven by their beliefs to violence which they justify by direct or indirect reference to, and association with, movement theorists and leaders. But upon closer examination, those who appeared to have acted alone certainly had been involved in thinking, talking and reading with others.26

After the murder of Dr. David Gunn in 1993 by Michael Griffin, Attorney General Janet Reno initiated a federal investigation against what Clinton called “domestic terrorism,” and the Justice Department stepped into the fray. This was, however, nine years after the first clinic violence. Despite this investigation, a sniper killed another abortion provider, Dr. Bernard Slepian, in his Buffalo, New York home in October 1998 in what appeared to be part of a wave of anti-abortion violence in or near Canada. In January 1997, Neal Horsley created the infamous Nuremberg Files, an online list of abortion providers and information on their residences and families. Within hours of Slepian’s murder, his name had been crossed off Nuremberg Files list. Such clear incitement has not just created a debate about freedom of speech on the Internet; it has highlighted a switch from previous self-images of anti-choice murderers as martyrs to what Mark Crutcher has rightly identified as “guerrillas.”27

Other forms of harassment have developed as well. In addition to his focus on the medical community, Mark Crutcher has developed a malpractice lawsuit support program, which offers free help to lawyers and women interested in pursuing malpractice claims against abortion providers. Claiming to involve over 700 attorneys in their network, Life Dynamics actively encourages litigation that intentionally ties up the financial resources and time of abortion providers and provides its service free of charge. Its ultimate goal is to decrease access to abortion services as “the key to pro-life victory.”

During this period, the pro-choice women of the Republican Party were consistently silenced by the Party’s right wing, which increasingly controlled the content of Republican Party platforms at each Republican convention from the late 1970s on. As a result, uncompromising Republican platforms on abortion rights appeared to reflect the attitudes of all Republicans, but actually reflected the right’s agenda.28

Recent Trends

In the late 1990s, elements of the anti-abortion movement began to cultivate coalitions by linking issues with other segments of the right — a strategy with the potential to re-expand the movement’s ranks. They established new organizational associations with right-wing groups involved in immigration and environmental work, welfare “reform” advocates, population control, and reproductive services other than abortion, such as sterilization and contraception.

Another approach to recruiting new pro-life footsoldiers has been to form constituency groups and offer them a reason to organize around pro-life issues. For instance, anti-choice forces have cultivated new supporters among young people, including young women. A rash of youth-oriented web sites capitalizes on the ability of youth to navigate cyberspace and to absorb information directed at them. Since many of these sites, like other right-wing sites, are filled with misinformation and phony “research,” they mold public opinion without the check of being held to any standard of accuracy.29

College pro-life groups appear on many campuses these days, not just at conservative Christian campuses. Even when their approach appears to be secular, inclusive and open-minded, they often are heavily influenced by Christian Right rhetoric. The Cornell Coalition for Life, for example, describes itself by using the three standard issues linked by anti-abortion groups — abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide:

The Cornell Coalition for Life stresses an inclusive, non-partisan, and non-religious approach in advancing the pro-life cause. Students, faculty, and local residents with a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions unite to educate our peers about the tragedies of abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide in the Cornell community and in society at large.”30
While Mark Crutcher’s campaign to stigmatize abortion with medical students and young doctors may seem extreme and crude to some, there are other attempts to organize medical professionals. These groups include Christian Medical and Dental Society, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, the Catholic Medical Association, National Association of Pro-Life Nurses, Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT), the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and Pharmacists for Life. Each has its own website and is linked to other pro-life sites.

The anti-abortion movement has found itself with some seemingly liberal or progressive groups in coalition. The Seamless Garment Network, a coalition of 140 member groups, incorporates opposition to war, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia and abortion under “a consistent ethic of life” as a way to bear witness to “protecting the unprotected” and welcomes anyone willing to work on “all or some of these issues.”31 Member groups range from the Catholic Workers to Feminists for Life. This network attracts not only people from communities of faith, but secular social conservatives and libertarians land here as well.

Abortion opponents have both used and discredited medicine and science in their discussion of abortion, depending on what arguments best suit their purposes at the time. For instance, some groups have accused pro-choice activists of sanitizing the abortion procedure by using medical and scientific terms, which they say, obscured what was really happening. In their view, “terminating a pregnancy” is actually “baby killing.” More recently others have used scientific or pseudo-scientific terminology to add to their credibility, warning that abortion is hazardous to a woman’s health and linking it to infections, breast cancer and psychological trauma.32 These allegations, while impressive in their quantity, have no basis in fact.

Several anti-abortion organizations were created in the early 1990s to exploit the fear that abortion is traumatic. These groups appeal to women who are either conflicted about their own past abortions or are denied access to accurate information about abortion procedures. This anti-choice activism is sympathetic to women while it reinforces an image of women as victims of an uncaring medical establishment.

Organizations such as the Catholic Church’s Project Rachel, David Reardon’s Elliott Institute and the National Right to Life Committee function as points of entry for many women into the anti-abortion movement and eventually into related political movements. They highlight the difference between single-issue, pro-life forces and the larger right. For pro-life advocates who work only to prohibit abortion, the issue is the chance to regulate women’s lives in order to maintain a social system consistent with religious principles. In this framework, because abortion is the corrupting influence that erodes “family values,” it is their primary enemy. For others, the goal is control of the political system with the power to implement a full agenda of conservative issues. For these activists, abortion has been the key issue to mobilize large numbers of people for broader goals.

Although his early activism focused on abortion, Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry’s broader strategy is revealed in a quote from the 1996 PBS Series on the Religious Right, “With God on Our Side.”

“From the beginning when I founded Operation Rescue, the vision was not solely to end child-killing; the vision was to recapture the power bases of America, for child-killing to be the first domino, if you will, to fall in a series of dominoes. My feeling was, and still is, once we mobilize the momentum, the manpower, the money, and all that goes with that to make child-killing illegal, we will have sufficient moral authority and moral force and momentum to get the homosexual movement back in the closet, to get the condom pushers in our schoolsto be back on the fringes of society where they belong where women are treated with dignity, not as Playboy bunnies, etc., etc. We want to recapture the country, because right now the country’s power bases are in the hands of a very determined, very evil elite who are selling us a bill of goods. They call it good but it truly is evil. They say, “Here, it’s sweet,” but in reality it’s bitter. It’s wormwood and gall.”33
Although Catholic teachings and Protestant fundamentalist beliefs are the ideological bedrock of the anti-abortion movement’s arguments, certain groups like the National Right to Life Committee avoid using language that is too specifically religious as a way to broaden their appeal. The NRLC, for instance, now uses primarily legal terminology, which coordinates well with their mostly legislative agenda. Originally a Catholic organization, the NRLC chose a mainstream pro-life niche for itself early on in the abortion debates, and today few remember its history.

For pro-life advocates who work only to prohibit abortion, the issue is the chance to regulate women’s lives in order to maintain a social system consistent with religious principles…For others, the goal is control of the political system with the power to implement a full agenda of conservative issues. For these activists, abortion has been the key issue to mobilize large numbers of people for broader goals.

The controversy surrounding efforts to outlaw “partial-birth abortion”, as it is called by its opponents, is an example of how the Right uses an issue to its advantage. Late-term abortion emerged as a widely debated topic in the mid 1990s, and the Right has successfully kept it active on state and federal legislative agendas ever since. At first, the right’s activism appeared to be focused on opposition to a particular procedure, known medically as Dilation and Extraction (D&X ). But as the debates have worn on, it has become clear that the focus on late-term abortion is part of the overall strategy to abolish all legal abortions.

Removing late-term abortion from its medical and social context and misrepresenting and sensationalizing its purpose and need are examples of how the Right has used late-term abortion and abortion in general for its own political ends.

Late-term abortion is an uncommon medical procedure done in the third trimester. When the right uses the carefully chosen term “partial-birth abortion,” it plays to the ardent emotions of both the pro- and anti-choice forces as well as to the substantial group of Americans in the “middle” who support a woman’s right to choose but are vulnerable to arguments that would justify certain restrictions. The phrase “partial-birth abortion” is a political, not a medical, description of the procedure, and so it has been necessary to define it when creating legislation. Although the meaning and intent of the term have been the focus of much debate, the widespread use of the term “partial-birth abortion” in the media and by the public is an indication of the success of the right in controlling how the topic is discussed.

Legislation was first introduced in Congress in 1995 as a bill to ban “partial-birth abortions.” Congress has considered and even passed similar laws that so far have been blocked by Presidential vetoes based on the lack of an exception for the health of the woman. Reviewing the language of the bills helped legal analysts see that the wording of these bills and their many state counterparts was vague enough to outlaw virtually all abortions. In addition to D&X, the more common procedure, D&E, or Dilation and Evacuation, often done in the second trimester of pregnancy, would be outlawed as well. Nevertheless, laws banning “partial-birth abortions” have been passed in over 30 states. Pro-choice advocates have been kept busy challenging the constitutionality of these laws. In fact, requiring pro-choice organizations to tie up their resources on litigation has become a standard tactic of the Right. Because federal appeals courts have delivered conflicting decisions about these state laws, the US Supreme Court will rule on the Nebraska “partial-birth abortion” law in Carhart v. Stenberg at the 2000 session. This will be the first major abortion ruling since 1992. It is evidence of the speed and effectiveness of the right’s infrastructure that propelled the issue to prominence in such a short time.

Early on in the debates, anti-abortion strategists claimed moral superiority in opposing late-term abortions. In a 1995 radio show, James Dobson referredScreen Shot 2014-02-19 at 4.10.38 PM to the procedure as a “Nazi era experimentation,” where doctors “suck the brain matter out of a living, viable baby for use in medical experiments,” eliciting images of eugenics and demented physicians. Anti-abortion organizations such as NRLC began publishing drawings of the procedure that were intended to shock viewers into outrage while insisting that the images were medically accurate. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), another early opponent, described D & E as, “infanticide.” This claim to moral superiority was further aided by the 1997 admission by Ron Fitzsimmons, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, that he had publicly underestimated the number of late-term abortions performed in this country.

By focusing on abortion providers’ guilt, anti-choice forces omit any reference to the women who undergo the procedure-their circumstances or their needs. In addition to women who are at high health risk in their pregnancies, and older women for whom potential birth defects are a pressing issue, the women who choose late-term abortion are overwhelmingly less educated about their health needs, more often impoverished and more often women of color. Removing late-term abortion from its medical and social context and misrepresenting and sensationalizing its purpose and need are examples of how the Right has used late-term abortion and abortion in general for its own political ends.

Race, Poverty, and Reproductive Rights

In the case of abortion, the various sectors of the anti-abortion movement treat all women equally. No matter what race or class, women should not have abortions. But in the larger sphere of reproductive rights-the rights to conceive, bear, and raise children-pro-life strategists apply a double standard. Middle and upper class white women should bear children and stay at home to raise them. Single, low-income women (especially low-income women of color), and immigrant women should limit their childbearing and should work outside the home to support their children.

Even a cursory examination of the right’s policy agenda demonstrates that, when the focus is changed from abortion to broader reproductive freedom, the right applies race and class criteria that distinguish between the rights of white, middle-class women and low-income women of color. The right has viciously attacked welfare mothers for their “sexuality” and immigrant women for bearing “too many” children.34 In its worldview, “excessive” childbearing by low-income, single women causes poverty. To eliminate poverty, it is necessary to prevent that childbearing.35

Right-wing activists reserve their most vicious attacks for these groups of women, promoting negative stereotypes of low-income women of all races as dependent, irresponsible, prone to addictions, and inadequate mothers.36 They use these stereotypes to inflame public opinion against all sexual behavior that lies outside the narrow parameters of right-wing ideology.

The right advocates policies that discourage childbearing by depriving low-income women of the means to support a child. In the 1990s, using stereotypes such as the “welfare queen,” the right successfully promoted the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the “welfare reform” bill. As part of that policy initiative, the right has sought to discourage women on welfare from becoming pregnant by punishing them when they bear children. This form of punishment known euphemistically as a “family cap,” which is increasingly popular with state legislatures, denies any increase in payments to women who become pregnant or give birth to a child while on welfare. Another right-wing policy that discourages or prevents childbearing by low-income women mandates or encourages women to use Norplant, Depo-Provera, or the newest form of contraception, contraceptive vaccines such as quinacrine.

…when the focus is changed from abortion to broader reproductive freedom, the right applies race and class criteria that distinguish between the rights of white, middle-class women and low-income women of color.

These policies designed to control the child-bearing of poor women are but the latest in a series of practices that date back to the eugenics movement of the 19th century, which promoted, racial theories of “fitness” and “unfitness.” During this time of a significantly declining birth rate within the white population, politicians and eugenicists raised the specter of white “race suicide.” The eugenics movement, which was adopted briefly by the birth control movement in the early 20th century, advocated a higher birthrate for white, middle class, “fit” women and a lower birthrate (aided by birth control) for poor women, especially poor “unfit” women of color and immigrant women.37

The best-known method of denying a woman her right to have children is sterilization abuse. Sterilization is a medical procedure that, like abortion, often is experienced differently in low-income communities of color and in middle-class white communities. Historically, doctors have made it difficult for white women, especially middle-class white women, to choose to be sterilized: insisting, for example, that they come back a second time after they have taken time to “think about it.” The attitude of the same medical professionals toward women of color and poor white women has been dramatically different. In these instances, many doctors have long encouraged the procedure, sometimes sterilizing these women without their consent through manipulation or actual deceit. By 1968, for example, a campaign by private agencies and the Puerto Rican government resulted in the sterilization of one-third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age. A similar campaign in the 1970s resulted in the sterilization of 25 percent of Indian women living on reservations.38

Such a history of sterilization abuse (which is still practiced in other countries, with US public and private complicity) shapes the consciousness of many women of color. Especially among Native American and African American communities and in Puerto Rico, the history of sterilization abuse represents a major legally-sanctioned human rights violation.39 Some doctors still encourage sterilization for women in low-income rural areas, especially on Indian reservations and in pockets of rural poverty across the US mainland and in Puerto Rico, despite rules issued in 1978 by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare restricting sterilizations performed under programs receiving federal funds.40 The committed efforts of Helen Rodriguez-Trias of the New York City-based Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and other activists have not been successful in convincing the larger women’s movement to expand its concern with reproductive rights much beyond the issue of abortion.41

Aware of the history of sterilization abuse and racial repression in the United States and in other countries, many people of color are suspicious of the contemporary pro-choice movement. Some see abortion as a vehicle for genocide within their communities. The right has taken full advantage of the wedge that such a history of sterilization abuse (and the overall failure of white feminists and other progressives to confront it) has driven between the pro-choice movement and many people of color. The right’s leaders and politicians sometimes court people of color by appealing to their perceived opposition to abortion. They claim to be the allies of these communities by pointing to “shared values” on abortion and other social issues. The right has used this recruitment strategy repeatedly over the last two decades. Just two examples are the Christian Coalition’s courtship of African Americans in the mid-1990s with its now-defunct Samaritan Project and, more recently, the predominantly white conservative evangelical men’s organization, the Promise Keepers’ outreach to men of color under the theme of “racial reconciliation.”

While low-income women have argued that they are denied the right to bear children and the means to raise them, their cause has not been near the center of the pro-choice movement. Further exacerbating the tension between the pro-choice movement and poor women is the occasional appearance within the movement of the right-wing argument that abortion is beneficial to society because it will limit the number of women and children on welfare. This argument attempts to win support for abortion rights by portraying welfare recipients as undesirable. Although pro-choice advocates rarely use such arguments any longer, such positions have left a heightened level of distrust of the pro-choice movement among some women of color.

In the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, reproductive rights activists – predominantly from communities of color- attempted to expand the scope of the pro-choice movement to include the right to have children, a right to quality reproductive health care and access to authentic economic opportunities that would enable women to raise and support children.42 Other activists, such as the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE), drew attention to the threat posed by the population control movement to the reproductive rights of women of color, especially those living in Third World countries.43 Others, such as Byllye Avery of the National Black Women’s Health Project, Marlene Fried and her colleagues at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College; and the women of the Reproductive Rights Network (R2N2), have called for the predominantly white women’s movement to resist more actively the elimination of access to abortion by the Hyde Amendment and other factors affecting low-income women.44 But too often the pro-choice movement has used the lens of middle-class white women – those most likely to have access to other reproductive rights – to defend abortion rights as if they represented all reproductive rights.

Low-income women of all races have a right to bear and raise children without legal sanctions that make it impossible or dangerous: in other words, they have a right to reproductive freedom.

The right has been extremely successful in keeping the primarily white and middle-class women of the pro-choice movement and their male allies pre-occupied with responding to the escalating strategies of the pro-life movement. These have included legal challenges in state and federal courts, feverish activity in state legislatures, a proliferation of “crisis pregnancy centers,” and the increase of clinic violence. The right has successfully created a “box” for low-income women- they must renounce their sexuality altogether by neither bearing children nor having an abortion. Abstinence, the opposite of their perceived promiscuity, is the approved right-wing choice. Because the right, with the acquiescence of the voting public, has successfully shredded the social safety net, it is increasingly unlikely that women of color and poor womenwill be guaranteed the means to bear and raise children. Without that means- in other words, without control of their reproductive lives- even the preservation of legal abortion does not guarantee all women’s reproductive rights and reproductive freedom.

Since its earliest activism, the goal of the anti-abortion movement has been to ban abortion completely. Each of its sectors has pursued that goal with different strategies. The Roman Catholic Church, the original force behind the anti-abortion movement, has been joined by several other sectors, including conservativeevangelical Christians and the more violence-prone activists of the far right. Independent organizations such as Operation Rescue have drawn from each of the sectors. As the struggle over abortion has persisted through several decades and the anti-abortion movement has been unable to achieve its goal of eliminating legal abortion altogether, the more militant and zealous sectors of the movement have gained power. As a result, violence against abortion providers and clinics has become more acceptable and common within the movement. Lawsuits and other forms of harassment have also been gaining in popularity. At the same time other sectors of the movement that work in the legislative arena, at the state level and in Washington, pursue incremental strategies to chip away at women’s access to abortion, such as parental consent and waiting periods. Still others have worked at the grassroots level, providing support for the work of both angry demonstrators and suited legislators. When combined with financial barriers, such as the denial of coverage of abortion for Medicaid recipients, and the scarcity of abortion services in rural areas, the anti-abortion movement can claim a number of victories.

Many low income women, including many women of color, increasingly do not have access to a number of the forms of reproductive rights available to more affluent women – insurance or funds to pay for abortions, adequate reproductive health care, sexuality education, safer methods of contraception, or access to high tech fertility procedures. In some cases, they have lost control of their reproduction altogether, as in the case of forced sterilization or sterilization without consent. Low-income women of all races have a right to bear and raise children without legal sanctions that make it impossible or dangerous: in other words, they have a right to reproductive freedom. When the pro-choice movement defends abortion rights alone, as if they represented all reproductive rights, they are using the lens of middle-class women, and they are risking the loss of more than just legal abortion.

Opponents of abortion use the tactics of the larger right: claim moral superiority to your opponent; misrepresent the truth behind your own claims; and, while stereotyping and demonizing your opponents, use legislation and public funds to usurp the democratic process. The right will continue its campaign to limit and control women’s reproductive practices. The key to its future success may well rest with the make-up of the Supreme Court, as its current members retire and are replaced by new Justices. Another factor is the vitality of the pro-choice movement, as it loses its grassroots character and becomes increasingly a movement of large and well-funded organizations. It is important that pro-choice organizations stay in close touch with grassroots constituencies, especially younger women, whom it will need to mobilize if the law continues to weaken the wall of privacy between government and women’s reproductive practices.

Pro-choice activists are often absorbed with one area of the struggle to maintain and advance reproductive rights. But the right has mounted a broad attack on reproductive rights that reaches across many areas. As a result, the pro-choice movement is spread thin, working on many fronts, from defending access to abortion to challenging the latest unconstitutional legislation. Under these circumstances it is difficult to remember the larger picture in which specific work occurs. It can be helpful to step back and see each piece of the struggle as part of a whole.

When the pro-choice movement defends abortion rights alone, as if they represented all reproductive rights, they are using the lens of middle-class women, and they are risking the loss of more than just legal abortion.

The right’s larger reactionary agenda prioritizes the rollback of the gains of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Its leadership targets a wide range of women’s rights. While abortion is a central target, it does not stand alone as the sole focus of the right’s wrath. When we understand the nature of the right’s ideas, strategies and tactics, we can see how the right has targeted nothing less than women’s autonomy. The traditional, “family values” analysis of the proper role of women does not honor women’s reproductive rights. We must defend the right of women to self-determination in the control of their reproductive lives across the board. Every specific area of pro-choice activity in the service of this larger goal is crucial to the success of the pro-choice movement in resisting the right’s attack.


1 For a detailed description of the structure of the political Right in the U.S., see Chip Berlet ed., Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash (Boston MA, South End Press,1995) pp. 24-30.
2 See James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (New York, Oxford U. Press, 1978) pp. 46-85.,and Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Old Westbury, Feminist Press, 1973) pp. 22-30.
3 Andrew H. Merton, Enemies of Choice, Beacon Press, Boston, 1981, p.39.
4 Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, once a tiny school that has since grown into the 14,000 student Liberty University.
5 For a useful summary of this period in the New Right’s history, see Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston MA, Beacon Press, 1999) ch. 1.
6 Andrew H. Merton, Enemies of Choice: The Right to Life Movement and its Threat to Abortion (Boston MA, Beacon Press, 1981) p.73.
7 The Body Politic, vol. 5, #2, February 1995, p. 13.
8 Michelle McKeegan, Abortion Politics: Mutiny in the Ranks of the Right (New York, Free Press 1992) pp. 47-8.
9 Ibid. pp. 133-4.
10 Quoted in “The Christian Right World View”, Skipp Porteous, Public Eye book review, March 1994, p.8, col. 3.
11 David Duke, My Awakening, Free Speech Press, Covington. LA, 1999, p. 174.
12 Firestorm, M. Crutcher, self-published, Lakeville, TX, 1992.
13 Quack the Ripper, Life Dynamics, Inc., Denton. TX, 1998.
14 “Anti-abortionists and White Supremacists Make Common Cause,” Loretta Ross, The Progressive, 10/94, pp. 24-25.
15 “When Does Life Begin?” National Right to Life Committee, available: 16 April 2000.
16 See Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley, CA:U. of California Press, 1984) Ch. 8 and Rosalind P. Petchesky, Abortion and Women’s Choice: The State Sexuality and Reproductive Freedom (New York: Longman, 1984) Ch. 7.
17 For an example of a secular argument for traditional family structures based on a conservative analysis of sexual behavior, see the most well known proponent of this view: George F. Gilder, Sexual Suicide(New York, Bantam, 1975).
18 Ronald Reagan, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984).
19 Dallas A. Blanchard, The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Rise of the Religious Right (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), pp. 51-60.
20 Tom W. Smith, Public Opinion on Abortion, National Opinion Research Center, 13 April 2000.
21 See Elizabeth A. Cook et. al., Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion: Boulder, CO, Westview) 1992.
22 Smith, op.cit. These conclusions are based on NORC’s analysis of the General Social Survey, which, next to the U.S. Census, is the largest and most wisely used source of sociological data in this country.
23 Full implementation of the Hyde Amendment was thwarted by Federal court decisions and Congressional debate through the 1970s. LAPAC began to exercise its influence over Human Life Amendment votes and eventually even Congressional elections. By 1978 it successfully increased the number of pro-life supporters in Congress by targeting those who opposed the Hyde Amendment, paving the way for the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s judicial appointments to the federal courts were consistently pro-life. Moreover, under him, the process for appointing federal judges changed, and powerful Republican leaders like Strom Thurmond helped control the flow of pro-life legislation. See: The Politics of Abortion, Tatlovich and Daynes, pp. 183-195.
24 These include Sex Respect; Me, My World, My Future; Sexuality, Commitment and family; Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS) and Responsible Sexual Values Program.
25 For a comprehensive analysis of the Right’s attack on sexuality education, see the forthcoming book by Janice Irvine.
26 See Faye Ginsburg, “Rescuing the Nation,” in Rickie Solinger, Abortion Wars, A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000 (Berkeley, CA: U. California Press, 1998) pp. 236-7.
27 For a discussion of this shift, see Carol Mason, “From Protest to Retribution: The Guerrilla Politics of Pro-life Violence”, New Political Science, Vol. 22, #1, 2000, pp. 11-29.
28 Tanya Melich, The Republican War Against Women (New York: Bantam Books, 1996).
29 See for example,,, or
30 Mission Statement of Cornell Coalition for Life. Available from 14 April 2000.
31 Mission Statement of Seamless Garment Network. Available from 14 April 2000.
32 See Anne Speckhard and Vincent Rue, “Post-Abortion Syndrome a Growing Health Problem,” Journal of Social Issues, 1992, Fall, David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago: Loyola University Press and Westchester IL Crossway Books, 1987) or Davis Mall and Walter F. Watts, eds. Psychological Aspects of Abortion (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1979).
33 Available from 22 February 2000.
34 See: Lucy Williams, “Decades of Distortion: The Right’s 30-Year Assault on Welfare,” (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 1997), pp. 10-11. See also the Sierra Club ballot initiative.
35 See: Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984); George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
36 See: Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn, eds., For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 1996); Marsha J. Tyson Darling, “The State: Friend or Foe?” in: Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), pp. 223-224.
37 Margaret Quigley, “The Roots of the IQ Debate,” The Public Eye, vol. IX, no. 1 (March, 1995).
38 Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1997), pp. 89-98.
39 Helen Rodriguez-Trias, “Sterilization Abuse,” in Rita Arditti, Pat Brennan, and Steve Cavrak, eds.,Science and Social Control (Boston: South End Press, 1980), pp 113-127.
40 Ibid., pp. 96-98.
41 Another important group in the fight against sterilization abuse was the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA).
42 See: Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, eds. Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (Boston: South End Press, 1981); ); Angela Davis, Women Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983); Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought(Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); Loretta Ross, “Raising Our Voices,” in: Marlene Gerber Fried, ed., From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1990), pp. 139-143; and Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, op. cit.
43 See: Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (Boston: South End Press, 1994; Andy Smith, “Christian Responses to the Population Paradigm,” in: Silliman and King, eds.,Dangerous Intersections, op. cit., pp. 74-88.
44 See April J. Taylor, “High-Tech, Pop-A-Pill Culture,” in: Silliman and King, Dangerous Intersections, op. cit., pp. 242-254; and Marlene Gerber Fried, “Legal, But… Abortion Access in the United States,” in: Silliman and King, eds., Dangerous Intersections, op. cit., pp. 255-269.