Lessons From the Terrible Triumph of the Anti-Abortion Movement

In the grief-choked days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I’ve been haunted by a moment from the new documentary “Battleground.” Much of the film, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows female leaders of the anti-abortion movement, including Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. These aren’t the people regularly standing outside of abortion clinics harassing patients. They are, rather, savvy lobbyists and organizers, and the documentary is in part a window into how they won.

The scene I keep revisiting features a Students for Life training session about “how you can change minds about abortion online,” in which members of the group learned how to draw young pro-choice people into debate in comment threads. Hawkins said they’d had 105,000 conversations.

Cynthia Lowen, the director of “Battleground,” told me she was struck by the activists’ “strategy to get into environments and places, online and offline, where young, typically pro-choice people are,” and to try to create “doubts about their position.”

This is quite different from what I’ve seen in the pro-choice movement, where activists frequently act as if those who don’t agree with them on everything aren’t worth engaging with. (Last week, NARAL tweeted, “If your feminism doesn’t understand how anti-trans policies disproportionately impact BIPOC folks, particularly Black trans women and girls, it’s not feminism.”) In the aftermath of the anti-abortion movement’s catastrophic victory, it’s worth asking what we can learn from their tactics.

Obviously, the anti-abortion movement hasn’t convinced anywhere near a majority of Americans. Roe’s death comes courtesy of three Supreme Court justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. According to a CBS/News YouGov poll taken after the ruling, 59 percent of Americans — and 67 percent of women — disapprove of it.

The Senate can’t codify minimal reproductive rights because of the filibuster, which gives a minority of conservatives veto power over much of national policymaking. In states like Wisconsin, legislatures are so gerrymandered that it will take more than a popular-vote majority to undo their abortion bans. The right pretends that ending Roe returns abortion to the democratic process, but Roe’s demise was made possible by democracy’s erosion.

That shouldn’t blind us, however, to the success of the anti-abortion movement, which has organized for almost 50 years to bring us to this moment. Those state-level gerrymanders didn’t just happen. As The New York Times reported, they were made possible by the 2010 Republican wave, which reduced the number of state legislatures controlled by Democrats from 27 to 16. Republicans then used redistricting to cement their hold on power even as they passed a barrage of state laws meant to chip away at Roe.

The legal and political wings of the anti-abortion movement were methodical, often biding their time until they had a friendly Supreme Court in place. As general counsel of the National Right to Life Committee, James Bopp opposed attempts to prohibit abortion outright, fearing that their rejection would only strengthen Roe. Instead, as Irin Carmon reported in 2013, he focused on wedge issues like 20-week abortion bans.

Meanwhile, grass-roots abortion opponents have remained relentless, often drawing people in for reasons of sociability as much as ideology. In “The Making of Pro-Life Activists,” the sociologist Ziad W. Munson found that many activists had been ambivalent about abortion, or even pro-choice, before being invited to a rally or meeting. The movement welcomed them, and the experience of activism converted them. Similarly, one of Lowen’s interviewees said she wasn’t opposed to abortion until she tagged along to the March for Life with some college friends. She later went to work for Students for Life.

I fear that some abortion-rights activists are learning the wrong lessons from their enemies’ triumph, taking inspiration from the most confrontational anti-abortion forces. A string of apparent arsons at anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers mimics years of pro-life assaults on abortion clinics. (So far, mercifully, the arsons haven’t caused any injuries.) Before Dr. Barnett Slepian, a Buffalo abortion provider, was assassinated in 1998, protesters followed his children to their grade school. Recently a shadowy pro-choice outfit called Ruth Sent Us hinted at doing something similar to the kids of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, tweeting about the school they attend.

Besides being immoral, these tactics suggest a misunderstanding of how the anti-abortion movement got to this point. Anti-abortion terrorism has been correlated with greater support for abortion rights, harming the political campaign to reverse Roe. That campaign prevailed because of a movement that spent decades mastering the nuts and bolts of American politics, persisting despite years of failure and disappointment.

This doesn’t just mean “vote harder.” It means contesting every level of power, all the time, including local elections, judicial selections and administrative rule-making. It means drawing people into a community that will make continuous struggle seem rewarding rather than depleting.

Abortion opponents have shoved us into a nightmare world of surveillance, coercion and medical desperation. They’ve also shown us the arduous path out of it.

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