The southernization of the pro-life movement

When the Supreme Court made its landmark decision on abortion rights, Roe v. calf, in 1973, the most uncompromising opponents of the decision were not the legislatures of southern Bible Belt states such as Mississippi and Oklahoma. Indeed, for years, physicians in many southern states — including Arkansas, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia — had been performing legal hospital abortions for at least some carefully defined “therapeutic” reasons roe. The state legislatures most opposed to legalizing abortion have been those of the heavily Catholic states of the Northeast. According to an archival document from the American Civil Liberties Union, barely 10 percent of Massachusetts legislators supported legalizing abortion in 1973. Instead of allowing the process until the feasibility date (about 28 weeks at the time) as ordered by the Supreme Court, the Massachusetts state legislature acted roe by passing a bill banning abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. The Rhode Island Statehouse put up even stronger opposition: it kept abortion clinics out of the state until its 1975 anti-abortion law was overturned by a federal court.

Today, of course, Massachusetts and the rest of New England are among the frontrunners in states that will protect access to abortion if—if, as it stands now—Roe v. calf will be cancelled. And many of the southern states that liberalized their abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s are now at the forefront of the movement to restrict abortion.

This was not just a geographic shift, trading one region for another, but a more fundamental transformation in the political ideology of the anti-abortion movement. In 1973, many of the most vocal anti-abortion opponents were Northern Democrats, who believed in an expanded welfare state and wanted to lower abortion rates through prenatal insurance and state-funded daycare. In 2022, most anti-abortion advocates are conservative Republicans who are skeptical of such measures. What happened was a seismic anti-abortion religious and political shift unparalleled in any other Western country.

Before the mid-1970s, active anti-abortion opposition in the United States looked much like anti-abortion opposition in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia: it was centered mostly among Catholics. As late as 1980, 70 percent of the members of the country’s largest anti-abortion organization, the National Right to Life Committee, were Catholic. As a result, the states that most opposed legalizing abortion were, in most cases, the states with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of whom were northern and Democratic-leaning.

This fitted the pattern across the western world: countries with large numbers of devout Catholics restricted abortion, while the predominantly Protestant countries did not. Sweden — where Catholics made up less than 1 percent of the population — legalized some abortions as early as the 1930s; Ireland only followed in 2018.

If the United States had followed this script, opposition to abortion would likely have weakened as Catholic Church attendance rates declined. As in Canada and England, where the leading conservative parties overwhelmingly support abortion rights, the Republican Party in the United States may have remained what it was for most of the 1970s: a heavily Protestant party whose leaders generally supported abortion rights.

But in the United States, the anti-abortion movement did not remain predominantly Catholic. Southern evangelical Protestants, who were once reluctant to join the anti-abortion movement because they believed it was a sectarian Catholic campaign, began campaigning for the cause in the late 1970s and 1980s. Motivated by a belief that Roe v. calf a product of liberal social changes they opposed—including secularization, the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and a right-wing interpretation of the constitution—they made opposition to the ruling government a core part of the new Christian right. When they seized control of the Republican Party in the late 20th century, they transformed the GOP from a north-centered mainline Protestant party moderately friendly to abortion rights into a hotbed of southern populism that combined economic libertarianism with moral regulation of the Bible Belt.

The change was not instantaneous. Although the Republican Party endorsed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in its party platform in 1976, partly because it wanted to win over Catholics in the North, the party initially paid little more than lip service to the idea, and pro-abortion conservatives continued to make leadership positions in for years to come to dress the GOP. In 1983, the Republican-controlled Senate considered an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, but a third of Republican senators voted against it, dooming it to defeat. However, as Southern evangelical Protestants acquired a larger majority stake in the GOP, Republicans found it harder to ignore their desire to restrict abortion. The crucial shift came in the 1994 midterm elections, when the Southern Conservatives gave Republicans the votes they needed to take both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America made no mention of abortion, but Southern evangelicals insisted that the GOP must pay attention to the issue. When 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole tried to moderate the party’s platform statement on abortion, right-wing Christian activists blocked the change.

But what really motivated anti-abortion activists to remain loyal to the GOP was not just a platform statement, but a promise from the Supreme Court. They believed the Republican Party offered them the only path to a conservative judiciary that would topple Roe v. calf. If that goal required them to accept a conservative economic platform at odds with the views held by many in the movement before roewell, that didn’t matter, because many of the anti-abortion evangelical Protestants were politically conservative anyway.

As recently as the beginning of this century, Texas still had a Republican (Protestant) senator for abortion rights, while Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota still had Catholic anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. But as the historically Catholic population of the North became less devout and therefore less inclined to follow the Church’s teachings on abortion — and as a younger generation of progressive Democrats began to view reproductive rights as a non-negotiable part of the Democratic Party’s platform — was the anti-abortion influence in the politically liberal states of the Northeast waned while it grew in the South.

This changed the political priorities of the anti-abortion movement. A movement that in the early 1970s had attracted some political progressives opposed to the Vietnam War and the death penalty was associated with evangelical-inspired conservative Christian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Early activists wanted to create an inclusive “culture of life,” but many of the evangelicals who joined the movement in the late 20th century wanted to save America from secularism and reclaim the nation for God.

Only a minority of white evangelical Protestants were politically progressive; The majority (particularly in the South) were conservative, combining a commitment to moral regulation with a belief in free enterprise and a rejection of social spending. American evangelicalism had long been the most individualistic of the nation’s Christian traditions, and consistent with this individualistic theology of sin and redemption, most white evangelicals thought that the government’s interest in morality extended only to the punishment of individual vices, not to it on poverty reduction . As the anti-abortion movement’s political influence shifted away from Catholic states to evangelical-Protestant regions, it abandoned its earlier calls for federal anti-poverty programs, expanded maternal health insurance, and state-funded day care, and instead focused solely on the narrower borders problem of overturning Roe v. calf and make abortion illegal.

Some activists (including some Catholic veterans of the movement in the North) remained committed to poverty alleviation and an inclusive culture of life ethic, but with the current unequivocal pro-abortion endorsement by the Democratic Party, some felt politically homeless. These activists began voting Republicans despite their reservations about the party’s stance on social welfare issues — bringing them into alliance with southern evangelical conservatives, who now had the political power to limit abortion in their region.

The result is the map we have today: the states most likely to restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns roe are also among the states with the least generous health policies. Half a century ago, many liberal, anti-abortion Northern Democrats saw a connection between poverty reduction and abortion prevention, but today most of those in the Southern Bible Belt who are opposed to abortion do not. Maybe soon: Because abortion rates are very closely correlated with poverty, opponents of the process might have trouble reducing its prevalence without expanding Medicaid or taking other anti-poverty measures.

The enthusiastic embrace of the movement by white evangelicals in the Bible Belt was key to the movement’s political success. But the movement’s association with some kind of evangelical-conservative Southern anti-poverty policies may also mean the repeal of Roe v. calf won’t cut abortion rates as much as the movement expects. If these activists truly want to save unborn lives, they may need to turn not only to the southern conservatives who currently lead the movement, but also to the social welfare advocates in the north, whose voices were once dominant in the movement but whose early influence is been forgotten for a long time. The southernization of the pro-life movement

Jessica MacLeish

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