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The Role of Anti-Abortion Forces in the Rise of the MAGA Right

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Group of people holding signs, US Supreme Court building in the background. Signs and both pro-choice and anti-abortion. Many are round “Keep Abortion Legal” signs. One homemade sign reads, “The real coat hanger victim,” and has a naked plastic fetus and a coat hanger attached.

The Right used the anti-abortion crusade in its push towards minority rule. The Left has a lot to learn from how they did it.

The leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the likely demise of Roe v. Wade, reveals the Right’s success in parlaying an issue into a movement with the power to impose its will on a diverse majority.

This is the story of how anti-abortion forces joined with others on the Right to gain governing power. The fortunes of right-wing groups rose together, and now they control the Republican Party. Their near-complete success in overturning Roe is of a piece with right-wing efforts to ban teachers from talking about racism or acknowledging LGBTQ lives, and their ongoing efforts to suppress the vote in communities of color.

The Right’s rise also sheds light on missed opportunities for progressives and the Left during these past 50 years: specifically, our failure to use Roe v. Wade as a springboard for pursuing reproductive rights more broadly, for centering the experiences of poor women and women of color more directly, and for getting out ahead of the narrative fight about what constitutes a pro-family agenda. 

The long game

Before Roe, many on the Right, including the nascent evangelical movement, were not that concerned about abortion. Six years later, abortion would prove to be a galvanizing issue in the 1978 midterm elections. By 1980, abortion would become the primary issue among a suite of Christian conservative concerns. For leaders like Jerry Fallwell, the long game was less about overturning Roe and more about gaining political power and shifting the Republican Party to the Right. Evangelical voters were decisive in electing Ronald Reagan, a divorced politician and former Hollywood actor from California, to the presidency. Fallwell had Reagan’s ear. And the Republican Party establishment took notice.

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The far Right took notice, as well. Anti-abortion activists would join forces with Christian Dominionists––a far-right movement that sought to replace secular democracy with Christian theocracy––along with white nationalists, soldiers of fortune, survivalists, and other characters that the Republican Party had historically sought to distance itself from. But the growing electoral power of evangelicals, and the potency of abortion as an issue, were too valuable for the Party to ignore.

Alongside the rise of the Right, corporate-conservative forces were consolidating around a blueprint that was inspired by the Powell Memo. In 1971 Lewis Powell––who would later be appointed by Nixon to the Supreme Court––wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he urged business leaders and corporate executives to challenge the federal government’s regulatory powers and to weaken trade unions. Powell provided a strategic framework for gaining political power: build a broad infrastructure of corporate-friendly conservative groups, and shift the dominant worldview to create a pro-business, anti-government commonsense.

As evangelicals became more of a political force in the late 1970s, pro-corporate groups sought to enlist anti-abortion activists in support of an emerging neoliberal agenda: deregulation, privatization, market rule, a strong carceral state, criminalization of dissent and poverty, etc. The ideological threads that would weave the different strands together included mistrust of government (“big government”); faith in markets to self-regulate, sort out “winners” and “losers,” and get prices right; and bootstraps individualism. Racism and sexism were part of the ideological cross-weave: for example, Reagan’s racialized stereotype of the “welfare queen” evoked a strong association between public assistance and several racist and sexist tropes.

By inviting cultural and religious forces on the Right into their infrastructure, corporate neoliberals gained a real grassroots base and dynamic leadership. This alliance served the neoliberal project very well for over 40 years.

For anti-abortion activists, being able to plug into a growing corporate-conservative infrastructure gave them the political traction they needed. Their movement had a highly motivated base that could be drawn in by opposition to abortion. They were able to develop leaders who could work across issues, refine the broader ideological fight, and build deeper ties with other parts of the Right. This cross-fertilization was happening even as anti-abortion leaders stayed laser-focused on abortion, learning from set-backs and building upon small victories. Over time, anti-abortion leaders assumed greater prominence within the Right flank of the Republican party.

By the 1990s anti-abortion forces were making progress on a number of fronts: getting friendly judges onto the courts, grooming pro-life politicians in several states, getting Republican candidates to pledge their support for anti-abortion measures, taking over state houses, and pursuing legislation that would strategically challenge Roe.  

In 1989 the Christian Coalition would emerge as a more sophisticated version of Falwell’s Moral Majority. Under the leadership of Ralph Reed, the Coalition fully embraced the pro-corporate neoliberal agenda while pursuing a state-by-state strategy against Roe. They identified and supported anti-abortion candidates across the nation, and, in the 1994 midterms, they helped Republicans take over Congress, gain 12 governorships, and win 20 state legislatures.

Rising together: key milestones along the Right’s path to power

Here are a few key moments that helped the anti-abortion movement, and with it, the authoritarian Right, to steadily gain power.

The Hyde Amendment. Passed in 1976, this was the first major victory for the emerging anti-abortion movement. The amendment prohibited the use of federal Medicaid dollars to fund abortion services. Congress first passed the Hyde Amendment as part of the fiscal 1977 Medicaid appropriation. The Hyde Amendment disproportionately impacts poor and working-class women, especially women of color, in effect curtailing their access to a legal medical procedure.

Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The religious right’s success in defeating the ERA was a major political milestone. In 1972, both the House and the Senate passed a resolution to send a proposed equal rights amendment to the states for ratification. This amendment would put equal rights for women into the U.S. Constitution. Within two years, 30 of the needed 38 states had ratified the ERA.

In an early show of strength, conservative activists rapidly joined forces with the Religious Right to halt the ERA’s momentum. Conservative activist Phyllis Schafly effectively tied the ERA to many of evangelicals’ greatest fears: ‘women’s lib,’ the ‘gay agenda,’ unisex bathrooms, women in combat, secular humanism, rising divorce rates, an end to the traditional family structure, rising abortion rates, public funding for Planned Parenthood, and more.

As the 1982 deadline for ratification approached, 35 states had ratified the ERA, but the remaining three remained elusive. Lawmakers in five states—Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky, and South Dakota—voted to rescind their earlier support. If it had been ratified, the ERA could have been used to put reproductive justice demands on a stronger footing: from privacy to equal rights.

The Casey Ruling. The anti-abortion movement hit paydirt in 1993 with Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This ruling allowed states to restrict abortion, as long as those restrictions did not create an “undue burden” on the right to abortion and served the purpose of either protecting the woman’s health or unborn life.

The phrase “undue burden” was vague enough to allow for wider anti-abortion experimentation in the states. These innovations included “trap” laws requiring abortion clinics to function like hospitals. States instituted 24-hour waiting periods, mandated that clinics convey inaccurate information to women seeking abortions, and imposed invasive sonograms.

The Contract with America. In 1994 Republicans in Congress issued a 10-point platform containing something for everyone on the Right: ending affirmative action, cutting welfare programs, expanding the war on drugs, fiscal policies like a “balanced budget amendment” and more deregulation of the financial sector. With Republican gains in the House in November, Newt Gingrich became Speaker. As Speaker, Gingrich modeled the “rule or ruin” doctrine of refusing to negotiate with Democrats and openly accusing opponents of corruption.

Welfare Reform. It took a centrist Democrat to fulfill a major Republican goal: dismantling welfare. During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” In 1996, with Republicans in charge, Congress made changes to welfare programs that impacted poor women and children, with disproportionate effects in communities of color.

Citizens United v the Federal Elections Commision. Citizens United was an opportunity for the religious right to flex its muscle and deliver something that the broader corporate-conservative alliance wanted: less restrictions on campaign financing. In an illustration of how integral they had become to the larger conservative movement, the National Right to Life Committee provided lawyers and other support for the case. The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, which was handed down in early 2010, fueled the rise of Super PACs, allowing candidates to raise millions of dollars from undisclosed donors.

The Tea Party Insurgency. It started out as a libertarian-leaning response to the Wall Street bailouts of 2008-09. By 2010, the Tea Party had become a full-blown insurgency against Obama’s “creeping socialism.” Throughout the midterms, opposing Obamacare was a key rallying point. Candidates to the right of mainstream Republicans were swept into state houses and Congress in the 2010 midterm elections. New challenges to Roe soon followed.

Gutting the Voting Rights Act. The Shelby County v Holder decision in 2013 opened the floodgates for measures designed to suppress voting in communities of color. These included polling place closures, voter ID laws, aggressive gerrymandering. Shelby v. Holder shifted the burden of proof onto the targeted communities. A current example is a law in Texas that makes it harder for election workers to caution and remove partisan poll-watchers who harass voters. The law empowers poll-watchers to sue election workers. Passed by the legislature on the same day, Texas’ abortion ban empowers private citizens to sue anyone they suspect of having, or aiding, an abortion after six weeks. In both cases, these laws use vigilantes to deter people from exercising what should be treated as their democratic rights.   

The Trumpian Bargain. During the third presidential debate in 2016, candidate Donald Trump pledged to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v Wade. This was the moment when, even after the Access Hollywood tape and all the other revelations about his shady business dealings and immoral behaviors, the Religious Right saw Trump as God’s own candidate.

During Trump’s reign, the different forces on the Right got many of the big things they wanted. Corporate conservatives won their biggest tax breaks in five decades. Religious conservatives were able to reshape the courts for decades to come. Daily life became ever more dangerous for immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, and poor African American communities. Voter suppression tactics increased while confidence in the integrity of elections further declined. Fringe ideas came out of the shadows. Racist dog-whistles became bullhorn shouts.

The Authoritarian Realignment. Ever since the Tea Party insurgency, the corporate-conservative alliance has been fragmenting. Authoritarian populism is not always aligned with corporate interests. Instead of using conservative concerns to support corporate-friendly policies, the Right is directing some of their MAGA-based grievances at the corporate elite. Facing challenges from both the Right and the Left, the neoliberal commonsense is losing its hold over both political parties. The MAGA Right is stepping into the breach with faux-populist narratives steeped in white nationalist themes and imagery. The threat of authoritarianism continues to rise.

Where was the Left?

Forces in the Republican Party were able to support anti-abortion activists and their highly-disciplined campaign to chip away at Roe. These campaigns supplied the Republican Party with loyal ground troops. This, in turn, helped the Right take over the Party. As the Republican Party lurched farther to the right, the Democratic Party also shifted rightward. During the rise of neoliberalism, liberals and progressives working within and independently of the Democratic Party were being marginalized.

What if, instead of an end-point, Roe had been used as a stepping stone for greater gains in reproductive health and freedom? What if reproductive justice had been embraced by progressive-Left forces as an integral part of their longer-term agenda? Reproductive justice organizers could have used Roe to pave the way for ever-greater structural demands, at the same time as they worked to defend legal abortion against right-wing attacks.

Being invited into a progressive-Left infrastructure would have enabled emerging reproductive rights activists to coordinate with other movement leaders. It would have facilitated shared strategy, political education, and cross-training. But, starting in the mid-1970s, progressives and leftists in community, labor, and faith organizations were on the defensive, and too fragmented to form a shared movement infrastructure. Many on the Left were shunning electoral involvement. Organizing groups tended to form short-term, narrowly-focused coalitions. They did not usually address reproductive health issues and rarely talked about abortion. Organizing groups weren’t doing the work of creating broader narratives that would help their members make connections across issues.

The activists who formed groups like NOW and NARAL did not necessarily have a socialist feminist or intersectional framework. As they defended Roe, issues related to abortion got focused around a pro-choice frame.

“Pro-choice” reflected the narrowness of the Roe decision itself: privacy, which is a shaky foundation for fundamental reproductive rights and gender justice. It’s a right that can be used to reinforce go-it-alone individualism. As with most things in the U.S., race, class, and sexual identities place limits on who has a right to privacy.

The narrowness of the fight to defend Roe may have had the unintended effect of obscuring the true nature, and depth, of the attacks on women and the impacts these attacks have for women of color and working-class women. As law professor Michele Goodwin argues, the language of reproductive privacy and choice obscures all the ways women of color have been denied dignity, autonomy, and reproductive freedom: from limited access to contraception and sex education to forced sterilizations; from the prosecution of pregnant women arrested for drug use, to the shackling of women in prison while they are giving birth. It keeps us from seeing––beyond limited access to abortion––all the ways in which reproductive freedom has been denied to poor women, Black women, immigrant women.

Reproductive privacy does a poor job of evoking the larger fight: for reproductive justice, for thriving families, for better healthcare for all, and for investments in the caring economy.

In a post-Roe world, the fight for reproductive justice, which necessarily includes access to safe abortions, is everyone’s fight. It is the fight for bodily autonomy––for cisgender women, and for queer and trans persons––which is a precondition for full, democratic participation. It is the fight for the broadest range of reproductive health care, and health equity to address disparities, which is connected to the fight for universal healthcare. It is the fight to support all of our families, whatever they look like, so that they can thrive.

Ultimately, this is a fight for the kind of democracy that we want to build. While our immediate responses to this moment may be short-term-oriented––the midterms, the defensive fights in several states, the need to help women in red states get access to reproductive health services, and to push-back against measures that will effectively criminalize pregnancy itself––we can use the urgency around these actions to build an expand our broader front to support multiracial democracy and a caring economy.

Featured image: Pro-choice and anti-abortion demonstrators staged concurrent events outside the US Supreme Court, April 26, 1989. The Court was hearing opening arguments in Webster v Reproductive Health Services. Photo by Lorie Shaull, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

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