Moving Forward or Standing Still? The Battle Over Abortion in the 21st Century

By Deana Rohlinger

It is difficult to predict the future of social movements. The political world is in flux; so are the composition and dynamics of the social movements operating in it. This makes it difficult to say with any certainty what movement will succeed during a particular historical moment, let alone predict what may happen to a given movement next. The uncertainty surrounding a movement’s trajectory does not disappear simply because it is an established part of the political landscape. Indeed, some issues have the ability to mobilize segments of the population year after year. Yet, it is difficult to divine what these movements will look like a decade from now.

The pro-life and pro-choice movements are good examples in this regard. At first glance, the movements were fundamentally altered by theRoe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, but their trajectories have changed very little since. Pro-choicers thought that the Supreme Court decisions resolved the legal abortion question and moved on to other issues.[1] They were caught off guard when pro-lifers began testing the boundaries of the decisions at the national and local level. As a result, the pro-life movement largely has been on the offensive for the last four decades while the pro-choice movement generally has tried to stem the tide of their opponent’s success.[2]

Stymieing the pro-life movement has not been easy to do. There are three factors that account for the pro-life movement’s four decades of success.

Organization. The pro-life movement grew out of local churches and, consequently, has been better organized than the pro-choice movement at the state level. Early pro-life activism focused on thwarting pro-choice attempts to liberalize abortion laws.[3] In the wake of Roe and Doe, pro-lifers consolidated their strength at the national level through the formation of groups like the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Consequently, the movement is well organized at the federal, state, and local levels with different kinds of groups—those oriented toward education, services for pregnant women, and direct action—working in tandem to affect abortion policy and practice in the U.S. Local activists protest outside of clinics and formulate Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws that restrict where, how, and who can perform the procedure, while NRLC lobbies Congress and crafts model legislation that can be easily tailored to exigencies of a state.

Goals. While some pro-life groups seek to end legal abortion in the U.S., mainstream organizations realize that is unrealistic. Most pro-lifers understand that a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion is highly unlikely, particularly since the majority of Americans support legal abortion in “certain circumstances” (see the graph below). The goal is to test the limits of the law (and the citizenry’s tolerance) by introducing a bevy of restrictions and requirements on the abortion procedure. As a founder of NRLC told me in an interview, “It doesn’t matter if abortion is legal if it is inaccessible.” Pro-lifers have successfully furthered this goal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which released its new report summarizing state abortion policies February 1, 2013, 19 states enacted 43 pieces of legislation restricting access to abortion services in 2012. This was second only to 2011 when pro-lifers passed a new record of 92 laws limiting (or creating obstacles to) these services.

gallop pollAbility to Shift the Debate. Mainstream pro-life groups have done an excellent job shifting the debate away from women’s health over the last twenty years. Debates over individual rights (and more specifically taxpayers’ rights not to pay for abortion), parental rights, practitioner and pharmacist rights, and the rights of the unborn have narrowed concerns regarding women’s health to topics like whether abortion is linked to breast cancer and whether abortion negatively affects women’s mental health.[4] These efforts have been aided by groups like Women Exploited by Abortion, which feature anecdotes from women who regret their abortions, and campaigns that compare abortion to genocide. Sidelining women’s health in the abortion debate has been a boon for the pro-life movement. The continual debate over “rights” enabled pro-lifers to explore what constitutes an “undue burden” on women and launch a two-decade long attack on Planned Parenthood’s funding. The latter recently found political support and ten states (see the graph below) have cut or eliminated funding to Planned Parenthood clinics (A U.S. District Court Judge overturned the AZ law in February 2013).

PP funding

The pro-life movement, however, cannot claim victory just yet. For the last two decades, pro-choice groups have been working hard to connect abortion to a broader reproductive justice agenda—and the movement’s efforts to reframe how inequality affects reproductive options and decision-making are coming to fruition.[5] In part, these efforts have gained steam in the wake of national healthcare reform and global mobilizations against rape culture. However, dissention in the pro-life movement has helped as well. More radical pro-lifers are intent on pushing “personhood” legislation, which defines a fertilized human egg as a legal person. Mainstream groups like NRLC distance themselves from this unpopular legislation arguing that it cannot withstand legal scrutiny and could affect the availability of contraception, which, in turn, could mobilize the citizenry against the movement. Unmoved by these arguments, radicals argue that NRLC is not really pro-life and urge activists to withdrawal financial and moral support. These internal debates have been further complicated by nuns, who made news in 2012 by challenging what it means to be Catholic and pro-life in the 21st century. Speaking to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Sister Pat Farrell responded to the Church’s criticism that the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious didn’t push the pro-life position enough by connecting the right-to-life cause with social justice more generally. She noted:

I think the criticism of what we’re not talking about seems to me to be unfair… Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion… We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues… To single out one right-to-life issue and to say that that’s the only issue that defines Catholic identity, I think, is really a distortion.

This conceptualization of “pro-life” advocates for policy solutions that redress social, political, and economic inequality, which is why some nuns have voiced support for Obama’s healthcare program and opposition to cuts in welfare programs. These ideas share common ground with activists fighting for reproductive justice.

While I cannot predict what will happen next in the battle over abortion, the trajectories of the movements may look quite different in the coming decade. Pro-lifers clearly are prepared to stay the course that has brought them success in the past. Pro-choicers, however, look ready to explore a new path, one that could create new coalitions and energy around women’s issues writ large. Change, of course, is never easy. It remains to be seen if pro-choice groups, particularly ones who have made their political reputations championing legal abortion, are ready to turn their social justice discourse into sustained action.


[1] For an excellent overview of movements’ early trajectory see Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1991. The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] The battles between the pro-life and pro-choice movements are summarized in Rohlinger, Deana and Miriam Sessions. 2013. “Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Movements.” Pp. 1008-1013 in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, vol. 2, edited by D. Snow, D. Della Porta, B. Klandermans, and D. McAdam. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

[3] For a discussion see Burns, Gene. 2005. The Moral Veto: Framing Contraception, Abortion, and Cultural Pluralism in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[4]  I discuss some of this in Rohlinger, Deana A. 2006. “Friend and Foe: Media, Politics, and Tactics in the Abortion War.” Social Problems 53(4): 537-561.

[5] For an overview see Sillman, Jael, Marlene Fried, Loretta Ross & Elena Gutierrez. 2004. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice. Cambridge: South End Press.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Roe at 40

4 responses to “Moving Forward or Standing Still? The Battle Over Abortion in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: Activists Connect Choice to Reproductive Justice #womenrights | kracktivist

  2. Be good to everyone who becomes attached to us; cherish every friend who is by our side;
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  3. Pingback: Toward a “Pro Lives” Perspective that Values the Lives of Pregnant Women and the Well-Being of Our Nation - New York, New Haven, Allentown | National Advocates for Pregnant Women

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