When I was the age that my daughter is now, my favorite sweatshirt had the words “Choice, Choice, Choice, Choice” in rainbow letters across its front. My mom got me that sweatshirt at a 1989 rally in response to Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law restricting the use of state funds and facilities for abortion, an early attempt to eat away at Roe v. Wade. And though many adults in the Wisconsin neighborhood where I grew up thought that message inappropriate for a 13 year old, I wore it proudly. Even then, I understood that it spoke not just to a person’s right to an abortion, but also to the respect and dignity that should be afforded every human being.
Since then, it has become increasingly clear that our society does not confer rights and dignity on we the people — as seen in the slashing of school food programs, the denial of Medicaid expansion in states that need it most, attacks on Black, Brown, and Native bodies by the police and border patrol, as well as the Supreme Court’s recent decisions to put fossil-fuel companies ahead of the rest of us, guns above kids, and deny sovereignty to indigenous people and tribes, while failing to protect our voting rights and ending the constitutional right to abortion.
For millions of us, the Dobbs v. Jackson decision on abortion means that life in America has just grown distinctly more dangerous. The seismic aftershocks of that ruling are already being felt across the country: 22 states have laws or constitutional amendments on the books now poised to severely limit access to abortion or ban it outright. Even before the Supremes issued their decision, states with more restrictive abortion laws had higher maternal-mortality and infant-mortality rates. Now, experts are predicting at least a 21% increase in pregnancy-related deaths across the country.
As is always the case with public-health crises in America — the only industrialized country without some form of universal healthcare — it’s the poor who will suffer the most. Survey data shows that nearly 50% of women who seek abortions live under the federal poverty line, while many more hover precariously above it. In states that limit or ban abortion, poor women and others will now face an immediate threat of heightened health complications, as well as the long-term damage associated with abortion restrictions.
Indeed, data collected by economists in the decades after Roe v. Wade indicates that the greater the limits on abortion, the more poverty for parents and the less education for their children. Worse yet, the 13 states that had trigger laws designed to outlaw abortion in the event of a Roe reversal were already among the poorest in the country. Now, poor people in poor states will be on the punishing spear tip of our post-Roe world.
While the Supreme Court’s grim decision means more pain and hardship for women, transgender, and gender non-confirming people, it signals even more: the validation of a half-century-old strategy by Christian nationalists to remake the very fabric of this nation. For the businessmen, pastors, and politicians who laid the foundations for the Dobbs ruling, this was never just about abortion.
The multi-decade campaign to reverse Roe v. Wade has always been about building a political movement to seize and wield political power. For decades, it’s championed a vision of “family values” grounded in the nuclear family and a version of community life meant to tightly control sex and sexuality, while sanctioning attacks on women and LGBTQIA people. Thanks to its militant and disciplined fight to bring down Roe, this Christian nationalist movement has positioned itself to advance a full-spectrum extremist agenda that is not only patriarchal and sexist, but racist, anti-poor, and anti-democratic. Consider the Dobbs decision the crown jewel in a power-building strategy years in the making. Consider it as well the coronation of a movement ready to flex its power in ever larger, more violent, and more audacious ways.
In that context, bear in mind that, in his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the Dobbs decision gives the Supreme Court legal precedent to strike down other previously settled landmark civil rights jurisprudence, including Griswold v. Connecticut (access to contraception), Lawrence v. Texas (protection of same-sex relationships), and Obergefell v. Hodges (protection of same-sex marriage). Whether or not these fundamental protections ultimately fall, the Supreme Court majority’s justification for Dobbs certainly raises the possibility that any due-process rights not guaranteed by and included in the Constitution before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 could be called into question.
The Christian nationalist movement long ago identified control of the Supreme Court as decisive for its agenda of rolling back all the twentieth-century progressive reforms from the New Deal of the 1930s through the Great Society of the 1960s. Less than a week after the Dobbs decision, in fact, that court overturned Massachusetts v. EPA, the 2007 ruling that set a precedent when it came to the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by polluting industries. May Boeve, head of the environmental group 350.org, put it this way:
“Overturning Roe v. Wade means the Supreme Court isn’t just coming for abortion — they’re coming for the right to privacy and other legal precedents that Roe rests on, even the United States government’s ability to tackle the climate crisis.”
To fully grasp the meaning of this moment, it’s important to recognize just how inextricably the assault on abortion is connected to a larger urge: to assault democracy itself, including the rights of citizens to vote and to have decent healthcare and housing, a public-school education, living wages, and a clean environment. And it’s no less important to grasp just how a movement of Christian nationalists used the issue of abortion to begin rolling back the hard-won gains of the Second Reconstruction era of the 1950s and 1960s and achieve political power that found its clearest and most extreme expression in the Trump years and has no interest in turning back now.
Abortion and the Architecture of a Movement
Throughout American history, a current of anti-abortion sentiment, especially on religious grounds, has been apparent. Some traditional Roman Catholics, for instance, long resisted the advance of abortion rights, including a church-led dissent during the Great Depression, when economic disaster doubled the number of abortions (then still illegal in every state). Some rank-and-file evangelicals were also against it in the pre-Roe years, their opposition baked into a theological and moral understanding of life and death that ran deeper than politics.
Before all this, however, abortion was legal in this country. As a scholar of the subject has explained, in the 1800s, “Protestant clergy were notably resistant to denouncing abortion — they feared losing congregants if they came out against the common practice.” In fact, the Victorian-era campaign to make abortion illegal was driven as much by physicians and the American Medical Association, then intent on exerting its professional power over midwives (mainly women who regularly and safely carried out abortions), as by the Catholic Church.
Moreover, even in the middle decades of the twentieth century, anti-abortionism was not a consensus position in evangelical Protestantism. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicalism’s most significant denomination, took moderate positions on abortion in the 1950s and 1960s, while leading Baptist pastors and theologians rarely preached or wrote on the issue. In fact, a 1970 poll by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that “70% of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity, and 71% in cases of rape.”
So what changed for those who became the power-brokers of a more extremist America? For one thing, the fight for the right to abortion in the years leading up to Roe was deeply intertwined with an upsurge of progressive gender, racial, and class politics. At the time, the Black freedom struggle was breaking the iron grip of Jim Crow in the South, as well as segregation and discrimination across the country; new movements of women and LGBTQ people were fighting for expanded legal protection, while challenging the bounds of repressive gender and sexual norms; the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam had catalyzed a robust antiwar movement; organized labor retained a tenuous but important seat at the economic bargaining table; and new movements of the poor were forcing Washington to turn once again to the issues of poverty and economic inequality.
For a group of reactionary clergy and well-funded right-wing political activists, the essence of what it was to be American seemed under attack. Well-known figures like Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, who would found the Moral Majority (alongside Jerry Falwell, Sr.), began decrying the supposed rising threat of communism and the dissolution of American capitalism, as well as what they saw as the rupture of the nuclear family and of white Christian community life through forced desegregation. (Note that Jerry Falwell didn’t preach his first anti-abortion sermon until six years after the Roe decision.)
Such leaders would form the core of what came to be called the “New Right.” They began working closely with influential Christian pastors and the apostles of neoliberal economics to build a new political movement that could “take back the country.” Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, often cites this Paul Weyrich quote about the movement’s goals:
“We are radicals who want to change the existing power structure. We are not conservatives in the sense that conservative means accepting the status quo. We want change — we are the forces of change.”
Indeed, what united these reactionaries above all else was their opposition to desegregation. Later, they would conveniently change their origin story from overt racism to a more palatable anti-abortion, anti-choice struggle. As historian Randall Balmer put it: “Opposition to abortion, therefore, was a godsend for leaders of the Religious Right because it allowed them to distract attention from the real genesis of their movement: defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”
Many of the movement’s leaders first converged around their fear that segregated Christian schools would be stripped of public vouchers. As Balmer points out, however, they soon recognized that championing racial segregation was not a winning strategy when it came to building a movement with a mass base. So they looked elsewhere. What they discovered was that, in the wake of the Roe decision, a dislike of legalized abortion had unsettled some Protestant and Catholic evangelicals. In other words, these operatives didn’t actually manufacture a growing evangelical hostility to abortion, but they did harness and encourage it as a political vehicle for radical change.
Looking back in the wake of the recent Dobbs decision obliterating Roe v. Wade, Katherine Stewart put it this way:
“Abortion turned out to be the critical unifying issue for two fundamentally political reasons. First, it brought together conservative Catholics who supplied much of the intellectual leadership of the movement with conservative Protestants and evangelicals. Second, by tying abortion to the perceived social ills of the age — the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation — the issue became a focal point for the anxieties about social change welling up from the base.”
What this movement and its allies also discovered was that they could build and exert tremendous power through a long-term political strategy that initially focused on Southern elections and then their ability to take over the courts, including most recently the Supreme Court. Abortion became just one potent weapon in an arsenal whose impact we’re feeling in a devastating fashion today.
A Fusion Movement from Below?
As Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has pointed out, check out a map of the states in this country that have banned abortion and you’ll find that you’re dealing with the same legislators and courts denying voting rights, refusing to raise municipal minimum wages, and failing to protect immigrants, LGBTQIA people, and the planet itself. As the Economic Policy Institute described the situation after Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion on abortion hit the news in May:
“It is no coincidence that the states that will ban abortion first are also largely the states with the lowest minimum wages, states less likely to have expanded Medicaid, states more likely to be anti-union ‘Right-to-Work’ states, and states with higher-than-average incarceration rates… Environments in which abortion is legal and accessible have lower rates of teen first births and marriages. Abortion legalization has also been associated with reduced maternal mortality for Black women. The ability to delay having a child has been found to translate to significantly increased wages and labor earnings, especially among Black women, as well as increased likelihood of educational attainment.”
Indeed, the right to abortion should be considered a bellwether issue when judging the health of American democracy, one that guarantees equal protection under the law for everyone. Fortunately, the most recent Supreme Court rulings, including Dobbs, are being met with growing resistance and organizing. Just weeks ago, thousands upon thousands of us came together on Pennsylvania Avenue for a Mass Poor People and Low Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. On the very day of the Dobbs decision and ever since, protests against that ruling, including acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, have been growing.
In a similar fashion, striking numbers of us have begun mobilizing against gun violence and the climate crisis. At this moment as well, we seem to be witnessing the rise of a new labor movement with workers already organizing at Starbucks, Dollar General stores, and Walmart, among other places. The Christian nationalist movement relies on a divide-and-conquer strategy and single-issue organizing. A pro-democracy and justice movement must resist that approach.
As a Christian theologian and pastor myself, I’ve been deeply disturbed by the growth of the Christian nationalist movement. We would do well, however, to heed their focus and fury. Its leaders were very clear about how necessary it was, if they were ever to gain real power in this country, to build a national political movement. In response, the 140 million poor and low-wealth Americans, pro-choice and pro-earth activists, and those of us concerned about the future of our democracy must do the same, building a moral movement from below. And such a movement must not be afraid of power, but ready to fight for it. Only then can we truly begin to reconstruct this country from the bottom up.
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.