march for life
Tens of thousands of anti-abortion protesters filled the streets of downtown Washington for the 32nd annual March for Life on Jan. 24, 2008. Photo by Andrea James.

40 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion foes are winning -- and losing

(RNS) Four decades after Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, many opponents of the decision are in a celebratory mood while those backing abortion rights are glum, feeling that momentum is turning decisively against them.

march for life

Tens of thousands of anti-abortion protesters filled the streets of downtown Washington for the 32nd annual March for Life on Jan. 24, 2008. Photo by Andrea James.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Yet in reality, little has changed in the fiercest and most protracted battle of the nation’s bitter culture war.

Instead, what’s really going on is a case study in the psychology of movement politics, where activists have to rally supporters with cries of alarm without making them despair that all is lost. At the same time, they must offer evidence that their efforts are paying off without leaving them complacent.

It’s a difficult balancing act, and lately the abortion rights camp has been the one to sound the warnings.

“As memories of women dying from illegal pre-Roe abortions become more distant, the pro-choice cause is in crisis,” Kate Pickert wrote in a bleak – for Roe supporters – and eye-catching Time magazine cover essay this month.

Pickert pointed to the growing number of state-level actions to restrict access to abortion services – the Guttmacher Institute’s annual review found that in 2012 there were 43 such provisions in 19 state laws – and the decrease in abortion providers nationwide, from 2,908 in 1982 to 1,793 in 2008.

Pregnancy centers run by conservative Christians as alternatives to abortion clinics have been proliferating as well, and there have been concerted – and often successful – efforts to cut or bar government funding of Planned Parenthood.

Moreover, the abortion rights movement is facing a generational divide, as younger women try to take the reins from aging leaders who they see as tone deaf to the public’s more nuanced views on abortion. Indeed, the “pro-choice” label is losing its luster while a growing number of young people like to identify themselves as “pro-life.”

Not surprisingly, some abortion opponents who have toiled for decades to achieve a breakthrough have been exchanging high fives over the abortion-rights angst.

“Of course Time magazine is right. It is axiomatic, it is the story of our times, it is the thing every pro-lifer knows: We’re winning this battle,” Tom Hoopes, a professor of communications at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, wrote at the blog of

Such confidence is oxygen for any movement, and understandable after such a long standoff. But it may also greatly overstate the current dynamics of the abortion battle.

In fact, surveys show that public opinion on abortion rights has barely budged in years, as a slight majority of Americans consistently want to keep abortion legal in most or all cases while about 40 percent would like to see abortion outlawed in most or all cases. According to the latest research from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, an even larger majority wants to keep the Roe v. Wade decision intact.

Moreover, so-called “personhood amendments” that seek to leapfrog Roe and ban all abortions by declaring that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception have failed every time they have gone to the voters, even in the most anti-abortion states in the nation.

Some abortion opponents also concede that the re-election of President Obama has likely preserved Roe v. Wade for another generation, since Obama may get to appoint one or more Supreme Court justices over the next four years.

supreme court

Supreme Court building in Washington, DC (2009). Credit: RNS photo by Mark Fischer / courtesy Flickr (

And many admit that the 2012 election changed the standard political calculus on abortion. Rhetorical excesses by Republican candidates who spoke about abortion and rape led top GOP leaders – including presidential nominee Mitt Romney – to distance themselves from the remarks and even declare they would not seek to overturn Roe, a position once considered anathema for any GOP hopeful.

At the same time, Democrats found that campaigning on a platform of preserving abortion rights and providing access to birth control was a winner among the growing cohort of single women. That essentially shifted the polarity of the culture war so that Democrats were often running on those moral issues while Republicans ran away from them.

In addition, the backlash over the short-lived decision in early 2012 by the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation to cut funding to Planned Parenthood demonstrated the depth of the public’s support for women’s health issues and signaled that the public may not be as supportive of curbing reproductive rights as some may think.

“Pro-abortion activists are losing? Really? If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Cheap,” said Pia de Solenni, who wrote a column at the National Catholic Register telling abortion foes not to believe the hype.

There is no convincing evidence that public attitudes are changing, she said, and the abortion rights movement is “a really aggressive possum playing dead.”

Indeed, in the days before the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe, a number of anti-abortion leaders sought to tamp down a sense of overconfidence in the ranks, fearing that it could lead to the same kind of complacency that has recently worried abortion rights activists.

“We are a long way from a national consensus that could be reasonably and honestly described as pro-life,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Even reversing Roe v. Wade will not be enough.”

Striking down Roe v. Wade could actually pose a daunting challenge, according to abortion foes who note that the high court’s decision effectively created their movement in one fell swoop while making the abortion rights movement part of the establishment – thereby guaranteeing that its backers would take their victory for granted.

“Many pro-life activists fervently pray for Roe’s reversal,” Jon A. Shields, author of “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right,” writes in the latest edition of First Things, a conservative opinion journal.

“Yet Roe’s reversal would hardly represent a decisive victory for the pro-life movement. In fact, it would almost certainly revitalize a genuine movement for abortion rights. Pro-lifers need not make peace with Roe to recognize it has brought certain benefits.”


  1. Younger people are recognizing the moral question of abortion for what it in fact is: an animal rights issue. Crudely, embryos have no more rights than earthworms; late term fetuses have a moral status comparable to dogs and cats, or new born humans.

    Of course to justify a late term abortion you have to have a very, very good reason–just as you should have a very, very good reason to euthanize a dog or cat. And, of course, there is virtually no problem with aborting early embryos any more than there is with killing earthworms.

    This sounds terrible–not the sort of thing that people dare say in the ongoing political debate, but one suspects that this is the very reasonable intuition that the people with more nuanced views you describe have. And I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that imposing restrictions on late term abortions send us down the slippery slope to a ban, or more restrictions, down the line–any more than restrictions on euthanizing dogs and cats, or on experiments done on apes, will lead to bans on squishing earthworms or exterminating cockroaches.

  2. What Savita Halappanavar in Ireland happens daily in the US because of draconian laws designed to make abortion impossible. Yes, women die because of “pro-life” actions. I pray nightly for Savita and her family. I pray that women no longer will have to die as Savita did. Sometimes I hear new or re-born Christians explain that they are “trying” to accept the teachings of their church or that they used to be pro-choice but now realize that they must submit to church authority. What such comments tell me is that these individuals have turned to religion for personal comfort and security. Their “pro-life” stance is not based on ethical decision-making but on a desire for spiritual tranquility. Unfortunately, they seem to have no care or concern for the women they are harming in blindly accepting the teaching of certain churches.

  3. “The Irish Independent story that reveals the rapidly collapsing media narrative around Savita’s death, quotes Praveen’s lawyer stating that Praveen never claimed in any interview that a termination would have saved Savita’s life.”

  4. Well H. E. Barber, if in your mind humans are comparable to dogs and cats… you won’t mind if we put you down when you get sick like we would a sick dog or cat…

  5. “THE inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar opens today just as the first official records emerged proving she asked for a termination of her unviable pregnancy.

    The request is noted in documents which have been handed in to Coroner Dr Ciaran McLaughlin for the young woman’s inquest. It is understood that the request was included in the statements by the consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist who treated her before her death.”

    Irish Independent Jan 18 2013

  6. I’m not a newborn or late term fetus

    Suppose though there were a newborn or late term fetus destined to live in misery and die in agony within months. Wouldn’t you then consider the moral issue of euthanizing such an infant comparable to the issue of euthanizing an equally sick dog or cat?

  7. H.E. Barber, your argument is rooted in the same spirit that Hitler used. You equate humans to animals. Others call the human embryo a parasite. And on it goes. Just as Hitler said, “The Jews are definitely a race, but they are not human.”

    So, too, the killers say of the humans in the womb.

    They are only “animals” says H.E. Baber. The spirit of Eugenics is alive and well I see. Margaret Sanger would be proud.

  8. For some women, breast health tops the list of women’s health concerns. What’s the best way to do a breast self-exam? What should you do if you find a breast lump? What’s the best way to treat breast pain? :`;”

    Have a good week

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