Donate to RNS

Supreme Court leak jump-starts new epoch in faith-based abortion politics

The leaked draft decision offered a preview of extremist abortion politics that faith groups will have to navigate.

A person holds a sign referencing the U.S. Supreme Court while taking part in a rally in favor of abortion rights on the steps of the Temple of Justice, which houses the Washington state Supreme Court, May 3, 2022, at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(RNS) — Abortion, after all, was already on our radar. Many religious groups and individuals — not to mention secular activists, politicians and the media — have been gearing up for months for the possibility that the Supreme Court would use a case about the constitutionality of Mississippi’s post-15-week abortion ban to significantly alter or even overturn Roe v. Wade. The decision was due by the end of June.

Then hot abortion summer came early.

Even without the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion, we knew Donald Trump’s three appointees would join Justices Clarence Thomas and Alito in overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, two cases that have until now prohibited states from banning abortion before viability.

With the leaked opinion, we are observing this political earthquake in real time. Go-time for the carefully laid plans, rhetoric and tactics of interest groups on both sides of this most contentious issue is suddenly today. The leak both extends and accelerates the fevered election-year politics about abortion. 


RELATED: Abortion restrictions v. religious free exercise: Which will win?


There are consequences of this decision that will take years to play out — not least how it affects people’s trust in the Supreme Court as an institution. But we have a better idea of what is going to happen in the months to come.

The obvious political question is whether overturning Roe — or even the prospect of it — will galvanize pro-choice voters to turn out in record numbers to protest the erosion of a right held sacrosanct. Or will it energize the religious right, which has labored patiently and strategically for exactly this outcome?

The answer is both.

Polling data varies based on question wording, but Americans have ambivalent views, with at least 85% believing abortion should be legal in at least some cases. The specter of dozens of states banning abortion in all or most cases will surely drive more pro-choice voters to the polls, perhaps especially women of childbearing age.

The implications are already visible in politcians’ responses to the leak. While pro-life activists are loudly celebrating, most Republicans in Congress are taking a different tone, quickly denouncing the leak itself, but doing little cheering.

Terrified to say anything critical of former President Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of a free and fair election or the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, Republicans are suddenly very concerned about institutional norms. Their response suggests, especially given the survey data, that Alito’s decision and the resulting dramatic rollbacks of a protected right could hurt their party at the polls.

Republicans are always glad to take money and electioneering help from pro-life groups. They gleefully support anti-abortion judges (who happen to agree with the party’s wish to transfer more wealth to the rich and dismantle labor, environmental and civil-rights protections).

But some GOP elected officials will get squeamish about criminalizing abortion outright or in the fist trimester of pregnancy. It is easy to campaign on the life issue, railing against pro-choice extremists and legislating abortion restrictions while knowing full well the Supreme Court would invalidate these laws. It’s more difficult to tell women in your district with unplanned, dangerous or unviable pregnancies that they are criminally liable killers.

But if Democrats think that they will win electorally after losing in the court, they are sadly mistaken. Religious conservatives, by far the most pro-life of any voting bloc, will be eager to reward Republicans who made their Supreme Court majority possible. As abortion politics shift from the courts to legislatures and Congress, furthermore, GOP voters will support candidates who promise to enact ever more extreme abortion bans in conservative states.

In other words, the issue of abortion rights is not going to save President Joe Biden or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from high inflation, disaffection from the left and the historical trend of presidents’ parties losing seats in midterm elections. 

What may rescue them is that pro-life advocates are saying their work is just beginning. This kind of talk is heartening to people like me who have been suspicious of the pro-life movement’s intention to meet the need of hundreds of thousands of mothers and babies with anything other than private charity.

Indeed, when abortion is dramatically curtailed, we will need robust pro-child policies and more government assistance to children and families. Republicans and the pro-life movement should lead the charge for these public investments, and perhaps religious leaders like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops can provide moral leadership in holding them to account.

But that’s not what some Republicans, wanting to preserve abortion as a wedge issue, mean. Before Monday’s leak, The Washington Post reported that pro-life interest groups will push congressional Republicans and 2024 presidential aspirants to advocate for a national law criminalizing abortions after six weeks. There is justifiable fear that evangelical Christians will next start working on legal challenges to marriage between people of the same sex — another win for the left based on the privacy right identified in Roe. 

A federal six-week abortion ban is likely impossible, but I never stop being stunned at Democrats’ ability to promote progressive extremism so hard that right-wing extremism prevails.

Until then, progressives will establish “abortion sanctuaries” in blue states so that red-state women can travel to obtain legal abortions. Social conservatives will juggle prosecuting illegal abortions with banning even more. The courts will begin to hear cases that challenge same-sex marriage and possibly even artificial contraceptives.


RELATED: For red-state clergy who back abortion rights, losing Roe is a call to action


So while 2022 ushers in a new political epoch after a half-century of legal abortion under Roe, religious voters and groups will have to decide if they will follow activists to the extremes or support politics and governing institutions that enable compromise and policies that reflect what most Americans actually believe about abortion.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political commentator in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)