The Anti-Abortion Movement Is the Enduring Conservative Ethos. Why?

What we know about the anti-abortion movement, and what we don't.

A hand holding up a cross necklace, with a background of anti-abortion protest signs.

In the late hours of May 2, 2022, a Supreme Court document leaked — a nearly unprecedented happening — of a draft opinion written by a majority of Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1973 that enshrined a person’s right to an abortion under the Fourth Amendment, otherwise known as the right to privacy.

That this opinion leaked to the press might be unprecedented, but following decades of the slow chipping away at abortion rights nationwide, few experts are surprised by the move. After all, several states have now banned abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, and many other states have laws on the books that will trigger abortion bans if Roe is overturned.

Arguing that the right to abortion is not enshrined in the Constitution will not only have cascading effects (many are concerned that other rights, like gay marriage and interracial marriage, will be at risk because they were decided under the right to privacy as well) but will also make the lives of pregnant people, people who can become pregnant, and their families drastically harder. People will die having high-risk pregnancies, will die trying to end their pregnancies, will give birth to babies they cannot afford to raise and will be trapped in cycles of poverty. Abortion will be a family planning tool shunted off the table. For the Christian right, the draft opinion will represent a huge win, one that has been decades in the making.

Just ask Jennifer L. Holland, an Assistant Professor of U.S. History at the University of Oklahoma and author of Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement, a definitive text on the anti-abortion movement and how it came to be one of the defining issues in conservative politics. For Holland, who has been a pro-choice activist since she was in college and an escort at clinics, her interest in the anti-abortion movement piqued when she met friends who had grown up Catholic. “[They] were very against legal abortion. They weren’t conservative in almost any other way. [But they had] these really formative experiences in their youth — often in church, … watching The Silent Scream.” [Editor’s Note: The Silent Scream is a 1984 anti-abortion propaganda misinformation film.] When Holland got to grad school, she wanted to understand what made the anti-abortion movement work.

“The anti-abortion movements created ideas that just claim to feel so personal, to so many people. I think we’ve seen it very clearly in the 21st century, that all of these other issues of social conservatives are sort of neither here nor there. Adultery doesn’t matter anymore. Divorce doesn’t matter anymore. Pornography doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Fatherly talked to Holland about the history of the anti-abortion movement in 2021, in a discussion that has only become more relevant.

So what was the anti-abortion movement’s genesis?

This movement started with churches. Catholics [were mobilized] first. And the anti-abortion movement facilitated these coalitions that become the basis for the religious right. Any student of history knows that this is a strange coalition that came to dominate our politics in the late 20th century. Mormons and evangelicals — none of them wanted to be a part of religious coalitions for most of the 20th century, and they didn’t want to find common ground. They thought it would water down their own claims to absolute truth [of their religion].

Did abortion provide that?

There were all sorts of deeply held antagonisms between religious groups and antagonisms to working across borders. And yet through the politics of abortion, they start talking about their common Judeo-Christian values, in a way that allows this particular religious coalition to claim that the anti-abortion position is the religious position. That what marks them as Christians is being against abortion.

But how did it become this unifying issue that became so tied to religious affiliation or identity?

Catholics had a very long-standing opposition to abortion, but throughout most of the 20th century, Catholics talked more about their opposition to birth control. But then the church started modernizing [at that time]. I think non-Catholics can’t quite comprehend how radical this was, that the church that had claimed to be unchanging across time and space, all of the sudden were like, “We’re going to modernize.”

The more conservative Catholics who wanted an unchanging church attached themselves to reproductive issues and issues around gender and sexuality: that you’re going to have celibate priests, that you aren’t going to have women priests. Abortion became, even more so than birth control, the issue that this particular group of [conservative] Catholics exerts with the support of the hierarchy.

In what ways do the conservative Catholics begin to exert their anti-abortion beliefs with the support of the hierarchy?

Catholics do the rosary. At some point, the movement manufactures rosaries that have fetuses on them. What does it mean to do the rosary holding beads that literally have fetuses on them? What does it mean that at the end of mass, you watch a slideshow of stillborn, miscarried, and aborted fetuses? What does it mean that a priest gives a sermon and calls abortion a Holocaust? There was an assumption that abortion was wrong in the early 21st century, but it wasn’t experienced in the day-to-day in the sort of daily rhythms of the Catholic faith, the way it was in the ’70s onward, depending on the parish. But the church becomes the backbone of the movement.

A lot of evangelical denominations were taken over by more fundamentalist groups in that period. And in the ’80s and ’90s, evangelicals create spaces for children: music and camp, a whole world that’s supposed to be only inhabited by evangelicals. And abortion politics [filled] all of those forums.

So the anti-abortion movement recruited fervent believers very young into ending the practice of abortion.

I have a chapter in my book about how people who were actually born after 1973 were named “survivors” by the movement. Think about how intense that is. Not only are you envisioning someone else’s death, but you could have died. You survived the genocide. Someone else didn’t. You have the place of someone else. Now, [anti-abortion activists have] started talking about “born privilege.”

That’s a real co-option of leftist language, and it’s very much in that same vision. You have to envision yourself in the context of abortion as murder, genocide, or this evil at the root of our society that separates the murderers from those who are working to end it.

It’s not surprising, of course, that this movement, especially in the ’90s, escalates into radical and violent action and murder. If you are calling something a Holocaust, that is not unreasonable that people are going to treat it as such. In fact, the movement says, Treat it like murder. Treat it like we’re outside a concentration camp.

What true believer isn’t going to grab a gun and stop it?

It’s surprising, perhaps, that more people didn’t. But abortion is everything. For some people, nothing else could possibly undermine their support for the Republican Party because the Republican Party is the party of the pro-life movement.

That can’t be understood if we only think about high-level politics. It can only be understood if we really think about the ways in which this movement has insinuated itself into so many intimate places. It came into people’s schools, into their homes, and especially into their churches.

All those things produced this profound transformation for white religious people of a certain kind. It was just so successful at connecting fetal personhood to what it meant to be a Christian and what it meant to be a woman. That trickled up into arguments made and bought by the Supreme Court.

In the beginning, you mentioned that abortion, unlike other social conservative issues, has remained the issue for conservativism and the religious right. Some vote for Republicans only because of their abortion position.

One part is the effective personal messaging for people who are in moments of transition — and that’s white religious people in the late 20th century. [They’re asking:] “Who are we? What does whiteness mean after the Civil Rights Movement? What does being a religious person mean in a world that is like valuing secularism more and more?” I think the other major reason why the anti-abortion movement is so successful when a lot of other movements aren’t, is that the anti-abortion movement has captured and grown on is this idea of “rights.” Civil rights, and the right to life.

What do you mean?

They co-opted the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of its imagery. They claim to be the inheritors of people who opposed the Nazis. That’s central to their vision of themselves. They co-opt liberal and leftist rhetoric. They envision the anti-abortion movement as an extension of those.

They see themselves as a civil rights movement. [They think] they’re fighting a genocide. I think that makes this movement feel emotionally compelling, especially when you pair it with fetal ephemera.

Fetal ephemera?

Anti-abortion activists are asked to take fetuses everywhere with them, so they can always be connected to what they imagine as a victim of genocide. And I think that you can’t quite wrap your head around how emotionally compelling that has to be for a whole host of people. To wear fetus pins, to carry a fetus doll around, constantly.

At a moment where racial hierarchies and gender hierarchies are exposed in a way that they never had been before, [anti-abortion activists] imagine not only real victimhood but connect it to themselves as a Christian, as a Conservative woman, as a conservative child, as a conservative family. And then all those people become victims, too, right?

It’s a way for white religious people to be like, “We’re victims, too,” at a moment when they are being named at the top of the hierarchy, for having unacknowledged power that they’re benefiting from. That’s [a] big reason why it resonates so much with a certain segment of religious people in particular.

The majority of people who seek abortions are already parents. Most of them have multiple children. Does the anti-abortion movement reckon with the fact that parents seek abortions the most often?

There’s a non-acknowledgment of parents who have abortions after they become parents.

The other way they deal with it is the idea that women are coerced into abortions by their boyfriends, by their husbands, by their parents, by abortion providers. That’s built into this logic about who and what a woman is.

Most anti-abortion activists fundamentally believe that women know that fetuses are babies, and they know that abortion is murder. How do they explain the massive numbers of women who get abortions? There’s a very personal explanation — which is that someone forced you. You could have a husband who is oppressive, parents who are forcing you. These are the villains.

The logic of women being victims of abortion is one of the most compelling and successful parts of the movement from the ’90s onwards. It’s what’s selling in courts all over, and especially what’s selling in the Supreme Court right now. The idea that women need to be protected from abortion, that they are being damaged and duped.


But now the anti-abortion movement is saying the government needs to protect women from physical damage from abortion itself, co-opting certain parts of feminism. They’ve melded it with a lot of conservative ideas about womanhood. They say that they’re the real women’s rights movement and that they’re protecting women from an onerous state.

In the early 2000s, you had Supreme Court justices who were like, “Yeah, of course. Of course, abortion damages women’s mental health.” This is totally a creation of the anti-abortion movement. It’s not true. The amount of misinformation that the anti-abortion movement has created over the last 50 years is enormous. It’s culminating, finally, in law that takes all of that [misinformation] as a given, or as truths.

What do you think could dismantle the movement — if anything?

What could be really eye-opening is whether state laws, especially the ones that are upheld, allow legal punishment for women who procure abortions. Before when abortion was illegal, women usually were not jailed. They were harassed, but usually, it was the abortion provider who ended up going to jail.

With these protective arguments, some of these state laws do have things like “women aren’t going to be prosecuted.” But other states really don’t. Could a woman be convicted of murder for an abortion? This movement, for so long, has tried to distance itself from punishment language around women. But if [women aren’t punished], that doesn’t make sense, either. If you say that a fetus is a human being, it doesn’t make any sense [to not punish abortion].

In American law, if someone contracts someone to kill someone on their behalf, it’s not like the person who contracted the killer is somehow not prosecuted. That doesn’t make any sense at all, that the abortion provider is the one who’s responsible, not the woman who paid the abortion provider. There’s no logic to it, especially for those people who really believe that is a baby, period.

And the idea that women need to be protected from abortion — when you said that, I immediately thought of how certain people who, say, struggle to get their tubes tied when they want to. That’s the same function at work, right? “You don’t know any better. We’re protecting you.”

There are so many ways that women are imagined here. You don’t know what you’re doing; you cannot be responsible to make these decisions. Women are figured as both victims and perpetrators.

A lot of states [have passed] laws where women have to prove that they aren’t discriminating against their fetuses for issues of disability, gender, or race. The state is trying to keep women from “committing genocide” against their own offspring. That Black women have to prove they’re not aborting their fetuses because those fetuses are Black. You can see how quickly this language turns from protecting women and the vulnerable into these physically and emotionally oppressive situations.

The movement has been able to tap into these deep cultural reservoirs of women not knowing what they want and not knowing what to do with their bodies.

So, Republicans needed the anti-abortion movement to remain politically relevant?

The movement allowed you to be an abolitionist. It allowed this very black-and-white moral vision. The anti-abortion movement knew they were being used [by politicians] for a long time. Actually, the Republican party was more for abortion reform in the late ’60s, and the Democrats weren’t. Democrats were, more likely, representing Catholics.

We had all these Republicans who talked a good talk [about ending abortion] during elections and then would do nothing. And so, by the late ’90s, the anti-abortion movement said, “You can’t use us anymore. We are going to elect people who are actually going to pay out.”

That is one reason why the 21st century looks so different, not just for the movement itself, but for the changing laws. Because there are so many more anti-abortion ideologues in office.


And even ones that aren’t — Donald Trump was certainly not an ideologue. But he was savvy enough to know that that was the thing that matters to his base. And that was the thing that he was willing to pay out. That’s really different from Reagan, who appointed Sandra Day O’Connor. She was not pro-life. He had audiences with anti-abortion activists who said, “She is not the candidate we want,” and he appointed her anyway. Then you have this new Court, which is very much a product of the anti-abortion movement putting its foot down in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

So what we’re living in now is the difference between the nudge, nudge, wink, wink kind of thing and then being, like, “OK, I’m actually going to start putting these policies into place.”

Well, now, anti-abortion activists are just and their allies in state legislatures are passing so many bills. There are more bills; they are more radical.

There is such an unparalleled excitement [for these anti-abortion activists]. The movement would prefer full overturning of Roe. I think the court could make abortion illegal anywhere, or just turn it back to the states, in which case it basically goes back to that late ’60s moment where some states were providing abortions and other places were not and it’s very illegal.