Conservatives spent decades pushing to upend Roe v. Wade. And it's 'only the beginning'

Marc Ramirez
  • Once a grassroots effort, the anti-abortion movement ultimately helped shape the modern Republican Party, experts said.
  • "We are entering a new reality," said one conservative Christian group leader.
  • It was President Donald Trump, who campaigned on the issue as a candidate, who would put the final pieces in place by installing a 6-3 Supreme Court majority.

Anti-abortion forces across the country cautiously celebrated a possible victory nearly five decades in the making after a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion suggested the court is preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision granting a constitutional right to abortion.

“This was our primary mission, to elect a strong pro-life Senate and a president who would appoint pro-life justices,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political organization promoting anti-abortion women in politics. “It’s super-simple, as democracy is – but it was only achieved through much focus and a very powerful, organic pro-life movement.”

Dannenfelser said that although her organization applauded the opinion, she described her reaction as one of “hurry up and wait to celebrate.”

“We are going to celebrate by doing the work that we need to do,” she said.

In the leaked draft opinion, Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote: "Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. ... We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled."

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Anti-abortion activists rally outside the Supreme Court in October 2021.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, a group working to instill anti-abortion efforts on college campuses, said that should Roe be overturned, it would mark a milestone she had been working to make real her entire adult life.

“It’s a heavy responsibility that we now engage in as we look into 50 state battles where we’ll be fighting,” Hawkins said. “It’s certainly not the end. It’s only the beginning.”

The draft decision, reported by Politico, represents decades of concerted efforts by conservative activists nationally who in many cases made overturning Roe v. Wade a singular issue for their voters. But it was President Donald Trump, who campaigned on the issue as a candidate, who would put the final pieces in place by installing a 6-3 Supreme Court majority.

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“We are entering a new reality,” Craig DeRoche, president and CEO of Family Policy Alliance, a conservative Christian lobbying group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said in a statement. “This is the moment the pro-life movement has been waiting for. For the first time in nearly 50 years, states will have the chance to fully protect their youngest citizens. “

On Facebook, the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham, wrote: “Praise God! …. I don’t know if this report is true, but if it is, it’s an answer to many years of prayers.”

Dannenfelser said the opinion paves the way for the democratic process to play out by sending the question to the states.

“Some will move very quickly, and some will have robust debate, which of course is how this whole democracy thing works,” she said. “Democrats think their position of abortion up until the end is going to win them something. But consensus wins over extremism every time.”

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Republican lawmakers praise anti-abortion ruling

The leak of the draft decision not only unleashed furor around one of the nation's hot-button culture war issues, but it also raised questions about the court's deliberations and ability to keep those discussions under wraps. While a number of Republican leaders applauded the opinion, they simultaneously demanded an investigation into how the leak occurred.

“If this report is true, this is nothing short of a massive victory for life and will save the lives of millions of innocent babies,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Twitter. “But while I continue to wait for the Supreme Court's ultimate opinion, I am appalled by the shocking breach of trust posed by this leak.”

In a separate tweet, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called for the Supreme Court and U.S. Department of Justice to “get to the bottom of this leak immediately using every investigative tool necessary. In the meantime, Roe was egregiously wrong from the beginning & I pray the Court follows the Constitution & allows the states to once again protect unborn life.”

A joint statement from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican whip Steve Scalise and Republican conference chair Elise Stefanik called the leak a “clearly coordinated campaign to intimidate and obstruct the Justices of the Supreme Court.”

“House Republicans are committed to upholding the sanctity of life, and we will continue to fight to be a voice for the truly voiceless,” they said. “There is nothing more special, extraordinary and worth fighting for than the miracle of life.”

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the leaked opinion “quite a radical decision” signaling “a fundamental shift in American jurisprudence” that could foreshadow future arguments against same-sex marriage or constitutional protections for birth control.

“Every other decision based on the notion of privacy is thrown into question,” he said.

'Changing hearts and minds' against abortion rights

Jennifer Holland, an associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, said that while the movement’s greatest successes have taken place in the past 10 to 15 years, she said, the groundwork was laid over nearly 50 years.

“The movement has been an incredibly successful grassroots movement,” Holland said, starting with modest, largely Catholic roots that initially faced skepticism for religious influences viewed as infringing on women’s rights.

Over time, however, it found strength in the rise of religious conservatism as a significant voting bloc and the introduction of fetal imagery, such as fetus dolls or rosaries featuring fetuses, in the expression of faith. Those images, along with proliferating ultrasound images, were adopted by a growing grassroots movement of “getting in your life and changing people’s hearts and minds,” she said.

Holland said that as the movement became more influential, its political power took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s with leaders who saw the debate as more than just a vehicle to election to office.

“You started to see more Republicans elected who were anti-abortion ideologues, or people like Donald Trump, who was not an ideologue but knew where his bread was buttered,” she said. “It was partly luck that he got as many justices as he did. But it was also a product not only of the way that the party took up the issue but the way that the movement reshaped the party.”

In May 2016, Trump released a list of conservative judges he'd pick from if elected, specifically citing his hope that they would overturn Roe v. Wade if appointed to the bench. At the time, the court was down one justice after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016, and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on President Barack Obama's choice to replace Scalia.

Trump ultimately appointed three justices – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett  –  cementing a 6-3 conservative majority. Abortion rights activists have since called on Biden to consider "packing" the Supreme Court by adding liberal justices to protect Roe v. Wade.

Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for Students for Life Action, also credited the ubiquity of ultrasound images with helping alter public opinion.

“The prevalence of ultrasounds is a game-changer,” Hamrick said. “Everybody’s first picture is an ultrasound. There’s that image of life in the womb.”

Hamrick said influencing the makeup of the Supreme Court has been a motivating factor for anti-abortion voters for years.

“A lot of us have voted halfheartedly for candidates we found lackluster,” she said, with the simple hope that those candidates, given the opportunity, would install judges that would advance the cause. “The court has an oversized role, and obviously President Trump fulfilled his promises and performed as a pro-life leader more than many people expected.”

“Abortion is not in the Constitution,” Hamrick added. “Roe v. Wade is a fabrication. It’s something created by seven men in 1973 and that can just as easily be discarded as the mistake that it is.”

Contributing: With reporting from Trevor Hughes