Published May 12, 2022
After five decades of struggle, the pro-life movement is within a hair’s breadth of victory. The Supreme Court is on the verge of striking down Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. But even if it does, that won’t end our battles over abortion. Instead, it will signal the start of a new phase of the fight.
An end to nearly 50 years of flawed abortion jurisprudence would be a cause for celebration, the fruit of tireless work on the part of the pro-life movement. But a status quo in which each state can regulate abortion as it sees fit is a far cry from a truly pro-life America. It may well turn out that the slow work of overturning Roe was the easiest part of the fight.
Once Roe no longer prohibits states from protecting unborn children, the pro-life movement will by necessity become far more diffuse, focused no longer on the Supreme Court and judicial-confirmation battles but rather, for the most part, on granular state-level skirmishes. Our fight will be, as it always has been, to make abortion both illegal and unwanted, a project that requires making headway in both our law and our culture. Long-standing networks of lawmakers, activists, and volunteers will finally be able to lobby for pro-life policy changes that stick and to encourage those around us to support those policies. For such a movement to flourish, it will need unity of purpose but subsidiarity in approach.
That means, for one thing, that in a post-Roe America pro-lifers should avoid imposing undue litmus tests on one another. We all must agree on our goal: the abolition of abortion. But we should avoid excommunicating allies over disagreements about how quickly we get there, state by state, or over our views on adjacent issues such as the welfare state, the death penalty, or paid parental leave. There will be time enough down the road to work out these sorts of disagreements, and there is space enough in the movement for differing views.
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Meanwhile, pro-lifers must accept that working toward the goal of the abolition of abortion will require prudence and, in many cases, patience. If every pro-life lawmaker in the country refused to consider anything other than a ban on all abortions from the moment Roe was overturned, we’d make little progress anywhere outside a handful of intensely pro-life states. What the public supports in Florida today won’t be what the public supports in Texas. What the pro-life movement prioritizes in New York will be different from what it attempts in South Dakota. It will require a great deal of charity within the movement to allow these efforts to flourish in their own space and at their own pace.
To be sure, public opinion doesn’t dictate morality, and we must always insist on the humanity and dignity of the unborn child from the moment of conception. But that doesn’t preclude pro-lifers from adopting partial measures, as we have done up to this point, on our way to the eventual goal of total abolition. This approach may best help us to change hearts and minds along the way, creating a pro-life culture that endures.
For good or for ill — and mostly for good — our political system operates on the consent of the governed, meaning that however much we might want our society to unilaterally protect all unborn children from the lethal violence of abortion, we can accomplish that end only if we convince our fellow citizens that abolition is the only just solution. One essential pro-life project after Roe, then, will be to help those around us understand that abortion is a grave evil and that its legality and widespread acceptance have damaged our country.
Proponents of legal abortion make two related claims: first, that the entity in the womb is not a human being, or at least not a rights-bearing one, and second, that pregnant women are not free or equal without access to abortion. A successful effort to protect unborn children will need to target both prongs of this worldview.
The humanity of the unborn child has become far more apparent in recent decades. Sonogram technology reveals what abortion supporters would prefer none of us notice. Policies that continue to reveal the child’s humanity will be a particularly powerful mode of conversion, effecting legal and cultural change simultaneously. A “fetal-heartbeat bill,” for instance — prohibiting abortion after an unborn child’s heartbeat can be detected, at about six weeks of pregnancy — sounds far more compelling than what we might logically pitch as a “six-week abortion ban.” The two ways of framing such a law might have the same practical effect, but the first reminds observers that there’s a human life at stake in an abortion, a tiny one with a developing heart and a developing body. These laws undercut the silly falsehood that a fetus is merely part of its mother. Though six-week prohibitions are less just than a total ban, they might make it easier in some states to convince moderate or skeptical voters of the reality of life in the womb.
Likewise, protections for unborn children at 15 weeks or 20 weeks of pregnancy, in states where anything more protective is impracticable at first, are a useful policy vehicle for explaining the unborn child’s ability to move his arms and legs, and his documented reaction to painful stimuli. Though it’s lamentable that this might be the best that pro-lifers in some states can hope for initially, such policies are pragmatic in that they provide an opportunity to emphasize the consistent humanity of the unborn child.
Meanwhile, the movement will have to arm itself against coordinated intimidation campaigns from extremists in the abortion lobby, who have already begun vandalizing pregnancy-resource centers and threatening churchgoers and Supreme Court justices. Pro-life lawmakers should anticipate pro-abortion political strategies, including a major campaign to promote mail-order chemical abortions; we’ll also see cultural and financial pressure from major corporations to undermine pro-life laws.
Above all, pro-lifers at the state level should look to enact laws as protective as politically feasible while continuing to convince voters that only the most protective pro-life laws are morally acceptable.
In addition to protecting unborn children under law, the pro-life movement must redouble its efforts to help expectant mothers in need, particularly as states move to regulate abortion. In Texas last fall, as lawmakers enacted a fetal-heartbeat bill, the state funded the Alternatives to Abortion program, which offers prenatal and parental counseling, maternity-home services, and material assistance to needy families. Though such programs might not always be formalized through state or local governments, they will remain central to the pro-life cause, as they have been for decades.
Ever since the Court legalized abortion in all states, pro-lifers have been building an extensive network of pregnancy-resource centers across the country, offering women assistance in rejecting abortion. Today, these centers outnumber abortion clinics three to one — and in some states, by as many as eleven to one. These centers offer most of their services at no cost, and the variety is nearly endless: pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, counseling, adoption counseling or assistance, and material support such as car seats, baby clothes, formula, and diapers.
These organizations are as diverse as they are plentiful. In Virginia, for instance, Mary’s Shelter welcomes expectant mothers who want to choose life but who have been rejected by their partner or family. In New York, the Sisters of Life is an order of Catholic nuns that assists women facing unexpected pregnancies as well as women grieving over a previous abortion. In Texas, Blue Haven Ranch offers a housing community for pregnant single mothers and their children. “If I can offer these moms and babies a safe, structured first year of life, of calm and stability — that can change whole generations,” said Aubrey Schlackman, the ranch’s founder, in an interview with the Washington Post. This is the spirit that animates pro-lifers across the country and that will be crucial in a post-Roe America.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.