The expectations of the pro-life movement
In 1973, the pro-life movement began a 50-year plan to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States. Three months ago, they finally saw the reward of all those years of protests, controversial Supreme Court nominations and lawsuits with the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which gave states control over abortion regulations. Pro-life politicians have since experienced political backlash and internal division as the pro-life side navigates the jungle of post-Dobbs America.
In the 2008 Batman film “The Dark Knight,” the Joker described his seemingly chaotic nature, saying, “I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The pro-life movement is the dog that caught the car. After 50 years of chasing, Roe v. Wade got overturned, but now they don’t know what to do.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade was a monumental victory for the movement, but it also created a sort of illusion. Behind all the smoke and mirrors, many Americans still like abortion.
According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 37% believe it should be illegal in all or most cases. Every poll using every possible wording shows that the majority of Americans want at least some abortion access.
The pro-life side needs to win over public opinion on abortion before they can implement far-reaching pro-life legislation. Anything before that will fail.
Pragmatism is key for pro-lifers, and it is imperative they remember this axiom: Politics is the art of compromise. When you use politics to further your moral beliefs, there will have to be compromise — it’s just the nature of politics.
Compromising politically is not compromising principally, but it is facing the facts of the current political environment. The facts are that many Americans like abortion with some limits. Abortion laws are legally under state — not national — jurisdictions now, and you can’t always get what you want in American politics.
This is not to say that the pro-life movement should give up or that all hope is lost. Far from it, actually. It does mean they shouldn’t step on a land mine trying to run to their finish line. If the end goal is to make abortion eradicated and unthinkable, there is a tremendous amount of work to do, and the current political environment surrounding abortion must be carefully navigated so as not to undermine all the previous work that has been accomplished.
Part of navigating this fragile environment is recognizing where there are opportunities and where there are roadblocks.
At the state level, there are many opportunities to protect unborn children. Since abortion is a state issue, many pro-life states can and already have implemented abortion bans. A total ban won’t work in a moderate state like Virginia, but it would be welcomed with open arms in a place such as Oklahoma, which has already implemented almost a full ban with ease.
Nationally, abortion has been a losing political issue for pro-life politicians since the Dobbs decision, with lackluster support at several abortion state referendums such as in Kansas and Democrats winning special congressional elections, running almost solely on abortion rights. Making abortion a national campaign issue could actively hinder the chances that some pro-life candidates will snag a seat in Congress, especially those in toss-up elections in moderate areas.
A national total abortion ban is off the table — it would be impossible to pass, and abortion was just ruled a state issue. Most Americans don’t want one either, but they are open to limiting late-term abortions. Another poll by Pew Research Center shows that Americans are more evenly split on a 14-week ban and that a majority actually support a 24-week ban.
Now let’s revisit Virginia. Being a Democratic leaning state apart from last year’s once-in-a-red-moon election, the state would be ground for a more moderate ban at either 15 or 24 weeks. Is it the preferred ban for pro-lifers? No. Is it better than the status quo? Absolutely. Could it lead to more preferred restrictions? That’s the point.
America is not ready to get rid of abortion yet. If the pro-life movement wants to make abortion unthinkable, they have to win public opinion first.
Activists should not be suggesting idealistic proposals that are principled but unpassable. There needs to be a pragmatic, strategic approach to ending abortion.
Browder is the opinion editor. Follow him on Twitter