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Stop Poo-pooing the Pro-Life Movement
Opposition to Roe fueled both a religious great awakening and a legal, political, and philosophical enlightenment. A bit more optimism for what comes next is in order.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement (along with the conservative legal movement) has reached a new pinnacle in its efforts. June 24th was a day decades in the making and reflects the fruits of untold blood, sweat, and tears across multiple generations. But that same movement is under fire now more than ever, and not just from abortionist detractors.
The various reactions to the Dobbs decision, both from those who vehemently oppose it and others who ostensibly belong to the movement long awaiting this day, lay several accusations at the feet of the pro=life movement. The pro-life movement is hypocritical because it doesn’t support the poor. It’s hypocritical because it doesn’t support mothers. It’s hypocritical because it doesn’t support gun control. It’s unprepared for a post-Roe world. It’s undeserving of this victory (largely because of the stain of Trump). It’s not actually conservative because Roe was the law of the land for nearly fifty years. It sold its soul to the devil (Trump) to gain this victory. It’s hypocritical for gaining this victory through the “judicial activism” it detests. Simply put, many are arguing that the pro-life movement isn’t prepared nor competent enough to move forward now that they’ve accomplished what they were never likely to accomplish.
The collective thrust seems to be, from even some who claim to be pro-life themselves, that the pro-life movement was never more than a bunch of discontents who, like a dog, chased the Roe v. Wade pick-up truck down the highway out of an emotional compulsion and passionate impulse with no thought to why they were chasing the pick-up truck or what they might do should they ever actually catch it.
To me, this is just one big reframing of the entire pro-life movement. It’s an attempt to extend the still very recent stains of Trumpism decades back to cover a conservative project that has little in common with the nationalist populism of the Trump era.
It’s true that Trump ended up playing a role in getting us to the point where we’re at. And, for better or worse, Trump will be part of the story of Roe’s demise. But we should be careful not to flip reality on its head. Trump didn’t get the demise of Roe to the judicial finish line. The desire to overturn Roe got Trump to the electoral finish line. Trump wasn’t needed to overturn Roe. The desire to overturn to Roe was needed for Trump to win.
Evidence is pretty conclusive that without Trump’s pledge to nominate Federalist Society judges, he doesn’t get the votes to beat Hillary in 2016. People forget that the #NeverTrump movement in the summer of 2016 was predominantly a #CruzCrew project. They also forget that the RNC delegates could have come very close to frustrating Trump’s nomination were it not for the clever parliamentary maneuvering of Reince Priebus.
Trump had to demonstrate he was serious about important conservative priorities to get enough conservatives on board to carry the day in November. Trump was a generally disliked candidate even among Republican voters in 2016, and he gained reluctant support largely on a contractual basis. And nothing was more critical in creating this reluctant coalition than the promise to nominate judges who could overturn Roe.
But all of this is very recent history, and the pro-life movement is anything but a flash-in-the-pan effort.
First and foremost, the pro-life movement began before the courts even considered Roe. The Catholic Church, a religious organization whose history spans centuries, has over a billion followers worldwide, and has an impressive tradition of theology and philosophy upon which many western societies are built, began efforts in opposition to the liberalization of abortion laws in the ’60s, before the Courts ever considered Roe.
Catholic beliefs are not mere dogma. The constitution’s free exercise clause allows people to consider their moral and religious beliefs in their civic undertakings (and more than a few founding fathers argued such moral and religious grounding is necessary for a free society to exist). But even beyond the religious aspects of the Catholic tradition, a firm reliance on the belief in natural law makes a credible secular case for the value and dignity of human life. Catholic pro-life advocates are as justified in quoting Aquinas and St. Augustine in opposing laws repugnant to natural law as Dr. King was when he did so in Birmingham.
And Roe v. Wade proved to be a major inflection point as it pricked the consciences of other religious traditions who joined the Catholics hand-in-hand in an effort that brokered rhetorical peace across a chasm of undying hostility that spans back centuries. Evangelicals, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, and so many other denominations who had done nothing but bicker over particulars of doctrine (and in many cases, shot and killed each other over perceived heresy) came together and found common cause in the name of unborn life.
But far more than simply a great awakening of religious conviction, the pro-life movement was joined by various constitutionalists, federalists, historians, and legal experts who understood that Roe v. Wade was a constitutional abomination. Roe pricked their minds as they saw how the courts had supplanted their place in the constitutional order, robbed states of their sovereignty, and trampled the very idea of guaranteeing life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to every human life. A new enlightenment of legal, historical, and political inquiry ensued that reasserted and renewed the founding project.
This enlightenment was most successful in the courts and is best represented by the rise of such jurisprudential approaches as originalism and textualism. But it’s further expressed in a myriad of efforts in the academy, in the non-profit sector, among wealthy patrons of political efforts, in grassroots organization, and within party politics to revive and champion such ideas as federalism, non-delegation doctrine, jurisprudential restraint, executive restraint, localism, institutionalism, republicanism, etc.
The pro-life movement is not a drooling, reactionary dog who miraculously caught the truck it was never meant to catch and now doesn’t know what to do next. The pro-life movement is a philosophically sophisticated weaving of various efforts and traditions whose decades-long history represents serious intellectual depth. It’s an effort that reflects a renaissance in religious, political, and legal thinking who slowly built towards a conclusive legal victory that no one thought possible.
And most importantly, the pro-life movement is more than prepared and well-equipped to take on the challenges of a post-Roe world. While the last half-decade has been a severe hiccup in the Republican Party and among many conservatives, the Dobbs decision demonstrates that the unfortunate and consequential flirtation with reaction and nationalism was not enough to frustrate the momentum of a serious effort decades in the making.
If anything, Dobbs and the other legal victories won in recent weeks could provide another inflection point. This moment could very well put the conservative movement back on track and allow the great awakening and enlightenment stimulated by opposition to Roe began over fifty years ago to expand and widen towards rejuvenation and revival of a positive and serious effort to rekindle the founding vision.
Rather than poo-pooing the pro-life movement, observers should stand in awe of one of the great political efforts in American history. One which, if its history demonstrates anything, is far from feckless in crafting a vision for its goals and beliefs.