Abortion foes thought Roe v. Wade’s reversal would usher in a more pro-life America by finally clearing the legal obstacles to the eventual abolition of abortion. But in the 16 months since Roe fell, everywhere abortion has been on the ballot—including red states such as Kansas, Ohio, Montana, and Kentucky—voters have instead supported measures that protect abortion rights. Even some Republican presidential candidates, who in previous cycles might have pressed for sweeping abortion restrictions, are instead advocating for a 15-week limit, a policy that would protect the vast majority of abortions. Donald Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, and a man who has called himself “the most pro-life president” in American history, labeled Florida’s de facto abortion ban a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The conservative calls for moderation should sober pro-life activists. Now more than half a century old, their movement seems trapped by internal tensions. Its bold demand for a new society that rests on rights for all humans—born and unborn—has been its singular strength, inspiring a level of devotion matched by few other causes. Having spent countless hours interviewing and observing its activists, I know at least one thing with certainty: They sincerely consider themselves human-rights crusaders. Supporters of abortion rights who don’t see this are underestimating what they’re up against.
The ideals of the pro-life movement have also buoyed anti-abortion sympathies in the broader public amid the fast-rising tides of social liberalization. Although surveys show that the United States is much more supportive of gay rights and gender equality than it was 50 years ago, support for abortion rights has not had a similar increase.
But the movement’s ultimate ambition—the abolition of abortion—is also a call for social revolution that scares Americans, especially now that Roe’s reversal has brought that revolution to their doorsteps. Just as center-left Democrats turned against police abolitionists in droves, so too have many Republicans rejected the dream of abortion abolitionists in their ranks. For Americans across the political spectrum, calling their local police or Planned Parenthood is sometimes an unfortunate necessity, however ambivalent they might feel about those institutions.
Laws that protected abortion rights were certainly revolutionary way back in the 1960s, but now they are our tradition, deeply embedded in our way of life. Americans from all walks of life have come to rely on these protections. This is no less true of Republicans than Democrats, especially as the GOP’s base has become more working-class. Research shows that women without a college degree are more likely to get an abortion than women with more education.
Even so, it still might be possible for pro-lifers to nudge the nation in their direction by pushing for something well short of abolition, such as a strict national limits on abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a policy for which Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Tim Scott have all voiced support.
But to pursue any such settlement, right-to-life advocates must accept an America remade by 50 years of abortion rights. That is hard. How does any movement set aside the very ambition that drives it? That is the pro-life movement’s dilemma: It can’t easily push for a durable settlement to the abortion conflict without vitiating the ideals that have held it together.
The liberalism of the pro-life movement has been the unacknowledged secret to its success. While socially conservative causes have lost considerable ground since Roe was decided, abortion opinion has been remarkably stable. One explanation is that the core claims of right-to-lifers continue to resonate in a culture committed to the proposition that all human beings are created equally, entitled to life, liberty, and happiness.
That means pro-life and pro-choice activists are fellow children of the Declaration of Independence, fighting over its meaning. Both movements are trying to expand the frontiers of human freedom and equality. The abortion fight is often cast as a culture war that divides Americans into competing worldviews, one liberal , the other theocratic. But it is in fact a fight over what liberalism means.
From the beginning, many right-to-life activists have been inspired by the ideals of freedom and equality, rather than the sexism they are often accused of. Even back in the 1970s, many of the most radical pro-life leaders were hardly Archie Bunker conservatives. Centered in the anti-war, Catholic left, many early radicals saw their activism as part of a broader ethic of nonviolence. One leader, John O’Keefe, was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and aimed to prove his commitment to feminism by adding his wife’s last name to his in 1976, changing it to Cavanaugh-O’Keefe. Unlike O’Keefe, Francis Schaeffer—an early Protestant leader who inspired legions of evangelicals to join the anti-abortion cause—was no lefty, but he still wanted nothing to do with Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign to fight the Equal Rights Amendment. As different as they were, leaders such as O’Keefe and Schaeffer were mostly consumed with, as they put it, “saving babies,” not some retrograde desire to keep women in their place.
Their ranks became more conservative in the ’80s when Protestant fundamentalists enlisted, diminishing what one history of the movement called its early “sixties leftist feel.” Many were openly anti-feminist. Randall Terry, the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, even excluded women from leadership positions.
But if views on gender roles were what animated the movement, then the dramatic rise in gender egalitarianism since the ’80s should have depressed pro-life sentiments and activism. Surveys show, however, that gender traditionalism declined markedly without depressing pro-life opinion. As a consequence, today the gap between the gender ideologies of pro-life and pro-choice citizens is much smaller than it was in the ’80s. Other survey-based research on pro-life activists themselves finds that, compared with other Americans, their views on gender roles are only slightly more conservative.
The vitality of the pro-life movement is partly why the Supreme Court overturned Roe. That the public seemed no less divided over Roe than it had in 1973 gave the Court’s conservative justices room to reconsider it. Had the pro-life movement and the sentiments that power it waned significantly over time, the Court might well have left Roe alone. It would have been just another social issue the Court was a little ahead of, like same-sex marriage. But Roe was never legitimated by the forward march of social attitudes.
Yet as soon as it was overturned, voters turned against the pro-life cause everywhere they could. Of course, citizens often fear the sudden disruption of the status quo, and some research on voting behavior suggests that people are particularly susceptible to such concerns when asked to vote on ballot measures. And naturally, a preference for normality may be especially strong among conservative voters.
That raises an interesting possibility: Although the pro-life movement hasn’t generally been propelled by conservative values, it may be ultimately defeated by them.
Perhaps the best evidence of pro-choice conservatism comes from the purple state of Michigan. In 1972, voters rejected a law that would have made abortion legal in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Fifty years later, in 2022, voters approved a nearly identical ballot measure. The shift can’t be easily explained by dramatic changes in abortion attitudes, which, as I’ve noted, have been remarkably stable since the ’70s.
But while abortion attitudes haven’t changed all that much, nearly everything else has. When the citizens of Michigan rejected abortion rights in 1972, they were affirming the world they knew. They were voting against social revolution. When the state’s citizens took to the polls in 2022, their vote to sustain a long legacy of abortion rights expressed the same essential conservatism. Michigan voters didn’t change. The context did.
For years, pro-choice Boomers have lamented younger generations’ distance from a pre-Roe America. They supposed that Gen Xers and Millennials would be more committed to abortion rights if only they had witnessed the horrors of “back alley” abortions. But America’s emerging pro-choice consensus suggests that the opposite is more true: Our collective distance from a world without Roe makes us reluctant to resurrect it.
Although a reflexive bias toward the status quo is sometimes irrational, that isn’t true in this case. Even those of us—myself included—who have genuine sympathy for the philosophical case against abortion should be uneasy about reimposing broad abortion prohibitions in an America remade by the sexual revolution.
In the era prior to Roe, unplanned pregnancies tended to impose heavy burdens on men, not just women. Men were generally expected to commit to lifelong marriage when their girlfriend got pregnant. Until the 1970s, shotgun marriages were still the norm.
After Roe, though, the sexual revolution unraveled the social expectations that had once distributed the burden of unplanned children more equally. More and more, women were left to go it alone in cases of unplanned pregnancy. Roe itself accelerated this revolution, but it also reduced its costs by giving women something closer to the same freedom from parenthood that men enjoyed. Hence, Roe didn’t simply reject an old conservative social order; ironically, it did some of the work of the old order by attempting to re-create a semblance of equality between the sexes.
That means if abortion were prohibited in this age of sexual freedom, a troubling social experiment would result: compulsory motherhood without demanding anything from men in return. Pro-lifers should accept reality. Absent any agreement on the moral status of the embryo, Americans will never support a radical social revolution on its behalf. They don’t want to live in a nation without abortion any more than they want one without police.
Movement leaders probably can’t afford to surrender that dream and still maintain the dedication of their activists, but they can recognize that their dream won’t be coming true anytime soon. Pro-lifers should also see that flirting with strong-arm tactics—like impeaching a newly elected pro-choice judge in Wisconsin—to achieve what they could not at the polls might backfire by further alienating voters.
Doing so might also undermine a real opportunity to attain durable and meaningful limits on abortion. A 15-week limit is a good one from the point of view of right-to-life advocates. It would move us well past the extremism of Roe, which, with its companion decision (Doe v. Bolton), established one of the most radical abortion policies in the world. Yes, Roe and Doe technically permitted third-trimester bans, but they also neutralized them by subjecting such bans to an exception that allowed physicians to perform abortions for any reason they deemed relevant to the health of their patients, including “emotional, psychological, [and] familial” concerns.
One model that might attract bipartisan support is France’s abortion policy: It provides funding for poor women who seek abortion and allows for late-term procedures in rare cases (e.g. severe fetal abnormalities and serious maternal health risks), but also limits abortion to 14 weeks. France’s policy is close to the norm throughout other Western democracies, perhaps because it is consistent with common moral intuitions that predispose us to feel more protective of embryos once they begin to resemble newborns, roughly after the first trimester. Though more restrictive than many pro-choice advocates would prefer, it would still protect the vast majority of abortions, even as it would prevent many thousands of later-term ones that pro-life advocates find most troubling.
Alternatively, pro-lifers could seek more restrictive abortion policies by trying to subvert the will of a pro-choice majority, as they recently attempted to do in Ohio and are contemplating in Wisconsin. Not only does that strategy risk alienating the American public; it also represents a troubling about-face: After decades of rightly insisting that citizens should not be effectively disenfranchised by Roe, pro-lifers are now seeking their marginalization.
It is easy enough for me to say what pro-life activists should do. But as abortion foes weigh their options, they should remember what our post-Roe politics has revealed: When given a choice between prohibition and expansive abortion rights, Americans seem to prefer the latter—and they have good conservative reasons for doing so.