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Roe v. Wade is living on borrowed time. It’s now a matter of weeks, possibly even days, until the landmark 1973 ruling which legalized abortion nationwide is struck down. While most Americans support Roe, and many are deeply outraged at its likely demise, white evangelicals, the most fervently anti-abortion, right-wing voting bloc in the country, are celebrating as their decades-long consolidated effort to end nationwide legal abortion is about to bear fruit.
But this group wasn’t always the anti-abortion cheerleaders they’ve become, even in the years up to and immediately following Roe v. Wade. In the early 1970s opposition to legalized abortion was led primarily by the Catholic Church, which helped fund over half of early, post-Roe, anti-abortion organizational efforts. Evangelical Christians largely viewed abortion as a Catholic issue, one that wasn’t of interest to evangelical Americans. In fact, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in support of abortion, and that resolution was subsequently upheld in 1974 and 1976.
James Dobson, an evangelical leader who created the right-wing religious organization Focus on the Family, even said at the time that abortion wasn’t even mentioned in the Bible and an evangelical could be faithful and believe that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being.” Jerry Falwell, an evangelical preacher and founder of the fundamentalist Liberty University and the religious right-wing movement the Moral Majority, didn’t preach against abortion until 1978, five years after Roe was decided.
It wasn’t Roe v. Wade that motivated Jerry Falwell to galvanize generations of American evangelicals to push for ever-more draconian restrictions on abortion. It was actually a 1970 Supreme Court ruling, Green v. Kennedy, which stripped tax-exemption status from private Christian schools, created as a workaround after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation, to continue a segregated educational space for white families. On January 19, 1976, almost three years to the day after Roe was decided, the IRS stripped the tax-exemption status from Bob Jones University, a South Carolina-based evangelical college that refused to admit Black students and banned interracial dating among students.
Falwell, urged by Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, came to see something unique in abortion, a secret weapon that could allow this issue to serve as a means to an entirely different end. Opposing abortion rights was the Trojan Horse he and other white, Southern evangelicals had been looking for to repel integration and reify white supremacist patriarchal power. What spawned the modern anti-abortion movement wasn’t even abortion –– it was racism.
Today, that once fledgling movement is now on the verge of their long-sought victory, overturning Roe v. Wade. But the history and evolution of this movement has something else to teach us, something beyond abortion––it’s about the fundamental worldview that this radical, right-wing minority seeks to not just impose on Americans, but a worldview that in turn helped secure white conservative voters’ loyalty to the Republican Party as a whole for decades to come.
The religious right, of course, went on to become a political powerhouse, resulting in the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and, most recently and catastrophically, Donald Trump. All of these presidents have delivered for abortion opponents. Reagan ignored the escalating crisis of harassment and violence outside of abortion clinics and instituted the first Global Gag Rule, ending American support for international organizations that support abortion; Bush signed into law the first abortion ban passed since Roe and appointed two conservative justices to the Court; and, outdoing them all, Donald Trump – who, while campaigning, called for punishing people who have abortions once Roe falls – appointed three, far-right justices to the Court, expanded the Global Gag Rule to the domestic, defunded Planned Parenthood, and enabed the forced sterilization of immigrant women in a detention center. Now, the Supreme Court justices appointed by these very presidents are the ones with the power, and they’re using it to overturn Roe.
Those presidents also championed racist rhetoric and helped enact racist, xenophobic policies that eroded the ground on which many Civil Rights gains were won. It was Reagan, after all, who coined the term “welfare queen,” a racist and sexist trope used to demonize Black women who relied on welfare support. Donald Trump did Reagan one better, he called Mexicans “rapists,” enacted horrendous, racist immigration policies, and claimed that white supremacists terrorizing Charlottesville, Virginia were “very fine people.”
Banning abortion is simply one of many steps towards reifying a white supremacist, patriarchal order. In order to control the demographic makeup of the nation, you need to control who gets to reproduce the nation. If women and people with uteruses (particularly Black and brown folks) can decide for themselves if, when, and how to have a child, they have that ability.
Abortion was criminalized in the U.S. in the late 19th century largely in response to fears over new immigrants and recently-emancipated Black people. While people were having abortions before Roe, most of those who were having safe ones were white women, an obvious non-starter for racists who fear the declining white birth rate. The “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that white people are being repressed in America, is precisely the line of thinking that racist, anti-abortion fanatics embrace. Matt Schlapp, head of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), recently embraced abortion bans as the answer to the declining number of white people when he said, “If you say there is a population problem in a country, but you’re killing millions of your own people every year through legalized abortion every year, if that were to be reduced, some of that problem is solved.”
Curtailing access to legal abortion and criminalizing those who seek abortion care (again, particularly Black and brown folks) creates a state of fear and control that benefits a select few. It doesn’t long to see who that is.
That’s why abortion has become such a do-or-die issue for those on the right. It isn’t about “life” or babies; it’s about controlling who gets to be an American. It’s about erasing the past 70 years of progress for Black and brown people, for women, for queer folks. It’s no wonder that in her confirmation hearing, Wendy Vitter, a Trump appointee who was confirmed as a federal district judge, refused to endorse Brown v. Board of Education, the case at the heart of what galvanized Falwell and other evangelicals into creating the modern anti-abortion movement.
It may not be politically viable to state outright support for segregation anymore. But the policies and rhetoric that most white, evangelical voters embrace reveal a fundamental belief in not only sustaining but strengthening a white supremacist power structure. Seventy-eight percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and 81% view the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride rather than racism. Evangelicals don’t just vote for abortion bans, but they support a host of restrictive, racist legislation, like voter suppression against Black and brown Americans and immigration. Support for abortion bans may seem like support for a single issue, but the effects of these bans are felt most acutely by Black and brown women, the very same women who have the highest rates of maternal mortality in this country.
It’s clear which lives the anti-abortion evangelicals care about and which they do not.
Lauren Rankin is a writer, speaker and the author of “Bodies on the Line: At the Front Lines of the Fight to Protect Abortion in America.” Lauren is also a panelist participating in TPM’s post-Roe abortion rights live discussion event taking place Thursday afternoon at 1:00 p.m ET: “Roe v. Wade: What’s Next?” Register here.