Abortion in America — the road to rolling back Roe vs Wade

The story of the destruction of abortion rights in America begins with six children, washed, brushed, dressed in their Sunday clothes, on stage at church, standing behind the lectern, where the mother is smiling and telling the congregation about the beauty of family. The gift of life. And the evils of abortion. Abortion is murder, she says. It murders children like the ones behind her.

I’m the second oldest of those children, born in the 1980s into the “New Right” movement, which combined religious and conservative cultural forces to push back against what it saw as the increasing threat of liberalism. A result of this movement was the growing push to homeschool children and keep them away from what my parents and others saw as the corrupting influence of the culture.

At this moment in 1993, as my siblings and I stand before our 200-member Baptist church in the suburbs of Dallas, we are five girls, one boy. In the years to come, there will be two more boys. We are good children. Everyone says so. Our goodness is motivated by a large wooden spoon that hangs on the kitchen wall. “Spare the rod. Spoil the child” is written on the bowl of the spoon in permanent marker. It’s already cracked from being used on my older sister, whose hard-jawed defiance would eventually break the spanking spoon and our parents.

The cultural and historical forces that brought us to the stage in that Texas church on “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday”, an annual event marking the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision enshrining the constitutional right to abortion in America, began before we were born. History is not linear: progress and backlash happen simultaneously. Even before the Roe decision, the backlash was mounting. But it has taken decades to see the full results of those efforts. On May 2, a leaked document revealed that the US Supreme Court planned to overturn the Roe decision in a ruling in a case known as Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

My parents were born-again Christians, converted in the wave of the Jesus movement of the 1970s. The Jesus movement combined the anti-establishment ethos of the hippies with evangelical Christianity, to create a counterculture fervour that encouraged religious independence and a rejection of the norms of society. My parents, born in the 1950s and raised in the excesses of post-second world war consumerism, embraced this new form of faith.

Illustration of a United States Supreme Court building, and someone clutching a rosary
© Matthew Billington

They had their first child, my older sister, in 1981, shortly after the New Right swept the American elections of 1980, tossing out not just Democrats, but establishment Republicans who were seen as not conservative enough. The term New Right came out of the campaign of Republican senator Barry Goldwater when he ran against Lyndon B Johnson in the 1964 presidential campaign. He lost, but his rhetoric helped coalesce a growing conservative movement, one that pushed against what it saw as a culture dominated by secular ideas such as feminism, abortion and teaching evolution in school. The movement was championed by politicians, among them Ronald Reagan, and intellectuals such as William F Buckley.

Previously, conservatives hadn’t been united in an anti-abortion stance; many had supported leaving the issue up to individual states, some had been pro-choice. The merging of an anti-abortion stance with the Republican party was partly organic, arising out of religious activism, and also politically canny. Aides to Johnson’s presidential successor Richard Nixon, among them Pat Buchanan, advised that using abortion in conservative politics could draw Catholics away from the Democratic party.

Historians Gillian Frank and Neil J Young have traced the push against abortion as happening simultaneously with the pushback against school integration, second-wave feminism and the movement for LGBTQ rights. The New Right’s message was that American children were being threatened, not just by mothers leaving the home for their careers, not just by the “decline” of public schools (a euphemistic way to talk about school integration), but by the termination of pregnancies. With these dire warnings, the homeschool movement flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.

Parents like my own were leaving the schools, leaving the culture, to raise their children away from the corrupting influence of American society. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to watch the news, my mom flipped over the scandalising covers of women’s fashion magazines as we stood in the checkout line at the grocery store, and we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music — though we sometimes still did, hiding in the closet and hovering over my sister’s clock radio to listen to Michael Jackson and Madonna.

When the Supreme Court ruled on Roe, legalising abortion access for women across the states, the ruling didn’t create backlash; rather, it crystallised the message of conservatives in America. After the decision, the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement: “We reaffirm, as evangelicals united, our position that the moral issue of abortion is more than a question of the freedom of a woman to control the reproductive functions of her own body. It is rather a question of those circumstances under which a human being may be permitted to take the life of another.”

The statement set the terms of the fight. This was about women as murderers and the fight was about the rights of the unborn.

While laws governing the tax-exempt status of churches forbid the endorsement of specific political candidates, the message from many Catholic churches and protestant pulpits was that abortion violated God’s law. To support abortion was to sin. The terms were eternal and the fight was fierce. Evangelicals, Catholics and other conservative religious denominations worked together to form the infrastructure of the backlash.

Their beliefs differ from those of the majority of Americans, who support the right to abortion. Which just highlights what a holy war the backlash is and was. It’s never simply been about political calculus; rather it’s a crusade to enforce religious beliefs on a country that has no national religion. The Republican party adopted an anti-abortion stance to their platform in 1976, just three years after the Roe decision. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 79 per cent of American Republicans self-identify as Christian, compared with 52 per cent of Democrats.

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My siblings and I were there on that stage on that day demonstrating God’s plan for the US. Churches often invite speakers to talk about the horror of abortion on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Growing up in evangelical churches, I’d hear women come to the pulpit to tell their stories of abortion and how they regretted them or how they’d narrowly avoided having one.

My parents would take us to rallies. In the crowds were always signs showing bloody foetuses tossed in buckets. This was a “holocaust”, we’d hear people say, a mass murder of the unborn. We were in a holy war with a culture that casually discarded children into bloody buckets. And we had to do anything to stop it.

How could I know then that those images weren’t real? That most women do not regret their abortions? In the claustrophobic environment of the American religious right, all I was taught was that the world had turned against the Lord, and we had to stop it in any way possible.

There were many forces and movements that contributed to the likely overturning of Roe. From the work of Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, which seeks to put anti-abortion women in political power, to the ultrasound technology that visually separated the foetus from the mother, making the interiority of pregnancy exterior and thus allowing doctors and an entire culture to comment on and control what before had only resided inside a pregnant person.

While I was being homeschooled in the 1990s, my parents were members of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which fundraised with the help of stories of parental rights being stripped by the state.

The founder of the HSLDA, Michael Farris, began to raise money for a college, which he argued would create a generation of legal minds with a biblical worldview, helping to take back American society and culture. That school, Patrick Henry College, was founded in 2000. Farris would later assist Texas attorney-general Ken Paxton in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

The plan to overturn Roe was out in the open all along. It was being shouted in the streets and preached about in Sunday sermons: raise a generation of children who will fight back.

In high school, after I was caught skipping my job at a Sears department store in order to play tennis with two of my male friends, my parents sent me to a summer camp designed to protect me from liberal indoctrination. The camp, Worldview Academy, which still exists and provides seminars and training for pastors and religious leaders, was part of the effort to teach children to resist the liberal culture of America. I took classes designed to help me identify the toxic and anti-Christian messages in books by the Brontës, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. (It wasn’t a coincidence they were all women.)

During the Obama years, the stories I wrote about my experiences felt quaint. The conservative movement seemed at times like a weird counterculture that Americans ogled in reality TV shows such as 17 Kids and Counting (later 18, then 19), which depicted the lives of a homeschooling family of Arkansas Baptists. But the full force of the movement was spreading its reach through US politics. It wasn’t a secret, for anyone paying attention.

A plate number that says “VGH 874” and “God is pro-life” at the bottom, split diagonally
© Matthew Billington

At a state level, politicians passed laws restricting and limiting abortion. While these laws would often be overturned by state supreme courts, the result was a gradual chipping away at reproductive care access. A lack of state-funded and affordable healthcare in America, combined with state-level anti-abortion activism, resulted in the closure of abortion facilities, leading to large reproductive care deserts across the country. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, barred the use of federal funding to pay for abortions. This amendment was supported by high-profile Democrats, including the current president, Joe Biden. Biden has since denounced the Hyde Amendment but hasn’t yet been able to end its mandate.

Activists fighting for reproductive justice sounded the alarm that reproductive rights were being eroded on a state level — that maternal mortality rates were climbing, that people couldn’t access or afford abortions. But as long as Roe was the law of the land, most liberals in America felt safe.

By the time the Supreme Court decision was leaked, pro-abortion activists weren’t surprised. It had been coming for years and politicians had done nothing to codify the right to abortion into law. The Supreme Court decision had convinced many people that the right to an abortion was safe. As if this weren’t a holy war and all our polite political civilities weren’t going to be collateral damage.

American women are now facing a rollback of their rights not seen since the post-second world war era, when they were forced out of the workforce to make room for returning soldiers. That reversal radicalised a generation of women and resulted in the second wave of American feminism. While the countermovement has been building in states with extreme abortion restrictions, it has yet to find its footing and its focus. But if history is prologue, this ruling will be a galvanising moment for American women.

Illustration of various protest signs that says, “keep abortion legal” and “abortion is muder”
© Matthew Billington

In America, the fight for reproductive justice will now go to the states, which can enshrine the right to an abortion into law or ban abortion altogether. The result will be a further deepening of inequality, affecting the poorest and most marginalised Americans.

But as important as it is to understand the activism that undermined Roe, there was similar activism that made Roe law. The right to an abortion was won by activists who engaged in a war of their own. The second wave of American feminists fought hard through community-building, consciousness-raising groups, underground abortion activism like the Jane Collective, and political theatre, such as Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), which once released mice at a bridal expo, and whose founders tossed bras in the trash cans outside the 1968 Miss America Pageant. The battle for this right was also fought by doctors and an influential minority of church leaders who saw the devastating impacts of illegal abortion and unwanted pregnancy. This is a story of struggle written with our bodies. And it’s not over.

The majority of Americans believe in the right of a woman to have an abortion. And yet this isn’t about majority rule. This is about a religious minority waging a war on reproductive freedom through the courts. Meanwhile, our elected officials are unable to push through legislation to protect abortion rights because of the filibuster, preventing a vote by simple majority.

None of my siblings believe what we were taught. We’ve all grown up. Very few even go to church. Some of my sisters have been victims of abuse and assault. Some have had children, got divorced, faced poverty and loss. One sister, after a devastating car accident, had to declare bankruptcy at 18 in the face of overwhelming medical bills. Some are queer. Some are single mothers.

Anti-abortion rhetoric only works if you are never poor, never a victim, never without health insurance, have never found yourself bleeding in a dorm room, unsure how to name what happened to you but afraid you’ll be pregnant and lose everything you’ve fought so hard for, that thing women so rarely get — freedom.

Anti-abortion rhetoric only works if you don’t know that your sister has a medical condition that could mean death if she gets pregnant. Anti-abortion rhetoric only works if you’ve never seen your friend recover from a violent beating at the hands of her boyfriend. Never worked at a women’s shelter and seen the wives of pastors come in sobbing, secretly on birth control, because they cannot afford to have another child.

So, how did I, the indoctrinated daughter of the American conservative right, grow up to champion the very cause I had been told was evil? Simple: I lived life as an American woman.

Lyz Lenz is the author of ‘God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America’

Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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