It’s hard to imagine access to abortion being anything but a controversial, divisive topic in American politics. Yet, for a long time, it was a normalized part of life. Despite various states banning abortion beginning in the mid-19th century, there were no mass protests, no one openly advocating for attacks on abortion providers and conservative politicians disagreed on the matter altogether.
Today, access to abortion is one of the sharpest wedge issues in America, and a central agenda item for the right. Its strongest support comes from the religious right, which is now celebrating the draft opinion from the Supreme Court that suggests the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade will be overturned.
But looking at history, what becomes clear is that mass agitation in opposition to abortion access didn’t come about in the way most imagine. The modern anti-abortion movement rose as a political strategy in the face of conservatives losing ground on segregation and civil rights, rather than as organic outrage around the moral question of “protecting life.”
The roots of this racist basis for opposing abortion began to appear near the turn of the 20th century, when anti-abortion voices like Horatio Storer claimed that the procedure would allow white families to lose demographic ground to other races. He argued that whites needed to expand to every corner of America, including territories in the West and South that were being settled by Blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans and Catholics, according to research by religious historian Leslie Reagan.
“Shall these regions be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation,” Storer allegedly said.
States began to restrict abortion during this era largely due to a desire to “professionalize” the medical industry, which meant white doctors advocated to shut out all manner of “alternative” providers and midwives, many of whom were Black, native and immigrants of color. It was also starting to dawn on America’s racist white politicians that the Reconstruction period after the Civil War was leading to an unprecedented expansion of Black social and political power — a “problem” that would only grow unless the white population could also grow at a rate that outpaced this newly freed demographic.
“While laws regulating abortion would ultimately affect all women, physicians argued that middle-class, Anglo-Saxon married women were those obtaining abortions, and that their use of abortion to curtail childbearing threatened the Anglo-Saxon race,” as sociologists Nicola Beisel and Tamara Kay noted in a 2004 report.
Nonetheless, by the 1950s, upwards of 800,000 abortions were happening every year. Despite the normalizing of the procedure, the anti-abortion movement remained “very small, geographically disperse and focused on individual state legislatures,” according to historian Jennifer Holland. Support for abortion rights only grew in the 1960s, Holland observes, as the visibility of newborn deaths and extreme fetal deformities grew in the public eye.
America was “peppered” with stories and images of white middle-class women and their dying, deformed infants, Holland notes, which soon collided with a nascent feminist movement in the 1960s that argued that women could not be full citizens unless they could control their reproductive health. One by one, states began to reconsider their bans, viewing them as restrictive to public health and counterproductive to political progress.
Even the racist segregationists were onboard: George Wallace, the infamous Southern Democrat governor of Alabama, backed abortion legalization as a way to stop Black women from “breeding children as a cash crop” and using up social welfare programs. And a 1970 poll found that some 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors “supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother.”
Really, up until the Roe decision, the only dedicated “pro-life” movement was associated with Catholics, who weren’t even considered white like their American protestant bretheren (indeed, the Ku Klux Klan went after Catholics in the name of white supremacy). Even after it, as late as 1976, the conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed resolutions affirming abortion rights.
But that started to change in a hurry when the “religious right” realized it had lost the Civil Rights battle and was going to have to desegregate Christian schools — or face the wrath of the federal government (and lose tax-exempt status with the IRS). As historian Randall Balmer has observed, evangelical concerns over this loss led to an allyship with the Catholic Right, inspiring a financial and social push to elevate anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ beliefs into mainstream political discourse.
The words and actions of the biggest leaders in this conservative movement say it all. Jerry Falwell, despite claiming later that opposing abortion inspired his religious career, didn’t even deliver a sermon on abortion until more than five years after Roe passed, according to Balmer. His close friend and ally, Paul Weyrich, more or less said the quiet part out loud: “What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer or the [Equal Rights Amendment]. … What changed their minds was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation,” he said in an interview.
Together, they founded the “Moral Majority” campaign in 1979, stoking conservatives’ growing concern over rising sexual, social and economic liberation of women and portraying abortion rights as a symptom of moral corrosion in America. The same themes continued under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who is still celebrated by the right as the “father of the pro-life movement.” And the link between racism and anti-abortion rhetoric only grew stronger as far-right extremism began to surge in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, the KKK was putting up “WANTED” posters asking for the personal information of abortion providers; elsewhere, militant anti-abortion groups coalesced with white nationalist militia movements to target abortion providers and patients using violence and intimidation.
Today, those same far-right extremists still view the “pro-life” movement as fertile ground for recruiting and networking. The white nationalist group Patriot Front has made it a habit of attending March for Life demonstrations, passing out racist literature while LARPing in khakis and balaclavas. (“America belongs to its fathers, and it is owed to its sons,” their cards read. “The restoration of American sovereignty must follow the restoration of the American Family.”)
Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley has been caught regurgitating the same fears of “white replacement” while talking about abortion. “When you get a birth rate less than 2 percent, that society is disappearing,” Baxley said of Western Europe, comparing it to the U.S. “And it’s being replaced by folks that come behind them and immigrate, don’t wish to assimilate into that society and they do believe in having children.”
And former Congressman/fascist ghoul Steve King has been even more explicit in his words: “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization,” King stated in 2018.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that, even today, various polls show that those who are strongly opposed to abortion are also more likely to identify as conservatives who don’t support the expansion of programs for poor families, single mothers, people of color and immigrants, as observed by reproductive justice advocate and expert Loretta J. Ross.
But it’s also important to remember that, despite the power and influence of the anti-abortion political movement in America, roughly two-thirds of Americans support abortion rights and would like to see Roe upheld, and a full 70 percent believe the decision for abortion should be between a person and their doctor.
It suggests that abortion is a health procedure that has the support and history needed to be a fundamental right in America. The problem is, the discourse has always disguised the real reason the anti-abortion movement is so ferocious here — political machinations, fearmongering and bad-faith campaigns, all in the name of a race war.