Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia whose research focuses on American religion and politics. He is the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (2016) and God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010).
Imagine a pro-life movement whose strongest political supporters included not only Republicans but also leading Democratic politicians from the nation’s most liberal northern states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota. This was the pro-life movement in the 1970s.
Today the pro-life movement receives almost no support from the Democratic Party, and it is therefore often dismissed in the media as a conservative interest group. But this phenomenon is less than three decades old; as late as 1992, more than one-third of the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives received favorable ratings from the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
Many pro-lifers lament the lack of support that their cause currently receives from Democrats. Indeed, many pro-life Catholics, along with a few politically progressive evangelical Protestants, have found that on other issues, ranging from immigration to economic policy, the Democratic Party’s vision of human rights and social justice is a comfortable fit for their theology. But pro-lifers’ efforts to reach out to Democrats on shared issues of concern have been stymied by their movement’s commitment to appointing conservative Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. In order to reach across the aisle and restore the bipartisan appeal their cause once enjoyed, pro-lifers may need to quit making politicians’ stances on Supreme Court nominees a political litmus test and instead work with liberals to pass measures that lower the abortion rate.
The pro-life movement lost most of its Democratic allies in the 1980s and early 1990s, when it adopted a conservative judicial strategy that made changing the Supreme Court its highest priority. While this strategy did hold some promise (it succeeded in upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2007), it did not reverse Roe and it exacerbated a partisan division on abortion that hurt the pro-life cause. Because most Democrats—including even those who had once called themselves “pro-life”—refused to support the Republicans’ conservative judicial nominees, they no longer received the support of the NRLC. For all practical purposes, pro-lifers (at least those who adopted the view of the NRLC) were committed to voting only for Republicans—which meant that when Democrats were in power, they had no lobbying influence.
During the last 30 years, this strategy has arguably swung a few presidential elections (including the last one), but it has not achieved its primary objective: the reversal of Roe v. Wade. And even if the Supreme Court does rescind Roe at some point in the future, this will have only a limited effect on the nation’s abortion rate, because the states with the largest number of abortion clinics, such as New York and California, will almost certainly continue providing legal abortions. In the meantime, pro-lifers have given up whatever political capital they once had with Democrats by making their support for a candidate contingent on something that even sympathetic Democrats can never provide–a pledge to support conservative judicial nominees.
Pro-lifers who would like to change their movement’s strategy and rebuild alliances with Democrats now face a more difficult task than the previous generation of right-to-lifers did in the 1970s and 1980s, because the national Democratic Party is now more strongly committed to abortion rights. But pro-lifers can start to bridge this divide by insisting that they will not use votes on judicial nominees or even the labels “pro-life” or “pro-choice” as a political litmus test.
Traditionally, the pro-life movement has used the term “pro-life” to mean a commitment to making abortion illegal, but what would happen if the movement broadened the term to also encompass support for social policies that would reduce the abortion rate? If pro-lifers defined a vote for an antipoverty measure or an expansion in children’s healthcare coverage as a “pro-life” vote because of its potential to offer positive alternatives to abortion, they would find common ground with politicians they now consider their opponents. This would require a significant cultural shift for the movement, because national pro-life organizations have usually made legal protections for the right to life for the unborn a much higher political priority than reducing the abortion rate. But perhaps because of the movement’s increased emphasis on crisis pregnancy centers—whose central goal is offering women alternatives to abortion, not campaigning for changes in law—the time is now right for a significant broadening of the movement’s political objectives.
If the pro-life movement does not adopt this strategy, one can expect continued partisan polarization over the issue of abortion—an outcome that would probably benefit the Republican Party, which may have partly owed its victory in the last presidential election to the votes of conservative pro-lifers who were concerned about the Supreme Court. But if some pro-lifers are willing to broaden their concerns and reach across the partisan divide, perhaps the cold war between the parties on the abortion issue will begin to thaw, and progressive Democrats who had previously dismissed the pro-life movement’s concerns will begin to see the possibility of finding common ground.