Last week's Time magazine cover story examines why 40 years following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (January 22nd is the 40th anniversary), abortion-rights activists appear to be losing. To prove her point, the author highlights the increasing number of state restrictions that make an abortion harder to obtain today than at any time since Roe. The article suggests that some failure on the part of the pro-choice movement explains the situation. Yet, what the author fails to take into account is four decades of scholarship on the conservative Right and what role abortion plays as a political instrument.
Opposition to abortion was a central organizing tool of the conservative right that gained strength in the late 1970s. Reforms to the tax code at that time allowed for the formation of Political Action Committees (PACs) that could support candidates based on single issues. Abortion was an easy way to divide the good guys from the bad guys. It wasn't complicated like tax policies or entitlement reform, as candidates' positions on abortion became cleanly divided: pro-life or pro-choice. Politicians didn't have to explain what they meant as these labels became shorthand for a whole host of social and economic policies.
Historically, evangelical Christians had stayed away from politics, believing that such engagement would taint their religion. However, opposition to abortion became a way for the Republican Party to appeal to this disenfranchised group, mobilizing huge numbers of new voters (and small level donors). Abortion was also able to be a different kind of political issue. Because abortion could be articulated as a "religious" issue, churches normally precluded from direct lobbying or candidate endorsement could direct their members based upon opposition to abortion. Without mentioning candidates' names, church leaders could use the pulpit to instruct their membership on how to vote. Opposition to legal abortion also attracted working-class Catholics, historically linked to the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party. Today a person's position on abortion is the single best determinate of which political party with which they're likely to identify.
Abortion regulations at the state level also play a unique political role. In a time of fiscal limitations, it is difficult for legislators to deliver wins for their constituencies. Abortion regulation, however, can be passed with little fiscal impact on the state. Additional, new abortion regulations can be passed every year... they are the gift that keeps on giving. And when those regulations are struck down by courts, they become organizing tools for public animosity towards an activist judiciary.
There are many people in this country who are deeply conflicted about abortion. After all, it is a complicated social question that involves the very definition of life and the role of women in society. However, abortion regulation is not about this complexity. It is a tool of a conservative political movement that manipulates people's deeply held convictions to promote an economic agenda that often works against the very interests of those same people. To suppose that state-based abortion regulations would be less prevalent if the Pro-choice Movement had behaved differently or if it had different leadership is naive. Rather, the fight over abortion will continue as long as it is an effective tool of the conservative economic political establishment.
Dr. Tracy A. Weitz is the Director of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) program at the Bixby Center For Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. She was an appointee of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Women's Health Council, an advisory body to the California Department of Health Services.