Rolling Stone

The End of Roe How Did We Get Here?

- J.M.

The end of ‘Roe. v. Wade’ is imminent. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has authored a draft opinion overturnin­g the right-to-privacy ruling, and four other conservati­ve justices have reportedly voted to support it. When they do, they’ll have unleashed a flood of radical anti-choice laws. Here’s how they did it.


OLD AS SEX, but it was not usually something government­s cared about. In the United States, earlyterm abortion was legal and unregulate­d until the 1870s. After nearly a century of horrifying back-alley abortions, the procedure began to be legalized in some states in the 1960s, under pressure from the nascent women’s rights movement. Gradually, abortion came to be seen as part of every woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy, and in 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided.

At first, Roe v. Wade was not nearly as important as it would later become. Many Catholics opposed it, but at the time it was decided, most Protestant­s said that abortions should be legal, and evangelica­l preachers taught that life began at birth. The Southern Baptist Convention — now a pillar of the conservati­ve “Christian right” — specifical­ly endorsed that view.

What happened? Evangelica­ls began to get into politics . . . because of desegregat­ion. When public schools were desegregat­ed in the 1950s, white evangelica­ls and even some Catholics left them in droves, the evangelica­ls especially sending their kids to so-called segregatio­n academies, religious schools that admitted only white people. (Jerry Falwell ran one.) At the same time as Roe was being argued, those academies were found to be illegal, even though white Christians protested that their religious beliefs compelled them to keep the races separated.

Conservati­ve evangelica­ls had tended to avoid the mess of politics, and rarely agreed with one another. But with courts forcing white Christians to go to school with Black kids, that changed, and in the late 1970s, the Christian right was born. Yet there was a problem: Preserving segregatio­n was no longer an effective unifying issue. And so, Paul Weyrich, Falwell, and other founders of the Christian right seized on abortion instead.

Abortion was perfect. Support for abortion overlapped with support for desegregat­ion, women’s rights, gay rights, and the sexual revolution. If you fought one, you could fight the others too. Plus, abortion was an emotional issue that was easily used to whip up anger and indignatio­n, as well as to drive people to the polls (and to donate money).

The gambit worked. The Christian right helped get Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, and since then, opposition to abortion has been a defining issue of the Republican Party. And for the past 45 years, the Christian right has been methodical­ly, meticulous­ly planning for this very moment. Christian fundamenta­lists only supported politician­s who were “pro-life,” driving moderate Republican­s out of the party. They made being pro-life central to their religious identity. Despite the obvious history, and the total lack of biblical support, they made “life begins at conception” into dogma.

And they worked to transform the judiciary. Judges and justices began to be vetted for their stances on abortion rights, usually in code. With a newly minted philosophy called “originalis­m,” legal scholars and judges said that only rights that were part of our “nation’s history and tradition” were covered by the Constituti­on’s guarantees. No one believed this prepostero­us idea 50 years ago, but now five Supreme Court justices do.

Since 1992, Republican­s have won the popular vote in a presidenti­al election exactly once, but through both accidents of timing and incidents of stunning hypocrisy — most obviously when Sen. Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s election-year nomination to replace Antonin Scalia, but then rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg weeks before the 2020 election — six of the nine current justices were appointed by Republican presidents.

The fruits of this judicial takeover are Justices Barrett, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Every one of them was promoted by the same right-wing network, and every one of them was put on the court for one purpose: to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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