In the grief-stricken days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I was haunted by a moment from the new “Battleground” documentary. Much of the film, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows women leaders in the anti-abortion movement, including Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. . These are not the people who regularly stand outside abortion clinics to harass patients. Rather, they are savvy lobbyists and organizers, and the documentary is in part a window into how they won.
The scene I keep revisiting features a Students for Life training session on “how you can change your mind about abortion online,” in which band members learned how to bring pro-choice youth into the debate in the comment threads. Hawkins said they had 105,000 conversations.
Cynthia Lowen, the director of “Battleground,” told me she was struck by activists’ “strategy of entering environments and places, online and offline, where young people, generally pro- choice”, and to try to create “doubts about their position.”
It’s quite different from what I’ve seen in the pro-choice movement, where activists often act as if those who disagree with them on everything aren’t worth engaging. (Last week, NARAL tweeted“If your feminism doesn’t understand how anti-trans policies disproportionately affect people in BIPOC, especially black trans women and girls, that’s not feminism.”) In the aftermath of the movement’s catastrophic victory anti-abortion, it is worth asking what we can learn from their tactics.
Clearly, the anti-abortion movement has not won over the majority of Americans. Roe’s death is courtesy of three Supreme Court justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. According to a CBS/News YouGov poll taken after the ruling, 59% of Americans — and 67% of women — disapprove of it.
The Senate cannot codify minimum reproductive rights because of the filibuster, which gives a minority of conservatives a veto over much of national policy-making. In states like Wisconsin, legislatures are so gerrymandered that it will take more than a majority of popular vote to overturn their abortion bans. The right claims that ending Roe brings abortion back into the democratic process, but Roe’s demise was made possible by the erosion of democracy.
This, however, should not blind us to the success of the anti-abortion movement, which has organized for nearly 50 years to bring us to this moment. These state-level gerrymanders did not arrive by chance. As The New York Times reported, they were made possible by the 2010 Republican wave, which reduced the number of Democratic-controlled state legislatures from 27 to 16. Republicans then used redistricting to cement their grip on power even as they passed a barrage of state laws meant to nibble at Roe.
The legal and political wings of the anti-abortion movement were methodical, often biding their time until they established a friendly Supreme Court. As general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, James Bopp has opposed attempts to ban abortion outright, fearing their rejection would only strengthen Roe. Instead, as Irin Carmon reported in 2013, he focused on corner issues like 20-week abortion bans.
Meanwhile, grassroots abortion opponents have remained relentless, often luring people in for sociability as much as ideology. In “The Making of Pro-Life Activists,” sociologist Ziad W. Munson found that many activists had been ambivalent about abortion, even pro-choice, before being invited to a rally or meeting. . The movement welcomed them and the experience of activism converted them. Similarly, one of Lowen’s interviewees said she was not opposed to abortion until she went on the March for Life with college friends. Later, she went to work for Students for Life.
I fear that some abortion rights activists are learning the wrong lessons from the triumph of their enemies, drawing inspiration from the most divisive anti-abortion forces. A series of apparent arson attacks at pregnancy centers in anti-abortion crisis mimic years of pro-life assaults on abortion clinics. (So far, thankfully, no injuries have been caused by the arson attacks.) Before Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider in Buffalo, was murdered in 1998, protesters followed his children to their primary school. Recently, a shadowy pro-choice outfit called Ruth Sent Us hinted that she would do something similar to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s children, tweeting about the school they attend.
Besides being immoral, these tactics suggest a misunderstanding of how the anti-abortion movement got to this point. Anti-abortion terrorism has been correlated with greater support for abortion rights, harming the political campaign to unseat Roe. That campaign prevailed thanks to a movement that has spent decades mastering the wheels of American politics, persisting despite years of failure and disappointment.
This doesn’t just mean “vote louder”. This means challenging all levels of power, all the time, including local elections, judicial selections and the making of administrative rules. It means drawing people into a community that will make the continued struggle feel rewarding rather than exhausting.
Opponents of abortion have thrust us into a nightmarish world of surveillance, coercion and medical desperation. They also showed us the arduous way out.