Anti-Abortion: The Architect of New Conservatism 

(Note: This article was written before the midterm elections in the United States of America last November.)

Roe v Wade’s reversal has put abortion at the heart of public debate. Progressive communities boil with rage. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement celebrates success while watching states sanction barbaric abortion bans. Today’s bitter divisions, however, didn’t always dominate politics. So, in light of the right’s growing effort to restrict abortion, many wonder: How did we get here? Why did conservatives turn against abortion? 

Surely, the anti-abortion movement fundamentally changed the Republican Party. Adopting pro-life beliefs was a desperate attempt to revive conservatism. They enabled Republicans to exploit women’s bodies as a political attention tactic. But broadly, anti-abortion gave way to the conservative community’s identification with religious and family values.

An Undivided Issue

Before the 1970s, abortion wasn’t squarely divided across party lines. Put simply, it was a non-partisan issue concerning individual privacy. If anything, it was mainly discussed with regards to medicine

According to Anna North, Republicans supported “abortion at about the same rate as Democrats.” In 1967, when he was California’s governor, Reagan loosened abortion restrictions. Conservative Vice President Rockefeller similarly fought for abortion rights in New York. The Equal Rights Amendment surprisingly passed with 84 percent of Republican support. Importantly, the amendment would give a de facto right to abortion. Overall, the pre-1970 anti-abortion movement was largely Catholic men, and thus could not be associated with either party

Right to Life Revolution and New Right

“Will the liberals capture the GOP?” asked a right-leaning newspaper in 1975. Conservatism was on the decline. With progressives controlling the White House since the 30s and Watergate tainting the Republican name, young conservatives wanted to separate themselves from the “Old-Right.” A fresh issue was necessary to save the dying party. Simultaneously, the giant National Right to Life Committee emerged, seeking to regulate abortion and women’s bodies. So it’s no surprise that the anti-abortion movement would help cauterize the Republican party’s wound. 

Mildred Jefferson promised to intertwine the Right to Life Revolution with New Conservatism. She aimed to harness the political force of anti-abortion Evangelical and Catholic voters. Other political strategists turned abortion into a tool too – one that shifted blocks of voters from the Democrats to the Republicans. This was successful, to say the least. For one, grassroots anti-abortion groups sparked across the nation. Even more, Republicans endorsed Feminists for Life and strategically spoke against abortion. Then, the Hyde Amendment, which prevented Medicaid-funded abortions, passed, signaling a new era for politicizing abortion. 

Anti-abortion policies gradually became more extreme. The Federal Abortion Act of 2003 banned late-term abortions and extraction. Around 20 years later, and today, Republicans plan to fully ban abortions. This policy evolution reflects a wider radicalization of the Republican party. 

The anti-abortion movement captured and reinvigorated the Republican party. But the movement was only a prelude to the New Right’s campaign. 

The Family Party 

In effect, anti-abortion provided a blueprint for the new conservative motto. By encouraging birth and motherhood, the new anti-abortion stance painted the Republican party as “pro-family.” Pro-family, though, wasn’t only about family. Republicans grew worried about a loss of respect for tradition. Thus, pro-family meant a reversion to conventional sexual, marital, and economic norms. Laws limiting same-sex marriage, opposing contraceptives, and banning critical race theory all o fell within the realm of “pro-family.” This campaign redirection triggered a surge in social conservatives and mobilized many to vote. 

Today, conservatives like Ron Desantis assert that “Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault” and proceed to punish speech about sexuality. Remember that this Floridian pro-family policy stems from abortion. After all, the anti-abortion movement shook the foundation of conventional conservatism by involving it in the social aspects of society. Conservatism previously focused on economics and government moderation. But the anti-abortion ideology set off a social chain reaction, pushing the Republican Party into modern culture wars

The Christian Party

Abortion is by no means secular. While the rejection of abortion was initially led by Catholics, Southern evangelicals hopped onto the anti-abortion train. The political potency of anti-abortion proponents thus shifted from Catholic states to Southern evangelical regions. This had grave consequences. While most Catholics disapproved of abortion, they supported anti-poverty programs, maternity insurance, and government-funded day-care. Southern evangelicals did not. As economic conservatives — and now social conservatives — evangelicals rejected abortion as well as any program to support poor pregnant women. This was a recipe for disaster. Clearly, commingling moral, religious, and economic regulation was not a good idea. Even worse, progressive Catholics were forced to sacrifice otherwise liberal positions and identify with the new anti-abortion party — the GOP.

This seismic religious shift was not without precedent. Rather, it is a continuity of religious zeal in American politics. Between the 1870s and 1920s, conservative Christians fervently fought for alcohol prohibition. Religious conservatism had transformed party politics. Likewise, between 1970 and the present, the anti-abortion movement has engrained religiosity into conservatism.

Anti-abortion biblical beliefs prompted religious enthusiasm within the Republican party. It laid the groundwork for a party unified by faith. But while religious, abortion was never meant to be a political issue. It is a private concern. Republicans were mistaken to think they could control women’s lives without resistance.

A Hazy Future 

The best hope for women and abortion advocates lies in their vote. If Democrats secure the midterm elections, they can move past a filibuster and grant federal abortion rights. With a heavy majority supporting at least some abortion rights, it’s possible — as shown by the Kansas citizens. Americans need to make noise. After all, millions of women’s lives depend on it. 

The birth of New Conservatism was precipitated by the anti-abortion movement. How will it end? Logically, abortion should cause its downfall too. Yet the overturning of Roe v. Wade sends that prospect far into the future. Right now, Republicans are toning down the anti-abortion rhetoric for contentious midterm elections. They understand that anti-abortion is a minority view but will never give it up. It has hoisted the Republican platform and has shaped the contours of modern conservatism. 

It’s a shocking thought that abortion was once a non-partisan issue. The moment the anti-abortion movement introduced abortion’s partisan face to conservatives, though, politics spiraled. Now, the 1970s decision to conflate anti-abortion and conservatism profoundly impacts every facet of the Republican Party and daily life. Here’s some finishing food for thought: America is the only Western nation that experienced such a tectonic political shift in opposition to abortion. Why? 

By Ashwin Telang

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