The Right's Attack on Choice

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

The anti-abortion movement was active in this country long before the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision provoked its revitalization. But prompted by that decision, the movement shifted into high gear, gaining greater prominence and experiencing a dramatic jump in membership. In addition to its enormous influence within the arena of reproductive rights in the US, the effort to prohibit abortion played a crucial role in the emergence of the New Right at the end of the 1970s. The New Right used the abortion issue to recruit members to its larger agenda. Reaching out to virtually every sector within the anti-abortion movement, the New Right's leaders argued that their family values agenda would restore the country to an imagined earlier period of morality and virtue.

The anti-abortion movement's membership is largely made up of conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. Some of these conservative Christians are also members of the larger Christian Right, which has become a political powerhouse since being nurtured by the New Right to become politically active. The Christian Right now wields considerable power within the electoral right in this country. Because Christian Right activists are uncompromisingly anti-abortion, the anti-abortion movement benefits from the Christian Right's political strength.

While the anti-abortion movement is part of the right today, the right does not "own" the anti-abortion movement. Nor does the Catholic Church. In fact, the anti-choice movement is made up of a number of competing sectors, each often accountable only to itself. Adherents of the sectors range from conservative Roman Catholic traditionalists to members of far right paramilitary organizations. The sectors' diversity can be confusing to pro-choice activists, who often assume that the movement is uniform in its beliefs and political strategies.

Loosely defined, the sectors of the anti-abortion movement are: conservative Catholics and the official Catholic Church establishment; conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants; hard right paramilitary formations, which are often, but not always, openly white supremacist and/or anti-Semitic. A small anti-choice constituency comes from more progressive, evangelical religious organizations.1 While many anti-abortion activities are affiliated with one or more of these sectors, many people who oppose abortion are not affiliated with any formal anti-choice organization. The three dominant sectors of the anti-abortion movement are usually in some relationship with the right. The sectors themselves have porous and imprecise boundaries. Some anti-abortion activists "travel" from sector to sector, and the sectors themselves change over time. The sectors often disagree with each other and occasionally there is realignment, as those disagreements cleave a sector and cause some of its adherents to change their views.

Often anti-abortion activists respond to political defeats by becoming more extreme and more rigid in their ideology and actions. Within the movement, they often compete for dominance. Internal disagreements can create the impression that the anti-abortion movement holds contradictory and incompatible views. Visualizing the anti-abortion movement as composed of various sectors helps explain differences of opinion within the movement and the coexistence within it of very different tactics for effecting change. Pro-choice activists need to understand the complexity that exists within the anti-abortion movement when they find themselves dealing with different types of opposition.

The sectors are tied together by shared political and religious principles, which emphasize the "morality" of what they call "traditional family values," the evil of "godless" secular humanism, and the necessity for "personal responsibility." These common elements make up the worldview of many within the anti-abortion movement.

Beyond this shared worldview, the leaders and strategists of the movement construct ways of presenting abortion to the public ("framing" the issue) that are intended to capture public opinion and turn it against women who have abortions or medical providers who provide abortions. The various movement sectors often "frame" abortion differently, each attempting to mold the public's understanding of abortion in order to reinforce its own position. A successful "frame" convincingly connects with and manipulates public opinion on the issue. If the sector presents its position in ways that capture the public's imagination, resonates with widely held beliefs, and/or teaches people a new way to see the issue, it has created a powerful "frame."

Sometimes the political "frame" promoted by the anti-abortion movement is meant to deceive the public. For instance, the anti-abortion movement would have us believe that it is simply anti-abortion; in reality, it is more broadly a movement that opposes reproductive rights, since it seeks not only to eradicate abortion, but to limit or prohibit other reproductive decisions by women. It is important for pro-choice activists to understand the larger agenda of the anti-abortion movement, and to see it for the broad-based attack on reproductive rights that it is.

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