Next stop for a post-Roe anti-abortion movement: fetal personhood.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
These are high times for the movement to abolish the constitutional right to an abortion. It has long since conquered one of our two major national political parties, with the exception of two Republican women senators who remain on the movement’s list of primary targets. Via that alliance, three justices strongly supported by the movement ascended to the Supreme Court when Donald Trump was president. Last week, all three joined justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in a shocking decision to green-light, at least temporarily, a Texas law banning all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. And now the odds are high that the Court will reverse or significantly modify its precedents on abortion in a case on the immediate horizon involving a Mississippi law that directly challenges the Court’s protections for pre-viability abortions laid down in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
If that’s how the deal goes down, anti-abortion activists, after they finish celebrating, will focus on spreading abortion bans into contested territory beyond the red states where they have routinely been enacted in recent years, right? Having spent 48 years arguing that states, not courts, should control abortion policy, they’ll be happy to slug it out with their pro-choice opponents in state capitols where neither side has a prohibitive advantage, right?
Not necessarily. Truth is, hardly anyone has ever joined the anti-abortion movement out of passionate support for states’ rights. Sure, in the immediate shock of Roe v. Wade, the idea that a policy matter controlled by state laws since time immemorial would instead be dictated by the federal courts seemed alien. But 48 years later, that shock has surely faded. There are no state legislators pining for the power they lost in 1973 when many of them weren’t yet born or were children playing with toys rather than the lives of women. And the official position of the anti-abortion movement has been clear from the beginning: As early as 1973, it had backed various versions of the Human Life Amendment, a device to place fetal rights into the U.S. Constitution and ban abortion nationwide, not simply reversing but displacing the privacy-based right to abortion identified in Roe.
While the movement suffered from a strategic split between those supporting both an amendment and a return to state-controlled election law and those for whom only the former would do, there was never any question that banning abortion everywhere by the most efficient means available was the common goal. The Human Life Amendment made its way into the national Republican platform as early as 1980.
But securing a constitutional amendment these days isn’t just problematic. The process — with its requirement of a proposal by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress (or a much less likely state-called constitutional convention) and ratification by three-fourths of the states — has made the prospect all but extinct for anything remotely controversial. So unsurprisingly, support has grown steadily among anti-abortion advocates for securing protections for “human life” by the same means once used to strip them away: the Supreme Court. As Garrett Epps notes, a recent amicus brief filed by two highly distinguished conservative legal thinkers, John Finnis and Robert George, makes the argument explicit:
The prohibition of abortion, they told the [Supreme] Court in their brief, is “constitutionally obligatory because unborn children are persons within the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.” No state can permit it, they say.
The idea that the congressional devisers of the 14th Amendment thought the term persons included zygotes is preposterous, says Epps. But as a strategic matter, getting an increasingly conservative Court with members closely associated with the anti-abortion movement to adopt the Human Life Amendment by judicial fiat makes excellent sense, at least as a goal.
Even if that outcome presently looks distant, its logic is powerful to those accustomed to arguing that “the unborn,” from conception, are people who are metaphysically and morally indistinguishable from those we see walking around. As Harvard professor Jeannie Suk Gerson observed in 2019, the growing tendency of Republican legislators to discard the exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, which used to be standard fare in legislation restricting abortion, reflects a “personhood” point of view. It’s significant that neither of the state abortion laws adopted in Mississippi and Texas that are creating such a stir right now has a rape or incest exception. That’s not because the lawmakers drafting them are simply stupid or cruel (though Texas governor Greg Abbott was arguably both in his ridiculous claim that he would eradicate rape in his state so pregnancies resulting from it would no longer exist). They simply reflect a different concept of personhood. And though efforts to put this radical concept into state constitutions have fared poorly in ballot tests over the years, it’s clearly gaining momentum in the anti-abortion movement and conservative legal circles.
Short of that long shot, if Roe is knocked down, you can expect conservatives to do the same thing progressives are talking about doing: promoting legislation in Congress to establish a preemptive national policy on abortion. It would be a statute, not a constitutional provision, and thus could quickly be reversed after one adverse election; but as long as it was in effect, it would ban abortions in New York, California, and Vermont just as surely as in Alabama, West Virginia, or Utah. It’s not a practical immediate possibility for Republicans because they control neither Congress nor the White House (a Democratic president would obviously veto such a law). But if Republicans regain the trifecta they lost in 2018 at a time when Roe has already been overturned, of course they would try to enact a preemptive statue, and, in fact, given the power of the anti-abortion movement in the GOP, they might well sweep aside or change the rules allowing filibusters to make it possible without a supermajority.
The bottom line is that happiness over a potential Supreme Court counterrevolution on the right to choose isn’t going to make anti-abortion activists complacent or even willing to play by a new set of rules in the traditional sandbox of state legislation. Give ’em an inch and they will want to take control of the reproductive systems of every woman in America. And let’s not concede any false equivalence between the two “teams”: Nobody is talking about forcing anyone to have an abortion. But the anti-abortion movement is very definitely talking about, and planning toward, a system in which every pregnant woman will be forced to carry pregnancies to term. And that would be true from sea to shining sea, and world without end.