How the Past Can Inform the Future

Taylor Rosen

In 1973, the Supreme Court granted bodily autonomy to women when it sided with a woman under the pseudonym of Jane Roe in a case against Dallas County’s district attorney. As part of this case, the Supreme Court established federal regulations on abortion, revoking the individual states’ abilities to control women’s reproductive health (“Roe v. Wade”). In response to Roe v. Wade, conservatives mobilized to form pro-life organizations with the ultimate goal of overturning the Supreme Court’s decision. Their strategies mirrored previously successful progressive movements, including the Abolitionist, Civil Rights, and Gay Rights Movements. While the Abolitionist Movement initially relied on its connection to churches and civic groups to further its cause, it saw a genuine momentum shift when it started associating itself with a major political group. Similarly, the Pro-life Movement used Christian churches as its initial source of power, but started to see tangible results toward their cause when they affiliated themselves with the Republican Party and incorporated their goals into the party’s political agenda.

For the Gay Rights Movement, success in decriminalizing laws targeting LGBTQ+ citizens relied upon altering local laws to make previous court cases appear incongruous with the public’s desires and the modern interpretation of the constitution. Their efforts primarily focused on increasing laws protecting people based on sexual orientation and decreasing laws meant to criminalize intercourse between consenting adults. Mirroring their strategies, the Pro-life Movement targeted local laws regarding the interpretation of the meaning of personhood. Through their endeavors, they were able to alter local homicide laws, personal injury laws, and child abuse laws to change the definition of personhood in numerous contexts seemingly unrelated to abortion.

In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, the movement’s goals were in part accomplished using a strategy known as incrementalism, which aims to highlight inconsistencies within the law. Used by the NAACP, this method enabled the lawyers of the Civil Rights Movement to slowly chip away at the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (“How the Anti-Abortion Movement Used the Progressive Playbook to Chip Away at Roe v. Wade”). Similarly, the Pro-life Movement employed incrementalism to test the limits of Roe v. Wade. In 2013, as part of the 83rd Texas Legislature, Texas passed House Bill 2, or HB 2, which built upon previous abortion regulations. This bill consisted of numerous components, including the Preborn Pain Act, which banned abortion twenty weeks post-fertilization. In addition, the bill mandated that doctors have admitting privileges at a hospital near the abortion clinic and that the clinic meet standards set for ambulatory surgical centers. Lastly, the law required doctors to administer oral abortifacients and for patients to return within 14 days for a follow-up. HB 2 had drastic implications for the women of Texas and put them in danger of only having ten abortion clinics to serve 5.4 million women of reproductive age (Rosen).

Ultimately, the success of these strategies implemented by the conservative party was demonstrated in the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In this case, the Supreme Court returned the right to regulate abortion to the states and determined that there is no right to privacy guaranteed within the Constitution (“Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization”). Dobbs v. Jackson devastated women’s progress within the last 50 years to establish gender equality. Not only will it endanger women’s lives by placing them in positions encouraging them to seek subpar care, but it also strains families lacking access to affordable contraception. While this Supreme Court decision is a major blow to women’s bodily autonomy, the Pro-life Movement’s ability to successfully mimic the actions of the Progressive Movement implies that the same strategy could be employed to return reproductive rights to women. By focusing on abortion stances within the Democratic party, changing local laws, and practicing incrementalism, we can potentially reverse the tide once more to favor women’s reproductive rights. In other words, in order to fix the future, we must begin by looking at the past.