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Abortion and Liberal Mobilization


While I generally (if tentatively) agree with Ezra and the Moose that overturning Roe would be bad for the Republican Party at the national level (although, for reasons I’ve previously discussed, I think more states would ban abortion than is commonly assumed), I respectfully disagree with some of the other arguments Ezra makes:

To be clear, I certainly don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned, but that’s for ideological, not strategic, reasons. Fact is, I think an overturn would be the best thing that could happen to the Democratic Party. We often underestimate or ignore the role abortion, and more to the point, Roe v. Wade, has played in the political awakening and organization of the Christian Right, and thus the resurgence of the hard-line GOP. At its heart, this movement has judicial decisions to thank, as most of the more controversial cultural battles of the past century have been decided not by legislation, with all the persuasion and coalition building that entails, but by judicial fiat. Now, I think that’s fine, the judiciary has been right to make most of these decisions, but from a tactical perspective, it’s terrible, as the right has been given the perfect foil with which to rile up cultural conservatives and play up backlash politics.

A few points in response:

  • While common, the claim that litigation is separate from political mobilization is quite inaccurate. Litigation is generally (and certainly was in this case) part of a broader political movement. Indeed, litigation can be a crucial means of overcoming collective action problems in political organizing. As Michael McCann (among many others) has demonstrated, litigation can be an effective mobilization tool even if it fails to achieve its primary objectives.
  • It’s important to understand that litigation was a last resort for the pro-choice movement. They would have preferred (and attempted) legislative liberalization, but by 1971 it was clear that this was impossible in most states. Again, because abortion laws are never enforced against affluent women, there isn’t much incentive to repeal them even though they’re broadly unpopular, and because issues like abortion upset existing coalitions politicians have very strong incentives to defer policy changes to other branches. The choice was not Roe or legislative liberalization; it was Roe or abortion being illegal in most states. And as the fierce counter-mobilization produced by the initial liberalization at the state level demonstrates, the pro-life movement would have been mobilized no matter which branch made the decision.
  • I’m particularly puzzled by the claim that the pro-choice movement isn’t well mobilized. There may have been some complacency in the immediate aftermath of Roe, but particularly since the Reagan Administration began its efforts to overturn it this complacency has vanished. (It’s not an accident that Roe has survived two decades of mostly Republican appointments to the Court.) Put it this way: the one leftist constituency that Clinton never, ever sold out was choice. What does that tell you?


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