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Today, many Americans blame polarizing conflict over abortion on the Supreme Court. If only the Court had stayed its hand or decided Roe v. Wade on narrower grounds, they argue, the nation would have reached a political settlement and avoided backlash. We question this court-centered backlash narrative. Where others have deplored the abortion conflict as resulting from courts "shutting down" politics, we approach the abortion conflict as an expression of politics–a conflict in which the Supreme Court was not the only or even the most important actor.
In this essay, we ask what escalation of the abortion conflict in the decade before the Supreme Court decided Roe might teach about the logic of conflict in the decades after Roe. To do so, we draw on sources we collected for our recently published documentary history, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling (2010). We begin our story at a time when more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion's decriminalization, when Catholics mobilized against abortion reform but evangelical Protestants did not, when feminists were only beginning to claim access to abortion as a right. We show how Republicans campaigning for Richard Nixon in 1972 took new positions on abortion to draw Catholics and social conservatives away from the Democratic Party. Evidence from the post-Roe period suggests that it was party realignment that helped escalate and shape conflict over Roe in the ensuing decades.
The backlash narrative suggests that turning to courts to vindicate rights is too often counter-productive, and that adjudication is to be avoided at all costs. We are not ready to accept this grim diagnosis at face value, and we urge further research into the dynamics of conflict in the decades after Roe. The stakes in understanding this history are high.
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