The politics of abortion: a historical perspective

Womens Health Issues. 1993 Fall;3(3):127-31. doi: 10.1016/s1049-3867(05)80245-2.


An analysis of the capture of the Republican party and the national agenda from the late 1970s into the 1990s by a coalition of political and religious conservatives.

PIP: Paradoxically, as Americans became increasingly pro-choice, 2 anti-abortion Presidents were elected to serve for 12 years and pro-life forces captured the domestic agenda by overhauling the traditionally libertarian Republican party. This occurred because Republican analysts saw that the Democratic New Deal coalition was cracking, the traditionally conservative south and west began to control more seats in the House of Representatives, and Americans were becoming more affluent and, thus, more interested in taxes and inflation. Efforts were made to bring social conservatives, especially pro-lifers, into the Republican party with scare tactics used in the wording of direct mailings. In the late 1970s, fundamentalist Christians became outraged by Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and legalizing abortion and by Jimmy Carter's decision to withdraw tax-exempt status from segregated church schools. This group was mobilized by radio and television preachers, especially televangelist Jerry Falwell who also used scare tactics to promote his Moral Majority. The new right also tried to reach the nation's 50 million Roman Catholics through the right-to-life movement. The Catholic bishops worked closely with the new right at first, but most Catholic lay people did not share their church's opposition to abortion in all cases. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the new right was quick to claim the victory, even though polls showed that most Reagan voters opposed banning abortion. For the next 12 years, Republican policies were crafted to please these new Republicans, with funding denied important international family planning agencies. Then in the mid-1980s, the forces of the new right began to wobble. Fundamentalist and Catholic Church leaders were rocked with sexual scandals, the pro-lifers began to fight among themselves, and the Moral Majority stopped raking in funds. When the Supreme Court's Webster decision gave states the right to restrict abortion, a pro-choice backlash swept the nation. Congress followed suit. Pro-lifers have resisted political marginalization, and their new strategy is exemplified by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition which wants to organize members into a political force from the ground up. The religious right also maintains its firm hold on the Republican party, although pro-choice Republicans are urging the party to distance itself from the anti-abortion forces. With most Americans willing to accept some restrictions on abortion, however, and anti-choice activism continuing, abortion foes have made significant political gains in some states just as the Supreme Court has allowed states to regulate abortion. This will affect the women who most depend upon abortion, the young and the poor.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Legal / history*
  • Federal Government
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Politics*
  • Pregnancy
  • Public Opinion*
  • Supreme Court Decisions
  • United States