This Really Is a Different Pro-Life Movement

What happened when a campaign led by northern Catholics was captured by southern evangelicals

A black-and-white photo of Christian worshippers
Nina Berman / Redux

When the Supreme Court issued its landmark abortion-rights decision, Roe v. Wade, in 1973, the most intransigent opponents of the decision were not the legislatures of southern Bible Belt states such as Mississippi and Oklahoma. Indeed, doctors in many southern states—including Arkansas, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia—had been performing legal hospital abortions for at least a few carefully defined “therapeutic” reasons for years before Roe. The state legislatures that presented the strongest defiance to legalizing abortion were those of the heavily Catholic states of the Northeast. Barely 10 percent of Massachusetts legislators supported legalizing abortion in 1973, according to an archival American Civil Liberties Union document. Instead of permitting the procedure up to the point of viability (about 28 weeks at the time), as the Supreme Court mandated, the Massachusetts state legislature responded to Roe by passing a bill prohibiting abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. Rhode Island’s statehouse presented even stronger opposition: It kept abortion clinics out of the state until 1975, when its anti-abortion law was overturned by a federal court.

Today, of course, Massachusetts and the rest of New England are in the vanguard of states that will protect abortion access if—when, as it now appearsRoe v. Wade is rescinded. And many of the southern states that liberalized their abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s are now at the forefront of the movement to restrict abortion.

This was not merely a geographic shift, trading one region for another, but a more fundamental transformation of the anti-abortion movement’s political ideology. In 1973 many of the most vocal opponents of abortion were northern Democrats who believed in an expanded social-welfare state and who wanted to reduce abortion rates through prenatal insurance and federally funded day care. In 2022, most anti-abortion politicians are conservative Republicans who are skeptical of such measures. What happened was a seismic religious and political shift in opposition to abortion that has not occurred in any other Western country.

Before the mid-1970s, active opposition to abortion in the United States looked almost exactly like opposition to abortion in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia: It was concentrated mainly among Catholics. As late as 1980, 70 percent of the members of the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization, the National Right to Life Committee, were Catholic. As a result, the states that were most resistant to abortion legalization were, in most cases, the states with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of which were in the North and leaned Democratic.

This fit the pattern across the Western world: Countries with large numbers of devout Catholics restricted abortion, while those that were predominantly Protestant did not. Sweden—where Catholics made up less than 1 percent of the population—legalized some abortions as early as the 1930s; Ireland did not follow suit until 2018.

If the United States had followed this script, opposition to abortion probably would have weakened with the decline of Catholic-church attendance rates. Like Canada and England, where the leading conservative parties are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion rights, the Republican Party in the United States might have remained what it was for most of the 1970s: a heavily Protestant party whose leaders generally leaned in favor of abortion rights.

But in the United States, the anti-abortion movement did not remain predominantly Catholic. Southern evangelical Protestants, who had once hesitated to embrace the anti-abortion movement in the belief that it was a sectarian Catholic campaign, began enlisting in the cause in the late ’70s and ’80s. Motivated by a conviction that Roe v. Wade was a product of liberal social changes they opposed—including secularization, the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and a rights-conscious reading of the Constitution—they made opposition to the ruling a centerpiece of the new Christian right. When they captured control of the Republican Party in the late 20th century, they transformed the GOP from a northern-centered mainline Protestant party that was moderately friendly to abortion rights into a hotbed of southern populism that blended economic libertarianism with Bible Belt moral regulation.

The change was not instantaneous. Although the Republican Party endorsed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in its party platform in 1976, partly because of its desire to win over northern Catholics, the party at first gave the idea little more than lip service, and pro-abortion-rights conservatives continued to hold leadership positions in the GOP for several more years. In 1983, the Republican-controlled Senate considered an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, but one-third of Republican senators voted against it, dooming it to defeat. However, as evangelical Protestants from the South acquired a greater controlling interest in the GOP, Republicans had a harder time ignoring their desire to restrict abortion. The crucial change came in the midterm elections of 1994, when southern conservatives gave Republicans the votes they needed to take over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” did not mention abortion, but southern evangelicals insisted that the GOP needed to pay attention to the issue. When the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, attempted to moderate the party’s platform statement on abortion, right-wing Christian activists blocked the change.

But what really motivated anti-abortion activists to remain loyal to the GOP was not merely a platform statement but the promise of the Supreme Court. They believed that the Republican Party offered them the only path to a conservative judiciary that would overturn Roe v. Wade. If this goal required them to accept a conservative economic platform at odds with the views that many in the movement had held before Roe, well, that was of little matter, because many of the evangelical-Protestant anti-abortion advocates were political conservatives anyway.

As late as the beginning of this century, Texas still had a pro-abortion-rights (Protestant) Republican senator, while Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota were still represented in Congress by anti-abortion Democrats who were Catholic. But as the historically Catholic population of the North became less devout and therefore less inclined to follow the Church’s teaching on abortion—and as a younger generation of progressive Democrats began to view reproductive rights as a nonnegotiable part of the Democratic Party platform—anti-abortion influence in the politically liberal states of the Northeast diminished, while it expanded in the South.

The anti-abortion movement’s political priorities changed as a result. A movement that in the early ’70s had attracted some political progressives who opposed the Vietnam War and capital punishment became associated in the ’80s and ’90s with evangelical-inspired conservative-Christian nationalism. Early activists wanted to create a comprehensive “culture of life,” but many of the evangelicals who joined the movement in the late 20th century wanted to save America from secularism and take back the nation for God.

Only a minority of white evangelical Protestants were politically progressive; the majority (especially in the South) were conservative, and they combined their commitment to moral regulation with a faith in free-market economics and opposition to social-welfare spending. American evangelicalism had long been the most individualistic of the nation’s Christian traditions, and in keeping with that individualistic theology of sin and salvation, most white evangelicals thought that the government’s interest in morality extended only to the punishment of individual vice, not the reduction of poverty. Thus, as the anti-abortion movement’s political influence shifted away from Catholic states toward evangelical-Protestant regions, it abandoned its earlier calls for federal antipoverty programs, expanded maternal-health insurance, and federally funded day care, and instead focused exclusively on the narrower issue of overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal.

A few activists (including a number of the northern Catholic veterans of the movement) remained committed to poverty relief and a comprehensive culture-of-life ethic, but with the Democratic Party’s current unequivocal endorsement of abortion rights, some of them felt politically homeless. Those activists began voting Republican despite their reservations about the party’s stances on social-welfare issues—which brought them into alliance with the southern evangelical conservatives who now had the political power to restrict abortion in their region.

The result is the map we have today: The states that are most likely to restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe are also some of the states with the least generous health-care policies. Half a century ago, many liberal, northern, anti-abortion Democrats saw a connection between poverty reduction and abortion prevention, but today most of those in the southern Bible Belt who oppose abortion do not. They may soon: Because abortion rates are very closely correlated with poverty, opponents of the procedure may find reducing its prevalence difficult without expanding Medicaid or enacting other antipoverty measures.

The enthusiastic embrace of the movement by white evangelicals in the Bible Belt was key to the movement’s political success. Yet the association of the movement with a brand of southern evangelical-conservative politics that opposes antipoverty measures may also mean that the repeal of Roe v. Wade won’t reduce abortion rates as much as the movement expects. If these activists really want to save unborn lives, they may have to look for guidance not only to the southern conservatives who currently lead the movement but to the northern social-welfare advocates whose voices were once dominant in the movement but whose early influence has long been forgotten.