The Anti-abortion Movement’s New Distrust of Democracy

“It was never going to be the case that if voters wanted abortion to be legal, the movement would be comfortable with that,” Mary Ziegler says.

A person in a black cap stands in front of a columned building, behind two signs that each read "Abortion."
An anti-abortion activist outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 2022 (Dietsch / Getty)

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In a recent Atlantic essay, the professor and legal historian Mary Ziegler wrote about the anti-abortion movement’s erosion of faith in democracy. As Americans prepare to vote in the first major election since Roe v. Wade was overturned, I spoke with Ziegler about what happens next.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Democracy as an Obstacle

Kelli María Korducki: You wrote that the anti-abortion movement is at a crossroads, one where “democracy is either an obstacle that the movement has to live with or, for others, an inconvenience that they no longer can afford.” How did it get here?

Mary Ziegler: If you go way back, that was always kind of true. The anti-abortion movement is framed, on its own terms, as a human-rights movement. That means it was never going to be the case that if voters wanted abortion to be legal, the movement would be comfortable with that. So I think there’s always been a tension between, on the one hand, the people who took the position of “Abortion is really bad, and the people are voting for access to it in ignorance” and a related but separate strand of the movement saying, essentially, “Even if education and voting don’t work in our favor, abortion should be illegal anyway.”

Korducki: How did the passage of Roe v. Wade define the movement?

Ziegler: As the movement aligned with the GOP, there was a lot more interest in talking about democracy, because the GOP as a whole was framing what the Supreme Court was doing [in passing Roe] as antidemocratic and repressive. And so then you began to get a lot of anti-abortion groups making similar arguments and also sort of suggesting that if the American people could decide about abortion, they would totally side with the anti-abortion movement.

Fast-forward to now. Some pro-life groups—or, I guess, pro-life theorists—put out a statement that basically argues that what pro-life people should do is pass laws that are as protective as possible, given the constraints of democracy, and then push for more later. So essentially, saying, “Democracy will be our friend, and it’s only the enemy of people who want to ban abortion right now.” And then some other anti-abortion people saw that statement and replied, “But wait, actually, we really do want to ban abortion right now.”

Korducki: Where does the movement go next?

Ziegler: The argument I’ve made is that some people in the anti-abortion movement have been willing to make changes that have eroded democracy to advance their agenda, because they think that fetal rights, in some ways, are more important than democracy itself. If you view your cause as the most important human-rights issue, you’re going to think that securing those rights by any means necessary makes sense.

There are people that very much believe that the goal should be to preserve fetal rights, whether [those protections would or wouldn’t] come from the Supreme Court, whether people want them or not. There could be a national abortion ban, whether people want it or not. So I think democracy comes into play both in the sense that the movement is pursuing policies that are not what the American people seem to desire, and that the group that may be willing to work with other groups to change democracy in order to secure those changes, because they think the changes are worth the price.

So I think that’s kind of where the movement is now—and that internal tension is enhanced by the fact that the movement has all these home bases in the South that are pretty politically uncompetitive. So in some of those states, people are not really worrying about how abortion is polling nationally or in more competitive races. They’re just thinking about what they can get passed in their own state and not really what voters more broadly want.

Korducki: Some Republican Senate candidates in more purple states seem to be walking back their anti-abortion rhetoric and trying to say as little as as possible until they get through the midterms.

Ziegler: Totally. You almost feel bad for, for example, [Arizona Republican Senate candidate] Blake Masters, because the guy just doesn’t know what to say. [Laughs.] In last week’s debate, he was like [to paraphrase], “I’m the most pro-life candidate you’ll meet.” And then he emphasized that, on the other hand, he supports a 15-week abortion ban. He just doesn’t know what to do.

One of the reasons I think these internal tensions within the anti-abortion movement are coming into the open is because, historically, the movement had a really pronounced hierarchy. There were a handful of organizations that had really strong connections to members of Congress and state legislatures, and they would write all the model legislation and come up with pro-life ratings for different members of Congress. Those were the groups that tended to dictate strategy. And since probably 2018, 2019, that hasn’t been the case anymore. So, if you’re talking about the pro-life movement, and there’s no hierarchy, you don’t know who’s going be deciding how to feel or think about these questions.

Korducki: It seems like an open question.

Ziegler: It is. The movement is harder to write about now, in some ways, because it requires sketching these different possibilities. Predictions can’t be as firm.


Today’s News
  1. The Biden administration issued its national-security strategy, outlining a long-term focus on China and Russia.
  2. The FDA authorized the updated COVID booster shot for children ages 5 to 11.
  3. A jury awarded nearly $1 billion in damages to Sandy Hook families and an FBI agent in the defamation case against Alex Jones.


Evening Read
Photo illustration of a baby holding a bone
(Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty)

What Does Paleo Parenting Look Like?

By Sam Kean

From a Darwinian perspective, human reproduction is pretty idiotic. “We are terrible at getting pregnant,” writes the American-born British archaeologist Brenna Hassett, “then when we do we undercook the baby and end up with a ridiculously helpless infant.” That doesn’t even account for the nightmare of human childbirth, the biological equivalent of the old sofa-in-the-stairwell dilemma. Then there’s the absurdly long time it takes us to reach maturity. Many chimpanzees breastfeed from their mother until about age 4, then shoot up into adults who are fecund by 10 and reproducing by 13. By contrast, many human babies in developed countries wean by age 1, but then reproduction doesn’t happen for two or three decades after that.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Angela Lansbury
Casey Curry / Invision / AP

Read. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a collection of essays highlighting where Indigenous and scientific understandings of botany meet. (Kimmerer won a MacArthur fellowship today.)

Watch. Bedknobs and Broomsticks (available to stream on Disney+), a 1971 movie that shows Angela Lansbury’s commitment to utter silliness.

Play our daily crossword.


Ziegler argues that the constitutional protection of fetal personhood is becoming a key facet of the anti-abortion movement’s strategy. Last year, she wrote an Atlantic essay on how this came to pass, which—in addition to her new book, Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment—makes for excellent supplementary reading on the past, present, and potential future of abortion access in America.

— Kelli

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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.