The GOP, Pro-Lifers and Roe

Larison waxes indignant:

I understand why pro-life voters typically align with the Republicans. In theory, it makes sense: we pro-lifers vote for you Republicans, and you work to overturn Roe and generally oppose abortion itself (and, by extension, euthanasia and ESCR and so on). It sounds like a fair deal, until you, the pro-lifers, realise that you never really get very much out of it in all these years. But what about getting a majority on the Court, someone will ask. Well, pro-lifers have helped put Republicans in executive power for what will soon be twenty of the last twenty-eight years, during which time these Presidents have nominated seven Supreme Court justices, five of whom are still on the Court today. There has been a Republican-appointed majority on the Court for most of my lifetime, and most of the Republican appointees came in during the Reagan years or later, and yet Roe is realistically farther away than ever from being overturned than it was fifteen years ago. The latest two justices made it clear in their confirmation hearings that they accepted Roe as established precedent–and their nominations are supposed to represent the great clout and triumph of pro-life voters! Someone might point to the various bad choices and disappointments among the nominees in the past (Souter, O’Connor, etc.) and claim that pro-lifers just need to remain patient and gradually build up that anti-Roe majority they have imagined for such a long time.

Given the record of the last three decades, what makes them think that anything will change in the next administration or the one after that? The trouble with pro-life voters is that most routinely vote for the GOP, so the latter have no real incentive to keep them interested or give them anything more than symbolism or limited measures designed to keep them just attached enough to retain their loyalty for another cycle. Someone will say, “Well, that’s politics for you,” but my point would be that pro-life voters need to be much more shrewd in their willingness to withhold support and extract concessions. Yes, this is politics we’re talking about, which is why pro-lifers should play the game a lot better than they have been doing. Those who follow the path of Pat Robertson to pay obeisance to Giuliani are declaring to the party, “Please, exploit us for your own advantage!”

I agree about Robertson and Rudy, but otherwise I think this assessment is far too harsh. Consider what the pro-life movement has been up against over the last thirty years. First, Roe was decided with a 7-2 majority, meaning that opponents needed to flip three justices to overturn it, not just one or two. Second, it took the better part of a decade for the pro-life movement to even get off the ground in any substantial way, and for the evangelical-Catholic alliance on the issue to take shape. Third, elite culture in the United States - the culture of the media, of Manhattan and Washington D.C., and of the law schools that produce most future SCOTUS judges - is unremittingly hostile to pro-lifers. Fourth, Roe has the weight of both stare decisis and public opinion (however misinformed) on its side, which tends to give its defenders the political and legal high ground.

Yet in spite of all these handicaps (and I can think of several others), the alliance between pro-lifers and the GOP pushed Roe to the brink of extinction in the late 1980s. Obviously, the Souter pick was unforgivable, but even so, it took the combination of a shameful-but-effective Democratic smear campaign against Robert Bork and Anthony Kennedy's last-minute change of heart to save Roe from being overturned in 1992. Near-misses aren't the same thing as victories, but it's worth pointing out that from the vantage point of the early 1970s, when the Times famously declared that the Court had "settled" the abortion issue, this was closer to success than anyone would have expected a rag-tag band of religious conservatives to come. And the next Republican President - Bush, that is - looks to have improved on the Reagan-Bush record: This administration has had two SCOTUS vacancies, and filled both with judges who I would deem very likely to overturn Roe, or at least drastically reduce its scope, should the opportunity arise. It's true that if you think, as Larison does, that "Roe is realistically farther away than ever from being overturned," then yes, pro-life support for the GOP has been nothing short of folly. But I think he misjudges Alito and Roberts, and that Roe is closer than ever to being overturned - one vote away to be precise.

(Of course - returning to Daniel's final point, with which I agree - this makes it all the more baffling that the Pat Robertsons of the world have decided that now, of all times, is the moment to decide that abortion should take a back seat not only to fighting Islamists, but to "the control of massive government waste and crushing federal deficits," in Robertson's less-than-immortal words. Or that the National Right to Life Committee, in an effort to stop Robertson's preferred candidate, would decide to throw its weight behind a guy who's running fourth or worse in the early primary states, when there are several candidates with comparable anti-Roe bona fides and better poll numbers.)