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On Heartbeats, Abolitionists, and Abortion Bans

Image by James McNellis via Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri passed their restrictive abortion laws this month, many were outraged. Anti-abortion extremists seem to be throwing caution to the wind. A tidal wave of anti-abortion legislation had finally crested in laws that ban abortion completely or at very early stages of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. These laws will certainly be challenged in court. But that is also the point: the legislators behind these bills hope they will allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Those doing this work think of themselves as abolitionists, confronting a national sin akin to slavery. As the national media has turned its eyes to the anti-abortion movement, many have suggested there is a new, more extreme movement at work than in years past. They are wrong. In fact, the current moment is an extension, perhaps even a culmination, of a 50-year-long campaign.

Consider exceptions. It may seem as if a new cadre of activists are rejecting an earlier generation’s tolerance for them, but anti-abortion activists have never been comfortable with the termination of pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. Such exceptions were first proposed as a way to reform states’ almost total bans on abortion. The American Law Institute (ALI)—an association of professionals trying to standardize American law—had recommended in 1959 that states add exceptions to existing abortion laws for cases of rape, incest, and “grave” fetal “defect,” as well as when the mental or physical health of the woman was in danger. Beginning in 1967, states began amending their abortion statutes, often embracing the ALI recommendations. When the anti-abortion movement mobilized in these years, they demanded that abortion remain almost completely illegal. At turns, activists argued that women would lie about rape to get an abortion; that women’s bodies would prevent pregnancy in cases of rape; that statutory rape was not actually rape; that the law did not require permission from rapists for abortions; and that fetuses should not suffer no matter how repugnant were the origins of a pregnancy. Exceptions were the creation of those who wanted to expand access to abortion, not those who wished to restrict it.

After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, activists focused much of their attention on getting an anti-abortion amendment added to the U.S. Constitution. Most iterations of what they called the “human life amendment” would have outlawed abortion in all cases except when the woman’s life was at stake. From the 1980s onwards, anti-abortion activists turned their ire upon rape and incest exceptions in one of the few places they remained: in federal legislation around Medicaid funding. The Hyde Amendment, beginning in 1980, prohibited the use of public money for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the woman’s life. A select number of anti-abortion activists thought this was the best compromise they could get at the time, but even the pragmatists in the anti-abortion ranks never actually supported exceptions. They simply acquiesced to them. This was one of many times where activists had to content themselves with laws that limited access to abortion, rather than banning it outright.

When activists advocated for outright abortion bans and incremental legislation, they often used images and discussions around fetal bodies, just as Georgia and Missouri’s recent “heartbeat bills” have done. Activists beginning in the late 1960s claimed that all people have their chromosomal “uniqueness” at conception, that heartbeats and brain waves start soon after, and that all “bodily functions” work by the end of the first trimester. Activists often paired such arguments with fetal ephemera. In the early years, they used embalmed fetuses and recycled old medical films with added anti-abortion voiceovers to make their points. In the decades that followed, activists developed new tools that allowed them to carry fetuses into Americans’ daily lives. For example, beginning in the 1970s, activists brought metal pins depicting fetal feet into churches. Beginning in the 1980s, activists gave small plastic fetus dolls to children in schools. Beginning in the 1990s, activists sold “Choose Life” license plates to drivers in order to fund anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. Fetal representations became an almost inescapable part of American life. Across the country, those images facilitated discussions about heartbeats, chromosomes, and when life began. The takeaway was always that abortion ended a life—no matter how early it was done and no matter the conditions of the pregnancy.

Crucially, the white socially conservative activists who did this work thought of themselves, from the very beginning, as abolitionists. Right after the Roe decision, the fledgling anti-abortion movement compared the ruling to the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that black people—slave or free—were not U.S. citizens and thus not protected under the Constitution. Activists argued that both cases made some groups “less than human.” Abortion and slavery—in their formulation—degraded life. Anti-abortion activists immediately compared themselves to Abraham Lincoln and the Americans who “mounted the bloodiest war in history to end slavery.” Additionally, activists co-opted more recent black history and claimed they were a part of a civil rights movement, securing rights for the dispossessed.

This language allowed conservatives both to borrow the moral power of leftist movements and to galvanize socially conservative action. In the 1980s and 1990s, many began engaging in civil disobedience outside abortion clinics—sometimes singing “We Shall Overcome” while they tried to stop women from accessing reproductive healthcare. Randall Terry, leader of the radical organization Operation Rescue, regularly invoked Martin Luther King and called his group the “civil rights movement of the 1990s.” The language of genocide, slavery, and civil rights even motivated a select few to violent action. There was a rash of attacks on abortion clinics and abortion providers at the end of the century, culminating in the murder of eight people affiliated with abortion care. Since Roe, anti-abortion activists have argued that they and their political allies needed to respond to legal abortion as if it were slavery or the Holocaust—but worse.

Still, something has changed in the 21st century. Even as the rhetoric and goals of the movement have stayed largely the same, anti-abortion activists and voters have finally elected officials who embrace the entire “pro-life” agenda. No longer do they have to deal with politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan who, to varying degrees, depended on anti-abortion voters to get elected but failed to deliver on their political promises. In the 21st century, activists have finally put anti-abortion ideologues into state and federal office.

The bills in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri are not evidence, then, that the modern movement has become more extreme. Rather, they are a reminder that the anti-abortion movement has always been extreme. Over the years, activists advocated for laws that limited access to abortion only because that is what they thought politically possible. This new moment has changed those calculations. Activists now have real hope for a future without legal abortion.


For more on this topic, please refer to this index of book reviews or to these works:

David J. Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1994).

Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

David John Marley, “Riding in the Back of the Bus: The Christian Right’s Adoption of CivilRights Movement Rhetoric,” in The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, ed. Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 346–362.

Carole Mason, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Mary Ziegler, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).


Jennifer L. Holland is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. Her book, Tiny You: A Cultural History of the Anti-Abortion Movement, will be coming out with the University of California Press in Spring 2020.

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