The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Opposition to Abortion—the Strategy for Building the U.S. Republican Party

May 9, 2022

The Supreme Court’s draft opinion that leaked on May 2 effectively overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on a nationwide level. If the official decision of the Supreme Court that will be released in late June or early July is anything like the draft opinion, this would be not only a triumph for the anti-abortion movement, but for the Republican Party, which had used the call to overturn abortion rights as one of the main ways to build an electoral base for itself.

When the Republicans Claimed to Support Abortion Rights

The position on abortion held currently by the Republican Party is very different from its position in the years leading up to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, such Republican political leaders as Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush all proclaimed themselves to be “pro-choice.” And they were not party outliers. In that same period, top Republican governors, Ronald Reagan in California and Nelson Rockefeller in New York, signed bills that eliminated most restrictions for women seeking abortions in their states. In Republican strongholds of North Carolina and Colorado, lawmakers made it easier for women to obtain abortions.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision itself was to a great degree a product of the Republican judicial mainstream at the time. The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade by a seven to two margin. Of the seven justices who ruled for women’s rights, five had been appointed by a Republican president, with Harry Blackmun, a conservative Nixon appointee, writing for the majority.

Of course, no one should be fooled. These reactionary politicians and judges were not defenders of women’s basic right. On the contrary, their position was forced on them by the widespread mobilizations of the 1960s and early ‘70s, which were battering down many of the reactionary limitations put on the population, especially the black population and women.

Looking for a Base

After Roe v. Wade, these same officials at the head of the Republican Party began to seek ways to expand their political base. They moved away from a pro-choice position to adopt what they called a “pro-life” position. They saw the evangelical movement as a vehicle for expanding the influence of the Republican Party.

At the time, there was not a lot of organized opposition to abortion from the evangelicals. The Southern Baptist Convention in 1974 reaffirmed its long-held view that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, or strong evidence of the likelihood of emotional, mental, or physical damage to the mother.

But much of the white evangelical movement had been a prop for segregation, along with the Ku Klux Klan. Those churches had been pushed back by the struggle of the black population. In the 1970s, some of these churches were thwarted by the courts and the Internal Revenue Service in their efforts to obtain tax-exempt status for “segregation academies” like Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian School and Bob Jones University. These religious leaders that claimed to heed “a biblical mandate to keep the races separate” were blocked.

Republican strategists reached out to these church leaders, recognizing the potential political power evangelical voters would have if they were to vote as a bloc. They pulled them into the fold with issues they thought might appeal to their moralism, such as opposition to the proliferation of pornography, and abortion.

Anti-Abortion: Solidifying the Republican Base

Thus, the Republican Party—long the minority party in the country, based essentially only on wealthier suburbs and some rural areas, and completely shut out of the Democratic-controlled “Solid South"—was about to pander to the churches in a bid to establish a solid mass electoral base for itself, especially in the South, where the churches were the strongest.

The Roman Catholic Church originally took the lead on the abortion issue, circulating in 1975 the “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities,” a campaign to be carried out by every priest in every parish. The aim of the Catholic hierarchy was to bring back into the theological fold those numerous Catholics who did not subscribe to the church’s views on abortion and birth control.

This then set the stage for the Republican Party to insert an anti-abortion plank into its official party platform in 1976. Then came the 1978 midterm elections, in which anti-abortionists campaigned for winning Senate candidates in Minnesota and Iowa. The following year Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority to support candidates for public office.

The Republicans and Falwell realized that opposing abortion could be successfully used to appear to be a moral issue cutting across racial and religious lines. In reality, of course, it was the way of putting the choices and lives of women, especially women from the working class, increasingly under the thumb of the government and religion.

In the following years, the litmus test for Republicans running for political office or nominated to the judiciary became opposition to abortion. By making the anti-abortion issue one of the most important planks of the Republican Party, the party was pushed in an ever more openly reactionary and religious fundamentalist direction on a host of other issues, from tax exemption for religious institutions to opposition to immigration, publicly funded healthcare, and same-sex marriage. And now, with the likely complete overthrow of Roe v. Wade, many other rights will certainly come under renewed attack.

It is impossible to understand the movement to ban abortion without looking at the cynical play of the Republican Party to develop a mass voting base. But this, in turn, has had an impact on the reactionary development of American politics in general.