Supreme Court Justice Alito thinks the United States has always banned abortion. He is wrong.


In his leaky draft opinion, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argued that the United States has “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal penalties … from the earliest days of the common law until 1973” .

It is simply wrong.

For much of US history, abortion was commonplace. And, often, American Christianity and Republicans did not disagree with that. In some cases, Republicans were the main pro-choice advocates.

From early colonial times in the 17th and 18th centuries, abortions before “acceleration”, or detectable fetal movement, were widely authorized and common, largely provided by midwives. It was not until the mid-19th century that campaigns to delegalize abortion at the state level began in earnest. But these efforts had nothing to do with concern for unborn life. On the contrary, they were led by male doctors eager to exclude midwives of medical practice. In 1900, they succeeded in consolidating their power and making abortion illegal throughout the country.

American Christian traditions have also been equally inconsistent, as my to research showed. In their own narrative, conservative Christians and their GOP allies consistently say they oppose abortion because of deeply held beliefs and stepped up their efforts after Roe v. Wade of 1973 struck down state laws criminalizing abortion. Republican politicians frequently quote the Bible and invoke their faith to abolish abortion.

Yet Christian opposition to abortion is both recent and arbitrary. Until the 1970s, many Protestant denominations had no clear theological position on abortion and remained silent. For Southern Baptists, for example, divorce was traditionally a far graver sin than abortion. As a religious scholar Randall Balmer explained, evangelicals had no clear position on abortion, but “divorce bans were almost absolute”. The Southern Baptist Convention even approved a resolution in 1971 who called for the legalization of abortion in certain circumstances. Many Protestants simply viewed abortion as a “Catholic issue.”

The Republican Party was equally evasive. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Republican politicians directed efforts for liberalize abortion laws in California, Colorado and New York. Before Roe, Republican women were mainstays of pro-choice activism. On the contrary, the Republicans were After favorable than the Democrats to abortion: in 1972, 68% of Republicans supported the declaration “the decision to have an abortion should be made only by a woman and her doctor”, against 59% of Democrats. As recently as 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, the National Republican Party platform was neutral on abortion.

So what has changed? Enter the Internal Revenue Service.

In 1976, the taxman revoked tax-exempt status from conservative Bob Jones University for violating anti-segregation laws. As evangelical leaders sought new political allies and the GOP needed to broaden its base, the change in tax-exempt status became the impetus for a new and enduring partnership. Leaders of both groups knew that tax laws had little potential to mobilize voters – but moral issues, like abortion or divorce, could. Divorce was a natural choice, because it was such a grave sin for many evangelicals. Yet the Republican candidate for president in the 1980s was divorced Ronald Reagan, and divorce rates were also rising among evangelicals. Thus, the leaders of the religious right opted for abortion. In the late 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention founded the Christian Life Commission and publicly joined in the fight against abortion.

Catholic opposition to abortion is also relatively recent. American bishops did not begin to publicly condemn abortion until the late 1960s, after Pope Paul VI’s papal letter “Vitae Humanae”. Before that, for centuries, while abortion was a sin and potentially grounds for excommunication – in the eyes of the church it was not murder. With one brief exception from 1588 to 1591, the Catholic Church taught that abortion was not homicide until the “soul”, which occurred at the time of quickening. The precise timing has been hotly debated, and in 1591 the papacy said it happened at 144 days, or about 20 weeks. It took almost two centuries before Pope Pius IX declared that life begins at conception, but the arguments about the “culture of life” were not defended until the end of the 20th century, with the papacy of Pope John Paul II.

If the right-wing court wants to overthrow Roe, so be it. But they will find little support for their arguments in American political history or religious tradition.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies at Stanford University. She is the author of “Nations Under God: How Churches Use Their Moral Authority to Influence Policy.


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