If Roe v. Wade is overturned, will the anti-abortion movement split?

Some anti-abortion activists feel politically homeless because they lean left on every issue but abortion

At the end of 2020, Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa was on her knees next to the border wall cutting graffiti stencils decrying U.S. immigration policy. “Migrant children have heartbeats, too,” the stencils said.

Last week in Washington, D.C., she brought the same message to the March for Life. Members of her organization, New Wave Feminists, which bills itself as a “pro-life feminist organization,” carried black and pink signs emblazoned with the words.

Although the slogan remained the same, the two scenes were quite different. The March for Life is dominated by political conservatives. Pro-immigration protests, on the other hand, are generally led by liberals.

Herndon-De La Rosa’s presence at both events shows that she isn’t a typical anti-abortion activist. Rather, her anti-abortion stance is based on the idea that “every human being should live a life free from violence, from the womb to the tomb,” as her group’s website says, leading her to not only fight against abortion but to also to dedicate herself to migrants’ rights — an issue many right-leaning anti-abortion activists won’t touch.

Herndon-De La Rosa said that her holistic approach to being “pro-life” leaves her politically homeless. 

In her early days as an anti-abortion activist, Herndon-De La Rosa explained, she felt that she “had to vote Republican.” But her strict allegiance to the party ended when she realized that most Republican politicians didn’t want to fund services that pregnant women need.

“Most of the services we were offering (pregnant women) were government services and (I was) being asked to turn around and vote for politicians who don’t support those same things,” she said. 

But if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court later this year, Republicans might be forced to rethink their opposition to the social safety net — especially if the party wants to keep some of its anti-abortion constituents. That the “pro-life” movement is currently at a crossroads was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

Blurring party lines

Herndon-De La Rosa and other anti-abortion activists like her believe that our country’s policies need to better reflect a holistic approach toward supporting life — and that both the left and right are currently falling short.

They say that Democrats’ support for abortion rights amounts to a sort of structural violence that actually helps conceal women’s unequal status in the United States and that access to abortion is not true liberation for women. 

“Abortion upholds systems of oppression,” said Gloria Purvis, a women’s rights advocate who hosts “The Gloria Purvis Podcast.” Purvis added that the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion allows corporate America to shirk its duty to come up with policies that truly support working mothers and families. 

“It’s a smokescreen for women to say, ‘Hey, you’re liberated to be like men.’ Instead we need to build an economy, a society ... that is conducive to women as we are — not to us being faux male but female,” she said.

But Purvis, Herndon-De La Rosa and others are critical of the political right, too. They believe that conservatives’ support for life begins at conception but ends at birth.

If Republicans truly respected life, they would take a holistic approach that includes tackling the topic of racial injustice, Purvis said.

“I think the mistake really that we’ve made in talking about pro-life is that it’s detached from the core issue which is really human dignity … from the moment of conception until natural death,” she said.

Dignity for the unborn can and should be addressed, said Purvis, “while also at the same time understanding we have an obligation to uphold the dignity of everyone else outside the womb, particularly in the realm of race.” 

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Purvis added, the silence from those who claim to be “pro-life” was “indicative of the (political) problem” that plagues the anti-abortion movement. 

The Republican Party, Purvis continued, publicly “lauds” marriage and family but at the same time “penalizes women who have made these difficult decisions,” portraying those who need state benefits to survive as freeloaders.

“One of the best things that could ever happen would be the Democratic Party making space for us,” said Herndon-De La Rosa, who is now a registered Independent. Similarly, she added, “The infant mortality rate among women of color — that should 100% be a Republican pro-life issue.”

The forgotten history of the anti-abortion movement

According to Daniel Williams, author of “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade,” such a shift would actually return the anti-abortion movement to its roots, which lie on the left, not the right.

Although opposition to abortion is closely associated with the Republican Party today, the movement owes its conception to Catholic social teachings, 20th century liberalism and the emphasis on human rights that emerged in the wake of World War II, he said.

Some of the first calls against abortion came from Catholic doctors who were responding to abortion law liberalization. They felt that killing one person to save another didn’t square with human rights, said Williams, is also a history professor at the University of West Georgia.

But to most Catholics at the time — and many like Purvis still today — respecting human rights required a holistic approach that included embracing liberal values like the right to education and support for various social programs. 

In the 1960s, anti-abortion activists were Catholic Democrats who also opposed the Vietnam War. As late as the 1970s, there still wasn’t a clear partisan divide on the issue, Williams said. But, later, Ronald Reagan — who, as governor of California, had signed a liberal abortion law — helped detach the anti-abortion movement from its left-wing roots, firmly entrenching the most vocal opposition to the procedure on the right. And as the right became focused “on creating legal protections that had been undone by Roe v. Wade ... it made it difficult to see Democratic politicians as potential allies,” said Williams, introducing some of the polarization we see today as well as the myopic focus on the courts.

This anti-abortion movement also brought together two groups of people with different ideas about the role the state should play in our lives: Catholics — a group that “historically had a very positive view of the state … most catholics believed the state had obligations to families and citizens,” said Williams — with Protestants from the South, a group that was largely mistrustful of the state and state intervention on a variety of issues and had been for 200 years, Williams said.  

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, which has been the overarching goal of these disparate groups, Williams added, “it will be interesting to see if those differences in the pro-life movement will become more apparent.”

However the Supreme Court rules in its abortion case, Herndon-De La Rosa — who feels that abortion has been needlessly politicized — hopes to see Americans working on womb-to-tomb issues together regardless of their political backgrounds.

“The best thing that could happen to this nation is that everyone wakes up tomorrow and everyone is an independent and we focus on the issues” rather than the political parties, she said.