What lessons for advocates in Roe v. Wade?

Opposing sides from last year's commemorative march

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Roe v. Wade case almost 38 years ago, on January 22, 1973.

More because I finally got around to it than because I have such a keen sense of timing, I just finished reading Wrath of Angels, a quite compelling story of the battle over abortion in the United States, co-written by an investigative reporter from Kansas City who I know somewhat from her work on extremist groups associated with the anti-immigrant movement.

But, really, this post isn’t about abortion.

Instead, when I looked back at the pages I’d marked as I read, I found that what resonated with me the most were the lessons that this extraordinarily contentious, long-lived, and influential debate holds for advocates in other social justice arenas, as a sort of extreme case study that crosses multiple policy jurisdictions and has left a mark on all of American politics.

  • Public opinion may be more malleable, and more fickle, than we think. Several observers have called Roe v. Wade the ‘fastest social revolution in history’, but, just 7 years after the Supreme Court decision (issued contrary to American public opinion, which was mostly opposed to abortion), opinion polls showed considerable alignment with the expansions of reproductive freedoms the decision codified, as well as the limitations it embraced. To me, this suggests that social justice advocates should not necessarily focus as much energy on bringing “the public” to our side, but rather on working through policy mechanisms to force the changes we know our communities deserve, creating space for the rest of the nation to catch up.
  • We must be ready to fight on multiple fronts at the same time. Advocates on both sides of the abortion issue struggled to cope with a suddenly nationalized debate; where once they had fought state-by-state, building relationships with those policymakers and studying those processes, overnight they were dealing with a national issue that required a national strategy. I see a similar dilemma in the movement for immigrants’ rights; while congressional passage of comprehensive immigration reform is the end goal, advocates are also playing defense against restrictive state legislation and trying to advance something progressive at the state level as federal action remains elusive. It’s hard to play on both of these courts at the same time, particularly on an issue (like both abortion and immigrants’ rights) with important judicial tactics, as well.
  • Winning on language is huge. The anti-abortion (or “pro-life”–language figures into every aspect of this debate!) effort, in particular, has demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the importance of definitions, as evidenced in the push to have fetuses defined as children, even in areas of policy seemingly far removed from questions of reproduction itself. When we forget that how people talk about our issues matters at least as much as what they’re actually saying, we may have already lost.
  • Sometimes, movements may need to strategically exclude. This last piece is controversial for me, especially because social workers and community organizers (and I consider myself both) are rather instinctively inclusive, but I was quite transfixed by the account of the debate within the anti-abortion camp about excluding men from all of their demonstrations, in order to avoid the charge that their cause was about men controlling women’s lives, and to provide a counterbalance to the predominantly feminist reproductive health care providers they were combating. Ultimately, this commitment didn’t last long, and the major anti-abortion organizations did come to be dominated by men. But, still, it made me think: how might I feel differently about that movement, and its role in our politics, if it was authentically led by women? Which leads me to ask, should movements exclude to send a message, given how important messages are? And THAT question raises all kinds of issues about my own work within a community that’s not my own, and the kind of message that might have sent, and whether immigrants would be better off if they excluded non-immigrants from positions of leadership within their own struggle, too.

    While, obviously, I welcome your comments and questions and responses to these reflections on the theme of Roe v. Wade’s legacy for other campaigns and other causes, I’d also love to hear from those social workers who are better scholars of this particular struggle than I, about what this anniversary means for you. This post may be more about what we can learn from this epic battle than about the battle itself, but those lessons wouldn’t exist without the sacrifices of those who have gone before.

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