The Anti-Abortion Movement is Showing Its True Colors

Destiny Lopez, Guttmacher Institute and Kelly Baden, Guttmacher Institute
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Originally published in The Hill. 

The facade of the anti-abortion movement is cracking, despite the movement’s strenuous attempts to appear reasonable. Evidence has been coming fast and furious this year, thanks to courts stacked with anti-abortion judges whose radical decisions are upending years of legal precedent, often failing to represent popular opinion.

In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos have the same legal rights as children. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a baseless case that could dramatically curtail access to medication abortion, which data from our organization, the Guttmacher Institute, shows accounted for 63 percent of all abortions in 2023. Earlier this month, a Florida court let stand a six-week abortion ban that will devastate access in that state and beyond, and then the Arizona Supreme Court followed suit by allowing a law from 1864 that totally bans abortion to go into effect.

Now another case is poised to expose the reality of the anti-abortion movement’s views. On April 24, the Supreme Court will hear Idaho v. United States to decide whether the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) applies to pregnant patients in emergency health care situations who need an abortion — even when a state’s abortion ban does not include exceptions for a woman’s health. 

The facts in this case are simple, but the implications are outrageous. Idaho is arguing that their state’s abortion ban (which contains exceptions only for situations where a pregnant woman’s life is at risk) should take precedence over EMTALA’s decades-long protections, which mandate that a pregnant woman in a health emergency must be able to receive an abortion when such care is necessary to stabilize and protect her health. 

Idaho is putting doctors in the impossible position of choosing between violating federal law by not providing emergency abortion care and violating state law if they do. This is the true, unvarnished face of the American anti-abortion movement. There is nothing “pro-life” about it.

When we take the long view, analyzing decades of their legal, policy, electoral and communications strategies, we can see how far-reaching the true anti-abortion agenda is, and we can recognize that they won’t stop with overturning Roe

For decades following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, anti-abortion advocates were successful in incrementally advancing their agenda, enacting new laws that made abortion harder to get and highly stigmatized. Public support for abortion’s legality has remained consistent. But the sheer number and scope of state-level abortion restrictions — such as forced waiting periods, bans on insurance coverage and unnecessary clinic requirements — combined with a well-funded strategy to build conservative power at the state and local levels, ensured that abortion became technically legal but inaccessible for many, even with Roe in place. Building conservative legislative power ultimately extended to the courts; Donald Trump alone appointed more than 200 federal judges in just one term, including three Supreme Court justices.

The June 2022 Dobbs decision was an inflection point, unleashing chaos, confusion and fear across the nation. Abortion is now banned in 14 states and severely restricted in many others, with Florida’s six-week ban and Arizona’s total ban the latest to make headlines. 

Many women seeking abortions must overcome huge financial and logistical barriers to get one, with the number of Americans traveling out of state for abortions doubling from 81,000 in 2020 to more than 160,000 in 2023. Others self-manage their abortion or are unable to get care at all, forced to stay pregnant against their will. The impacts have fallen most harshly on those with the fewest resources and from marginalized communities.

Since Roe was overturned, American voters have delivered a resounding and as-yet-unbroken string of victories for abortion rights, shattering entrenched partisan divides as voters rejected restrictive state constitutional amendments in Kansas and Kentucky, and enshrining abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution. More constitutional amendments to protect abortion rights will be on the ballot this November.

But abortion opponents aren’t listening — and they’re not stopping. When Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos have the same legal rights as children, it not only affected those seeking in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment but also set a dangerous precedent for the concept of fetal personhood — an idea long pushed by anti-abortion groups to broadly attack reproductive rights and access. 

Attacks on IVF and on pregnant women’s health and safety under the banner of “pro-life” is a continuation of this generational strategy. So too are current attempts by anti-abortion politicians to distance themselves from deeply unpopular state abortion bans and a 15-week national abortion ban, which has been touted as a so-called compromise. In reality, it would simply be a steppingstone to the real goal — a total abortion ban, in every state, for anyone and for almost any reason. 

The anti-abortion movement, despite its attempts at moderate posturing, can no longer hide its true extremism and utter disregard for women’s health, autonomy and rights. But there’s a different way, one that respects personal liberty and reproductive dignity and allows everyone to make the healthcare decisions best for themselves and their families.

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