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Abortion wasn't always the politically charged issue it is today


Overturning Roe v. Wade has been arguably the single most animating cause among conservatives in America for decades. Now a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion has made it apparent that goal is close to reality. NPR's Deepa Shivaram reports on how the issue of abortion came to define Republican politics.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Abortion wasn't always as politically charged as it is today. Even after the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973, there were Democratic and Republican candidates against abortion for a long time, in part to appeal to Catholic voters. Then in 1976, Republicans adopted an anti-abortion stance in their party platform, and the GOP became this political vehicle for the movement as a more vocal Christian right started to rise. Here's Ronald Reagan at the March for Life rally in 1988.


RONALD REAGAN: We're told about a woman's right to control her own body. But doesn't the unborn child have a higher right? And that is to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

SHIVARAM: Leaders like Reagan helped to boost Republicans as a party of, quote, "family values." But over the next two decades, more radical, socially conservative figures started putting more pressure on the party.

JENNIFER HOLLAND: Really see the power of the anti-abortion movement to not only be a part of the party, but to really remake a party and demand sort of political uniformity on this issue.

SHIVARAM: That's Jennifer Holland. She's a scholar on the anti-abortion movement and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

HOLLAND: They had to convince a whole host of people that this was not only political, but the most important political issue that there is, and that everything came second to opposing abortion.

SHIVARAM: She says that movement leaders didn't want elected officials to just believe that abortion was immoral. They wanted them to act on it. Someone who took up that call? Pat Buchanan. Here he is in 1996 during his campaign for president.


PAT BUCHANAN: If I'm nominated, I will choose a pro-life Republican running mate. I will appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. And I will be the most pro-life president in the history of the United States of America, bar none.

SHIVARAM: In the decades since, Republicans have heavily relied on voters who are staunchly opposed to abortion rights, like white evangelical Christians. It's partly how Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, with his pledge to appoint anti-abortion rights justices to the court.


DONALD TRUMP: The justices that I am going to appoint - and I've named 20 of them - the justices that I'm going to appoint will be pro-life. They will have a conservative bent.

SHIVARAM: At the same time, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell put the federal judiciary at the top of his agenda, refusing a hearing on President Obama's nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat until the 2016 election was finished, and then in 2020, moving quickly to confirm the third of Trump's Supreme Court picks before the election. Those justices appear set to provide the votes to overturn Roe in the coming weeks.

But even if they get this victory, the anti-abortion movement's ultimate goal is to implement a nationwide ban on abortions. They've gotten one step closer to that with this draft opinion from the Supreme Court, but politically, it could have some consequences. Here's Paul Djupe, a professor of religion and politics at Denison University.

PAUL DJUPE: The tension that Roe v. Wade has created for them was really beneficial. So once that tension is released and states are allowed to do it, they lose the ability to mobilize based on abortion tensions with the federal government.

SHIVARAM: Plus, it could be politically difficult for Republicans to go further on curtailing abortion rights. Nationally, public opinion shows a majority of Americans don't support a full ban on abortion.

Deepa Shivaram, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
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