(2 of 10)
Part of the reason is that the public is siding more and more with their opponents. Even though three-quarters of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, just 41% identified themselves as pro-choice in a Gallup survey conducted in May 2012. In this age of prenatal ultrasounds and sophisticated neonatology, a sizable majority of Americans supports abortion restrictions like waiting periods and parental-consent laws. Pro-life activists write the legislation to set these rules. Their pro-choice counterparts, meanwhile, have opted to stick with their longtime core message that government should not interfere at all with women's health care decisions, a stance that seems tone-deaf to the current reality.
Pro-choice activists' failure to adapt to the shift in public attitudes on abortion has left their cause stranded in the past, says Frances Kissling, a longtime abortion-rights advocate and former president of Catholics for Choice. Kissling is part of a small group within the pro-choice movement trying to push the cause toward more nuanced stances. "The established pro-choice position--which essentially is: abortion should be legal, a private matter between a woman and her doctor, with no restriction or regulation beyond what is absolutely necessary to protect the woman's health--makes 50% of the population extremely uncomfortable and unwilling to associate with us," she says.
At the same time, a rebellion within the abortion-rights cause--pitting feminists in their 20s and 30s against pro-choice power brokers who were in their 20s and 30s when Roe was decided--threatens to tear it in two. Many young activists are bypassing the legacy feminist organizations that have historically protected access to abortion, weakening the pro-choice establishment at the very moment it needs to coalesce around new strategies to combat pro-life gains and connect with the public.
As memories of women dying from illegal pre-Roe abortions become more distant, the pro-choice cause is in crisis. In 1973, female lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights said Roe v. Wade was "a tribute to the coordinated efforts of women's organizations, women lawyers and all women throughout this country." Writing a new playbook for the pro-choice cause--one that ensures that Roe is not overturned and that access to abortion is preserved and even expanded--would require the same kind of coordination. If abortion-rights activists don't come together to adapt to shifting public opinion on the issue of reproductive rights, abortion access in America will almost certainly continue to erode.
In many ways, the fight to preserve access to abortion is even more daunting than the fight to legalize it 40 years ago. In a dynamic democracy like America, defending the status quo is always harder than fighting to change it. The story of pro-choice activism after Roe reveals that there may be nothing worse for a political movement's future than achieving its central goal.