The pro-life movement suffered another defeat last week. In its Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt decision, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law that required abortionists to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital and to meet the health and safety standards of other surgical centers. It was an ominous sign that the fortunes of the anti-abortion cause are changing. After a few years of tangible victories, 2016 is turning out to be the worst year for the pro-life cause in at least a generation.
Consider, in the past few years, pro-lifers had witnessed the prosecution and trial of the notorious Dr. Gosnell of Pennsylvania. His trial, while not receiving as much media coverage as pro-lifers wanted, exposed many people to the ghoulish, horror-set conditions of one clinic and re-familiarized them with the details of how late-term abortions are performed.
It was precisely the outrage and interest generated among activists from the Gosnell trial that inspired a new wave of state-based regulations and restrictions on abortion, the type that will be overturned in the fallout from the Whole Woman's Health decision. Although pro-lifers had worried that the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision was a broad re-affirmation of Roe v. Wade, it turned out to give them legal cover to begin regulating abortion clinics. This strategy of incrementally limited access to abortions made the American set of laws more closely follow Europe's patchwork of regulations, and it coincided with a decline in the incidence of abortion. These regulations were a useful wedge issue for pro-life activists because they put pro-choicers in the unenviable position of arguing for "less safe" conditions for women.
Then, last year, the Center for Medical Progress, completed a stunning bit of sting-activism. They created a phony bio-research company that said it was interested in buying the organs of aborted fetuses. And then they videotaped Planned Parenthood doctors and other officials describing the effects of this trade on revenue, even hinting that the type of surgical abortion that a doctor recommends for a woman may be made with the market demand for fetal tissue in mind. Instead of just showing pictures of surgical remains, which often seem to backfire on pro-lifers, the images in this video portrayed the abortion business as especially callous and mercenary.
But this year it has been all reverses. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice who had done the most to set the legal path to overturn, or at least limit, the legal right to abortion set by Roe v. Wade, died while a pro-choice Democrat occupied the White House. Obama's nominated replacement, Merrick Garland, has no record of public comments on abortion, but comes with the endorsement of Planned Parenthood and NARAL. But even if the Republican Senate can block his nomination until after the presidential election, that's not a guarantee of better results for the pro-life cause.
Just recently pro-lifers felt as confident as they ever had that they had a hammerlock on the Republican Party. In previous election cycles, pro-lifers had to prevent the nomination of pro-choice Republicans, like Rudy Giuliani, who seemed like credible aspirants to the presidency. The looming nomination of Donald Trump, however, is a disaster. Pro-lifers are displeased, to say the least, that the Republican Party is about to nominate a man who said back in 1999 that he wouldn't restrict even late-term abortions because he grew up in New York with different values than Iowa values. Yes, Mitt Romney had articulated otherwise extreme pro-choice views, but it was that one-time stance that most people found hard to credit. For Donald Trump, the opposite is the case.
Trump obviously does not care about this issue. The truth is Trump has little use for social conservatives at all. He praises some of them for supporting him, and then he dismisses them with the empty promise that people will say Merry Christmas in Trump's America. He butchers the pro-life movement's language and strategy, like when he suggested there had to be "punishments" for women who seek abortions, a position that has been rejected by all of the mainstream pro-life movement. His campaign couldn't even be bothered to respond to the recent Supreme Court decision. This matters because pro-lifers, even if they don't always trust Republican presidents to support anti-Roe justices, do depend on them to institute rules on funding for abortion overseas or appoint pro-lifers to work with the U.N. and other global agencies.
And so, when their incrementalist strategy had been working for years and when more young people than ever have been identifying themselves as anti-abortion, the movement finds itself in the most precarious spot in decades. The death of Justice Scalia and the nomination of Trump threaten to set the movement back decades.