Overview:

White evangelicals have wanted to ban abortion for decades. They may regret getting their wish.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If the leaked ruling released by POLITICO last night turns out to be real—and it sure seems that way—Roe v. Wade is about to be overturned in the most extreme possible way. Justice Samuel Alito’s initial draft from February supposedly represents the view of the Court’s majority. While it could change in many ways before the final version is released next month, it calls for the complete repeal of nationwide abortion rights protections.

A woman’s ability to have a safe abortion would depend on where she lives, with an estimated 24 states likely to ban abortion given the opportunity, and what kind of resources she has to get treated in a more welcoming state. And if Republicans ever regain total control of government again, they will undoubtedly pass a nationwide ban on abortion after six weeks (before most women even know they’re pregnant), making sure even people in blue states suffer like everyone else.

The SCOTUS abortion ruling, if it comes to pass, would represent the culmination of decades of right-wing activism, especially when it comes to the Court itself.

Republicans made opposing abortion rights a litmus test for federal judges. Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nominee from getting a hearing in 2016 so they could install Neil Gorsuch a year later. (To put it another way, they changed the size of the Court to 8 until it was politically convenient for them to change it back to 9.) Republicans stymied a full investigation into Brett Kavanaugh so he could claim another seat without alienating the few moderate GOP senators. Republicans shoved through Amy Coney Barrett in a matter of weeks after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg so that Democrats wouldn’t have the opportunity to replace her. (All three were nominated by Trump, who lost the popular vote, but always maintained support among Republicans precisely because he outsourced his Supreme Court picks to the Federalist Society, which only boosts anti-abortion judges.) Republicans have completely ignored the growing concerns about Clarence Thomas and his wife because his predictable votes are far more important than his ethics. And, of course, John Roberts and Samuel Alito were appointed by President George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote and was only in office because a 5-4 conservative-leaning Supreme Court prevented votes from being counted in the decisive state of Florida.

There’s an argument to be made that none of the justices who are about to overturn Roe should be on the bench at all.

Overturning Roe could backfire on white evangelicals

There is a chance, however, that all these moves could backfire.

That wouldn’t make up for the damage of what’s about to happen, but there’s a long-term view that is worth keeping in mind while Republicans celebrate a potential (major) short-term win.

The modern Christian Right wasn’t always laser-focused on anti-abortion activism. In fact, white evangelicals didn’t care about the issue much until several years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.

Let me repeat that: Roe was decided in 1973. If you read books written by prominent Christian apologists and evangelical leaders at the time, it wasn’t a controversial ruling. While white evangelical leaders want you to believe Christians have always opposed abortion, that view, as Fred Clark so memorably put it, is “younger than the Happy Meal.”

A 1968 issue of Christianity Today (the magazine founded by evangelist Billy Graham) included essays that said things like, “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” The former Southern Baptist Convention president Wayne Dehoney said in 1976 (!) that Catholics got it wrong with their anti-abortion theology because “the soul is formed at breath, not with conception.” The SBC, at the very least, adopted a resolution in 1971 allowing for abortion in many unfortunate circumstances, seeing it as a sensible “middle ground.” A 1971 book from the late Christian theologian Dr. Norman Geisler said very bluntly, “the one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder… [because] an unborn baby is not fully human… (Ex. 21:22).”

What changed? The growing right-wing movement within the white evangelical world decided supporting segregation was no longer a winning issue for them. The “culture warriors” of the time wanted to make sure private Christian schools like Bob Jones University could retain their tax-exempt status while banning Black students and opposing interracial dating. They lost that fight, thankfully. But seeing the writing on the wall, those right-wing Christian leaders knew they needed a new issue to galvanize their people. Reinterpreting Scripture to argue against abortion rights turned out to be a winning horse:

The novel translation of Exodus 21:22-23 allowed the founders of the evangelical Right to neutralize previous, Bible-based reservations about Catholic pro-life activism. By 1980, Jerry Falwell was off to the races. “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception,” he declared in his book Listen America! Abortion “is murder according to the Word of God.” Falwell’s major reference for this claim was Psalm 139:13, where the author writes that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Most biblical scholars, however, including many in the evangelical community, argue that this passage deals with God’s foreknowledge and omniscience, not with when life begins.

Historian Randall Balmer put it even more clearly: Evangelicals “seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

Overturning Roe could force conservative Christians to reckon with the consequences

If Roe is now overturned, it would undoubtedly be seen as a moral victory for the millions of conservative Protestants and Catholics who are ignorant of that history and who falsely think they just saved millions of lives. But it would also require them to shift gears.

It’s always easy to express concern about the unborn and the dead because doing so requires no actual responsibility, and it’s no surprise that many churches only ever seem to care about those groups in particular. They constantly talk about protecting fetuses and preparing for the afterlife while mostly neglecting the people who suffer as a result of their broken theology. It’s not just a talking point to say anti-abortion activists stop caring about those fetuses the moment they exit the womb. The “pro-life” crowd cares more about life that doesn’t exist, and their policy positions reflect it. They tend to oppose every piece of progressive legislation that would help people without resources. The late comedian George Carlin was on point when he summarized their position this way: “If you’re pre-born, you’re fine. If you’re preschool, you’re fucked.”

Instead of merely opposing abortion, conservatives would have to defend the idea of forcing women to give birth in cases of rape and incest. They would have to explain why women should be forced to endure the horrors of an ectopic pregnancy. They would have to explain how they plan to care for the babies that will be born in the worst circumstances imaginable. They’ll inevitably find new talking points, but pretending they care about fetuses is a hell of a lot easier than defending the possible repercussions of rape.

Consider this: The conservative Christians who oppose abortion effectively want to force little girls impregnated by their fathers to give birth against their will. It’s not merely a hypothetical. This shit happens. And every single extremist who thinks abortion should still be impermissible in that scenario needs to be held accountable for it. It’s not enough to simply say, “It’s not the baby’s fault!”

It’s also likely that the people currently fighting to ban abortion will move to restrict access to contraception and birth control, which is a much more difficult argument to make. That’s not a slippery slope argument either, since this was always about imposing their “morality” on everybody else. That is where the path leads. And moving from accusations of “murder” to preventing other people from enjoying consensual sex is a leap that most Americans will not take.

Overturning Roe could galvanize Americans to vote for Democrats

So what happens when the dog finally catches the car?

Overturning Roe would rightly anger many of the 59% of Americans who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases along with many other Americans who don’t have strong feelings about the issue… yet.

Voting against Republicans would be the simplest way for them to fight back. Some conservative voters, having accomplished their goal, could end up not voting at all because of a sudden lack of urgency. It’s no secret that Republicans have always benefited more from saying they would overturn Roe than ever actually doing it. In 2017, Eyal Press wrote in the New Yorker, “Republicans have been able to embrace anti-abortion absolutism while avoiding the political repercussions of putting this absolutism into practice.”

If abortion rights are taken away, the resulting chaos and unthinkable suffering would rightly be blamed on those conservatives. (Keep in mind that many of the states that will ban abortion have no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother.) Similarly, a lot of Americans who may be on the fence politically, or claim to be independents, could be motivated to finally pick a damn side.

To be sure, none of that is guaranteed. The Sandy Hook massacre, for example, didn’t significantly overturn the proliferation of weapons in this country. But school shootings sure as hell created a generation of young people—eventual politicians—eager to pass gun safety legislation. And a ruling to overturn abortion rights may force a lot of young people to get involved politically and break the spell of those who didn’t think it was a big deal.

There are numbers to back that up, as noted last year by Slate‘s William Saletan:

In the past, when the court has flirted with overturning Roe, that threat has motivated pro-choice voters to punish Republicans at the ballot box. A survey two months ago, conducted by Lake Research and Emerson College Polling, suggests that the same thing might happen next year if the court rules against Roe. Forty-five percent of Republicans and 51 percent of pro-life respondents said that they’d be more interested in voting in 2022 if the justices were to overturn Roe. But among Democrats and pro-choice respondents, the numbers were significantly higher: 66 percent and 69 percent, respectively. Democrats and pro-choicers also held a 15-point advantage among respondents who said they’d be “much” more interested in voting. (Lake Research is a pro-choice firm, but its sample in this survey was by some measures more pro-life than any other pollster’s.)

By finally getting what they’ve always said they wanted, Republicans and the conservative Christians who support them may have shot themselves in the foot. It’s up to everyone else to make sure they pay a price for it.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.