It’s the reason why they march, picket and protest. It’s what motivates them to produce graphic pamphlets, host radio shows and write entire books pleading their cause. It’s the focus of innumerable coalitions, PACs and prayer groups. It’s abortion, and it’s what decided the 2016 presidential election.
The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia just nine months before the 2016 election had the most substantial impact on the outcome. Beyond economic woes, concerns about illegal immigration and healthcare frustrations, what ultimately led voters to turn out for the Republican candidate was the Supreme Court vacancy. Holdouts who were facing the reality of voting for a candidate whom they largely found to be morally repugnant now had the impetus to get off the fence. In the shadow of Justice Scalia’s death, conservatives finally found the cover to cast their votes for Donald Trump.
The 2016 election was somewhat of a unicorn; no incumbent candidate and an open Supreme Court seat is a rare combination. As most of us learned in elementary school, the Supreme Court consists of justices appointed by the President. So, in this way, it is the executive hand that rocks the judicial cradle. For most conservatives—all of whom I consider to be under thumb of the wider pro-life movement—abortion is not just an important issue, it is the only issue of importance. As long as what they perceive to be a fetal holocaust is taking place, they will always show up at the polls to do their part to stop it.
But even more granularly, the empty seat on the nation’s highest bench represented the opportunity to finally achieve the ultimate goal for conservatives: overturn Roe v. Wade. From a marketing standpoint, this pitch has it all: It’s clear and concise—a succinct rallying cry suitable for t-shirts, poster boards and chants. It seemingly affects change at the highest legal levels – reducing an ethically complex and intensely personal matter to one of judicial decree. And, it’s an implicitly empowering call-to-action – vote Republican and you can help make abortion a thing of the past.
Far from being an empty inanity, overturning Roe v. Wade would have actual consequences. With Roe being the law of the land, the right to an abortion—at least until fetal viability—is constitutionally protected. Without Roe, abortion becomes a matter for individual states to dictate. This would hardly be a sweeping victory for the pro-life movement, as only four states have “trigger bans” on the books—laws that would automatically make abortion illegal if Roe were overturned. However, not every conservative knows this, and the pro-life movement capitalizes on this ignorance. After all, a lone, random clinic in Wyoming getting shut down isn’t quite as sexy as a blanket ban on abortion nationwide — which is what many erroneously believe would happen if Roe were overturned.
Ironically, for the champions of limited government, abortion is certainly a problem conservatives would rather have Big Brother solve. Deep down, they know that forming human barricades outside of Planned Parenthood and screaming in the faces of women who are probably going in for a breast exam while holding pictures of dead fetuses whose demise was most likely a miscarriage is not the best way to further their cause. But they have already built their brand on asserting that abortion is, above all, a moral issue that cannot be legislated away. While many women considering having an abortion have probably been persuaded otherwise through genuine, personal concern from a pro-life individual in their sphere of influence, achieving this requires extreme emotional labor on the part of the one doing the convincing. Surely, a law of some sort preventing a woman from being able to have an abortion in the first place would be easier, wouldn’t it? Absolutely, and that’s what conservatives hang their hats —and ballots—on.
While they have yet to achieve their goal of overturning Roe, perhaps the pro-life movement’s greatest achievement thus far is having successfully crafted an ideological marriage between the Supreme Court and the issue of abortion in the minds of voters. Of course, conservatives have seen peripheral victories on the issue of abortion, such as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and Gozalez v. Carhart, however, the essential holding of Roe v. Wade—the right to an abortion under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—has yet to be struck down. Trump said during the Las Vegas debate in 2016 that he would appoint conservative justices and that Roe would be overturned “automatically.” Not only does this entirely discount the judicial process, but it creates a negligent false sense of hope. Republicans have repeatedly failed to keep their promise of overturning Roe, yet somehow, conservatives still believe them when they say they will. At some point, one has to wonder if Republicans actually want to do it, given that abortion is such a reliable issue to garner votes.
As we approach the 2018 midterms, the two-year anniversary of the 2016 election, and grapple with an open Supreme Court seat, it is a good time to reexamine our motives when we go to the polls. It is clear that abortion plays one of the biggest roles in our political discourse. But, I have to ask, should it?
Olivia Bortner is a fourth-year marketing major. OB876952@wcupa.edu