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How the Christian Right Invents Cases Against Abortion

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Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Two parties will appear before the Supreme Court later this month in a case that will determine access to mifepristone, a medication that women rely on to manage miscarriages and early abortions. One is the FDA, a government agency. The other is the Alliance of Hippocratic Medicine, which appears to be little more than a front for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group trying to turn back the rights of women and LGBTQ people. Though the Alliance of Hippocratic Medicine says it represents doctors who are supposedly harmed by mifepristone abortions, the group was formed after Dobbs and “was almost certainly invented for the sole purpose of filing this lawsuit,” argued Sarah Lipton-Lubet, the president of Take Back the Court, in Slate in October.

Fiction is central to the Christian right’s story of America. Christian textbooks teach many students that America was founded on fundamentalist principles. Activists and politicians often say the country has strayed from its original purpose, that as it secularized, it betrayed something central about itself. Christians are under attack in this land, and their rights are threatened by a powerful left. Some, like minister David Barton, manufacture quotes from the Founders to bolster tales of Christian conviction. Even originalism is an act of imagination. The conservative jurist believes that he — or she — can channel the Founders, whose views happen to line up with their own. Fantasy can be convenient.

Lying may be a sin, but as Lipton-Lubet wrote in Slate, the Christian right often tells falsehoods when the truth will counter its claims. “Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is nothing more than a brand name that Alliance Defending Freedom used to shop this abortion pill case up to the Supreme Court,” Caroline Ciccone, president of Accountable.US, told The New Republic after analyzing the group’s tax filings. The case has earned comparisons to another: 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis. In that case, brought by ADF, a Christian graphic designer claimed to have received a request to build a wedding website for a same-sex couple. She said she wanted the right to reject the request because of her conservative religious beliefs. In truth, she never received such a request at all, The New Republic reported in June. Not that it mattered to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor.

A Washington Post investigation also found that the ADF has a history of bringing other flimsy cases to address imaginary harms. Court filings and company records showed that “two of the three vendors cited” in the ADF’s petition before the Supreme Court in the 303 Creative case “had stopped working on weddings, and the other did not photograph any weddings for two years.” Three other vendors represented by the ADF in similar lawsuits filed “elsewhere” had “abandoned or sharply cut back their work on weddings after they sued local authorities for the right to reject same-sex couples,” the Post added. In another high-profile case, the ADF filed an amicus brief on behalf of Joe Kennedy, a football coach at a public high school who had claimed he’d been wrongly fired for holding prayer with his players. Kennedy won his case at the Supreme Court, returned to work for one football game, then quit.

There’s a connection between the Christian right’s fictions and its abortion politics. The Christian right insists, falsely, that mifepristone does real harm to real people. Their evidence mostly rests on a handful of now-retracted studies, marshaled on behalf of the Alliance of Hippocratic Medicine. In the mifepristone case, the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine has claimed that its doctors suffer real injury because patients who take mifepristone may overwhelm emergency rooms as they seek care. (There is no evidence that this is true, and mifepristone has been shown to be safe.) The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and one judge, Trump appointee James Ho, wrote in a concurring opinion that doctors may suffer an “aesthetic injury” as long as mifepristone remains on the market. “Unborn babies are a source of profound joy for those who view them,” he wrote. “Expectant parents eagerly share ultrasound photos with loved ones. Friends and family cheer at the sight of an unborn child. Doctors delight in working with their unborn patients — and experience an aesthetic injury when they are aborted.”

As the Christian right makes a fictive case for doctors and women harmed by abortion, it shifts attention away from its real victims, who offer a more truthful version of reality. In Alabama, LaTorya Beasley was at her doctor’s office when several IVF clinics announced they would pause treatment because the state’s conservative supreme court ruled that embryos are children. “It’s just been gut punch after gut punch,” she said. Restrictions on mifepristone would inflict more than an aesthetic injury on American women. One woman told NPR that she needed a medication abortion to escape her abusive boyfriend. “If I have a child with this guy, I’ll never get away from him,” she thought. After she took mifepristone to end her pregnancy, she left her abuser, enrolled in law school, and embarked on a successful career as an attorney.

Though the Christian right and the conservative movement to which it belongs has done an excellent job of capturing American institutions, namely the courts, it has not won the grassroots. “I know that my view is deeply unpopular,” Andrew T. Walker, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a critic of conventional IVF, recently told The Atlantic. The left may not have as much money or institutional power as the right, but it boasts something else. Its power rests with the people, a strength it can only realize through hard work. Organizing at its most successful tells a persuasive story, based in reality. This is the way life is now, it says, and here is how everything could be better.

The left can offer a stronger vision of what America could be. It offers more than fantasy, more than hope. It promises justice. The Christian right would deny us that. In its pursuit of the imaginary, it sacrifices real people and causes real harm. The country it’s building isn’t real yet, but with the help of the Supreme Court it soon could be. To save our reality — and improve it, for all — the people will have to fight.


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