Roe v. Wade didn’t fall in one day. It collapsed over a decade of change.

(RNS) — Two years ago last week, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that made abortion legal in the United States. In their new book “The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America,” New York Times correspondents Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer unveil the decadelong efforts of conservative advocates that led to that 2022 decision.

Dias, who covers religion for the Times, and Lerer, who covers national politics, correct a widely held misconception about the end of Roe v. Wade in the United States: that “the decision was the result of a change in ideology at the Supreme Court ushered in by former president Donald Trump.” Instead, they argue, it’s an “unseen history” of anti-abortion activism that began in the wake of President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election that exploded into view after Obama left office.

In the first chapter of the book, Dias and Lerer describe a 2013 meeting of major figures in the conservative right that amounted to “an autopsy of their failures, designed to identify why their party had lost the 2012 election so badly . . . and how they needed to change to win.” The political strategists in the room suggested a move toward a more moderate line of argument, incorporating inclusive language and policies aimed at women and people of color. If the party wanted to keep up, it needed to change to appeal to an increasingly progressive populace.

The opposite happened. “The autopsy led to a backlash and a panic for some,” said Dias in an interview, “who saw this whole conversation as part of a bigger story about the decline of Christianity in the country.” Church closures and the religiously unaffiliated were on the rise, and, for the first time ever, the majority of Christians in the United States were not white. Right-leaning white Christians felt under threat. “This was the backdrop of that meeting,” said Dias, “and it created an urgency to the project of shaping the nation toward values conservatives thought were being abandoned.”

"The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America" by Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer. (Courtesy image)

“The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America” by Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer. (Courtesy image)

Dias and Lerer combed through archives and court records and interviewed more than 300 people across the country to show how the panic that followed the 2012 election led to the creation of a “tightly networked ecosystem of lawyers, politicians, and activists who powered one of the most significant political resurgences the United States has ever seen.” The network’s “crusade” slowly and quietly took advantage of Democrats’ complacency about abortion’s legality, systematically undermining a practice that most liberals considered an established right — and thus one not in need of urgent defense.

“The lesson from the story of the fall of Roe is that the right thinks in generational, long-term arcs,” Dias said. “They see losses, in many ways, as temporary. They’re used to fighting in 30-year increments, not just election cycles.”

That thinking, Dias argued in our interview, cannot be separated from the right’s Christianity. “Anti-abortion lawyers and activists’ deeply embedded conservative Christian theology shaped their frameworks,” she said. “They see themselves as part of a movement that identifies the present day as . . . the same as 2,000 years ago, that understands their feelings of being persecuted as part of the persecution (of Christians during) the Roman Empire. That’s a specific way of thinking about time.”

For anti-abortion activists, both Catholics and evangelical Protestants, the Bible also holds deep significance for thinking about — and fighting against — abortion. “Christianity itself started with a pregnant young woman,” Dias said. “It all comes back to that central story. Pregnancy, the values of motherhood and salvation, are so deeply bound up together.”

Seen this way, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade, she said, “is not only a uniquely American story, but also a uniquely Christian story.”

That doesn’t subtract from its implications for Americans. “The Fall of Roe” is persuasive in its argument that the end of legal protections for abortion in the United States is a bellwether for the nation’s political future. “The story of the fall of Roe is, quite literally, the story of the next generation of America.”

Dias and Lerer presage a continued project of national conservative influence, in which a small but powerful minority aims to re-create the world in its image. “Their view could be a minority view and still conquer the majority, through a combination of strategy, persistence and pure luck. Or, what many of the people there would call Providence — the belief that God was acting in their favor and for their protection.”

In the book’s preface, Dias and Lerer pose a provocative question for their readers: “What is America becoming?” The answer, Dias said, can be found in a new rash of legislation on reproductive and gender policies. Christian thinking about the sanctity of life has informed legislation banning in vitro fertilization in Alabama, which is likely to affect efforts in other states. Anti-trans bills are being considered and passed across the country. Progressive activists and scholars suggest that Republicans will aim to repeal protections for contraception next.

“The end of Roe is also about conservative Christians pitting themselves against liberal feminism,” Dias said. “Feminism lost.”

But for most of the coalition that destroyed abortion access in the United States, impeding women’s reproductive rights is not the end goal. “Look at the decision about the Ten Commandments in Louisiana,” Dias said, “and (Martha-Ann) Alito and the Sacred Heart flag. This is a much larger project to reinstate certain kinds of conservative values.”

In this sense, “The Fall of Roe,” more than a history of reproductive politics, is a chronicle of the conservative movement and the overall drift of our politics. But written with deeply humane attention to the messy, complicated nature of pregnancy, abortion and political struggle, with intimate portrayals of women on both sides of the abortion debate, the book also shows how in every case the personal is political, and the political is personal.

(Emily D. Crews, PhD, is the executive director for the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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