History Lessons: The Post-Roe Abortion Debate in Light of Popular Sovereignty, Part 1

Understanding the Old Slavery Debate Is More Important than Ever

On June 24, 2022, the reign of Roe v. Wade officially ended with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision which held that the U.S. Constitution does not confer a right to abortion and thus returned the question of abortion to the states. Since then, what has emerged, and what have we learned?

As a patchwork of paradoxical policies has been cobbled together across the nation, certain historical similarities between our post-Roe abortion debate and the mid-19th-century slavery and popular sovereignty debate are worth excavating and elucidating. This is the first of a three-part series that will explore the parallels and lessons we might learn from them. Here in Part 1, we will explore the contemporary abortion debate. In Part 2, we will delve into the historical slavery debates. And in Part 3, we will make some connections between the two.

The goal for this series is not to propose a specific government policy or legislative agenda per se. Nor is this an argument that we are nearing civil war. Rather, the purpose is to better understand the current abortion debate by considering analogous lessons from America’s own history. I attempt this not because history repeats itself exactly, but because history tends to rhyme. I taught United States History to 11th graders for thirteen years, and I can’t count how many times I heard some variation of this famous dictum: “if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it” (whether from Edmund Burke, George Santayana, or both). And, I confess I said it too, especially early in my teaching career. While there is something to the truism, it’s too simplistic. If we’re honest with ourselves and with our past, it seems that another lesser-used maxim about history is worth consideration, too: “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” (whether from G.F.W. Hegel or not).

The human dilemmas of history just keep on coming, pummeling us like waves one after the other. Questions of justice and virtue, freedom and authority, truth and lies, war and peace, rights and duties, life and death never go away, nor are they fully resolved. Such questions crest and fall in every generation because these are the challenges of living in community, of forging life together, no matter its scale or scope. And perhaps even more significantly, because of the nature of the human condition—the self-interest, greed, and pride that inheres within us—we seem doomed to drown in the same wave again and again, as the tide recedes and advances in its unceasing, rhythmic routine. Tracing these historical patterns, or rhyme schemes, enables us to better understand our time and place, and so in this series, we will explore the current abortion landscape against the backdrop of America’s past slavery debate.

The Contemporary Abortion Debate

Since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade in June of 2022, the contrasting patchwork of policies has intensified. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s analysis of state policy trends in 2022, fifty abortion restrictions were passed, while seventy-seven abortion-enabling protections were passed in states across the nation. Of course, we have to do some translating here. When Guttmacher says “abortion restriction,” they are referring to regulations on abortion, which actually means protection of unborn life, and when they say “abortion-enabling protections,” they don’t mean protection for unborn life, but rather a virtually unregulated “right” to abortion. Guttmacher’s 2022 map provides a clear picture of just how deep the fissures go. (Note that the Guttmacher Institute has for decades been closely connected to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.)

And, if the divergency of state policies isn’t evidence enough, consider the Wisconsin Supreme Court election in April of 2023, in which record amounts of money for a judicial election—a cool $42 million to be exact—poured in from across the country in hopes of securing either a pro-life, or pro-choice, majority on the state’s highest court. As The Washington Post reports, the winner, Democrat Janet Protasiewicz, “focused relentlessly on abortion rights” and her “win is just the latest evidence of how abortion rights are galvanizing voters.” The record turnout in Wisconsin and the 11-point margin of victory support what the Post sees as a trend alongside other post-Roe events revealing the supercharging of divisions over abortion throughout the country. In the progressive language and framing of The Washington Post, “voters in Kansas rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have eliminated abortion protections,” while in Michigan, voters “resoundingly supported an amendment to the state constitution to guarantee access to abortion.” To translate, in both cases the pro-life cause lost, and what ended up being protected was not life but increased “access” to abortion, such that there is now fewer restraints on abortion than there were under Roe.

Donald Trump has followed the mainstream framing as well, blaming the weak 2022 midterm election performances on Republicans who are too extreme on abortion. Republicans are “losing big” and “getting killed on the abortion issue,” according to the former President. But Jonathan Van Maren argues that the situation is far more complex. He explains, “after the GOP took a shellacking, Trump—who endorsed a number of unsuccessful candidates—needed a narrative that excused his performance. Thus, he adopted the mainstream narrative that Dobbs hurt Republicans, insisting that it wasn’t his fault that the red wave had been a trickle.” Van Maren points out that the former president’s framing does not fully account for the fact that “Georgia governor Brian Kemp won re-election by 8 points after signing a 6-week abortion ban in a state Trump lost, that Ohio governor Mike DeWine won by 25 points after signing a 6-week ban in a state Trump won by only 8 points, and that Iowa governor Kim Reynolds won by 19 points as opposed to Trump’s 8 after signing similar legislation.”

Nor have pro-lifers disappeared since Dobbs. Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, notes that, "we have seen the state of abortion in the United States shift dramatically as many states moved to enact laws that would protect unborn children and their mothers from the tragedy of abortion. Pro-life education and legislative efforts are making an impact on our culture and in the lives of women facing unexpected pregnancies. But there is still much to be done. Both sides have been activated in a new way, deploying new legislative strategies and legal challenges. What Bob Perry predicted in Salvo’s pages before the Dobbs decision came down is coming true. Consider too, the dueling judicial decisions being handed down in states on the status of abortion pills like mifepristone (see Nicole King’s Family Briefing from Salvo 65 for more on this). And then, in relation to the judge’s decision in Texas to block its sale and distribution, the Supreme Court has issued a stay which allows for its continued use. Abortion policy also looms large in the upcoming 2024 presidential campaign, as evidenced in the Republican debates thus far, where candidates’ positions on abortion have figured prominently. In addition to all of these events, we can add the November 7th approval by Ohio voters of a state constitutional amendment to enshrine access to abortion before viability, which passed by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin. What will come next seems anyone’s guess. The stakes are high.

This is not the first time America has faced divisive and contentious issues of political and moral significance. As states increasingly move in different directions on the abortion question, the lines are more clearly drawn. Can a nation sustain itself when it consists of fifty states, each with its own set of policies regarding the life or death of the unborn? Should abortion truly remain a question for states to decide, or does it inevitably require federal legislation? How does the pro-life cause move forward? What should we do as individuals in our specific locale and state? I suggest that we can mine many lessons for our moment from the debate over slavery in 19th-century America. In Part 2, we’ll dive into this era and get a better historical and conceptual grasp of the nature of the conflicts and disagreements then, finally, in Part 3 we’ll see how it relates to what we are seeing now.

Further Reading

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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