Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968.

Between 1890 and 1952, there were almost 200 attempts at passing anti-lynching bills, but none was successful. Eventually, though, the Civil Rights Movement and the changing social norms it brought caused the issue to fade — and the official judicial system, no longer with its shadow system of vigilante justice, would challenge the old racial order, starting with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation. Several other civil rights cases followed. Another, different kind of affront to the dictates of Lynch law would come in 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.

The Gender Politics of Racist Terror

For many who turn 21, a night of living it up at the bars is a rite of passage, a way to celebrate reaching the minimum age under federal law to buy alcohol. For the quiet and socially withdrawn Dylann Roof, it was getting a gun. Roof turned 21, the legal age to purchase most firearms, on April 3, 2015. In June, he became a mass murderer, acting on his own manifesto of white supremacist ideology, his own desire to start a race war. He entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people, after reportedly telling the church’s black congregation, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country.”

The charge Roof made when he opened fire was reminiscent of one of the most common accusations brought against black victims of lynching — the violation of white women. What lynchers were defending, though, was not the safety of women from sexual assault. They were protecting their system of segregation from the effects of racial mingling — social, sexual, or otherwise. They viewed white women’s bodies as part of the purview of their power, to be safeguarded not because of the rights of women but because of the place white women occupied in a system of racial division. Their true feelings about sexual assault were evident in the fact that many who participated in lynching were themselves perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, including rape, against black women.

Feminist scholarship has viewed lynching as a system that had the secondary purpose of positioning white men as defenders of white women, protecting their chastity from the sexual appetites of black men. In addition to a racial order, it upheld a gender order of chivalrous men and vulnerable women. As journalist Chloe Angyal wrote in the wake of the Charleston shooting, “American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.”

The Court and the Culture Wars

In addition to challenging the old racial order with its civil rights decisions, the Supreme Court challenged the old gender order with its decisions in several cases — including 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, and 1973’s Roe v. Wade — that affirmed the rights of women to make their own reproductive decisions. In doing so, the court affirmed women’s independence and autonomy in an often possessive and patriarchal culture.

When Roe v. Wade was decided on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court concluded that access to abortion was guaranteed by a woman’s right to privacy, as defined under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Therefore, abortion restrictions, in both the plaintiff’s home state of Texas and throughout the nation, were deemed unconstitutional. Roe was a landmark case for reproductive justice. To many on the right, though, it marked an ominous shift in the direction of American politics, a high-handed decision that represented a departure from the Supreme Court’s consideration of national consensus in its rulings. Polls both then and since have found minority support for the right to abortion under all circumstances, with more robust support only for more limited circumstances, such as cases of sexual assault and life-threatening health conditions.

Roe, then, was fuel for the anti-government sentiment that eventually became common currency among conservatives today — a sentiment that has often focused specifically on the federal judiciary and other court systems. In 2005, at a conference titled Confronting the Judicial War on Faith, failed senatorial hopeful Alan Keyes told an audience, “I believe that the judiciary is the focus of evil in our society today.” Those were mild words compared to what Michael Schwartz, who was then chief of staff for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), told a journalist at the conference: “I don’t want to impeach judges. I want to impale them!” Even more disquieting was a right-wing militia in Fairbanks, Alaska, that conspired to buy illegal weapons and assassinate a judge after a key figure in the group, Schaeffer Cox, faced a series of arrests — the first of which, in 2010, was for choking his wife during an argument.

The Sanctity of Segregated Life

Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, 1983. Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

In spite of the government overreach that Roe represented to many conservatives, it wasn’t until the twilight of the 1970s that it became the rallying cry for a right-wing agenda. In fact, even the religious right was divided on the issue of abortion in the first years after Roe. In 1974 and 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted resolutions that were largely in agreement with Roe. In 1974, U.S. Catholic bishops made their opposition to abortion known in an official doctrine, but their criticism of abortion was restrained, admitting a lack of consensus about when a fetus has personhood or a soul.

In 1979, the lead-up to the next presidential election ended much of the ambivalence about Roe v. Wade. The religious right developed a newfound interest in abortion as a hot-button issue that could turn voters away from reelecting Jimmy Carter. But as Carter biographer Randall Balmer has argued, what the religious right was really after in denying Carter a second term was a chance to protect segregated schools — not the unborn.

One of the icons the religious right, Jerry Falwell, is remembered today for his homophobic comments about Tinky Winky of the Teletubbies and his admonition that gays, abortion providers, and feminists caused 9/11. Falwell, however, did not cut his teeth railing about abortion or other matters of sexual morality. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, his fury was over the civil rights gains of minorities. He believed that if the Supreme Court majority “had known God’s word and desired to do the Lord’s will,” their decision in favor of desegregation “would never have been made.” He told his congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, “The [school] facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

In the early 1960s, Falwell’s focus turned to his bitter hatred of Martin Luther King Jr. as he joined forces with J. Edgar Hoover to disparage the civil rights icon. But Falwell returned to the issue of school desegregation in 1966, creating his own alternative to integrated schools, the Lynchburg Christian Academy. A local paper described it as “a private school for white students.” It was one of many such schools that Christian conservatives created during the period to preserve segregation.

The proliferation of private, whites-only schools eventually hit a roadblock, however. A case that was decided three years prior to Roe v. Wade in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Green v. Kennedy, denied tax-exempt status to schools like Falwell’s, putting them under the scrutiny of the IRS for their racial policies. Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, was the IRS’ first target. The university responded bluntly to IRS inquiries, answering that they did not admit African Americans. Founder Bob Jones Jr., like Falwell, argued that the Bible mandated segregation.

Defending their whites-only schools put many from the religious right on the warpath, and as the 1970s came to a close, they pegged their hopes on replacing Jimmy Carter with a president who would put the IRS on a shorter leash. It was a moment of ascendancy for activist Paul Weyrich, who for years had tried to solidify the religious right as a political force, attempting to unify them on issues such as pornography and school prayer. As he recounted later, “I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”

By the late 1970s, however, even the most obdurate racist would understand that segregation would be a hard sell in a presidential election. Weyrich had already attempted in the past to use abortion as an issue that would crystallize a movement. Though it didn’t work then, he tried again — this time with the help of Jerry Falwell, Christian writer James Dobson, and others who would brand themselves the Moral Majority. This time it worked, in large part due to how well it resonated with the anti-feminist appeal of Carter’s opponent in the presidential election, Ronald Reagan. Both Reagan and the Republican Party gave short shrift to the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as many social programs that were critical to the well-being of women.

Reagan also had an aura that placed him squarely in the old gender order. Having starred in Westerns before politics became his source of fame, he had the look and sensibility of a cowboy, someone his supporters hoped could bring a macho, take-charge approach to foreign affairs, the economy, and other policy matters. His wife Nancy, conversely, was seen as non-threatening, a woman radiating pride and happiness next to her husband.

Carter lost the 1980 election for a variety of reasons, among them his refusal to meet the demands of the religious right to seek a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. The Republican Party, on the other hand, expressed its support for such an amendment in the platform it adopted at its convention earlier that year. Reagan won by a landslide.

Though most other voters still did not identify abortion as one of the critical issues facing the nation, it had succeeded in energizing Christian conservatives. Reagan replaced Carter as a president who not only offered hope to opponents of abortion, but also to those who were reluctant to accept the civil rights gains of the prior decades. He called the Voting Rights Act “humiliating to the South” and made veiled appeals to white resentment of urban black Americans, peddling stories of a Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” and a steak-devouring “young buck,” people who abused social programs to enjoy a lifestyle that was out of reach of the white working class.

The reference to the “welfare queen” — whose payments supposedly multiplied with the dependents she claimed — also stirred resentment of black women’s reproduction, a sentiment that foretold how race, gender, and reproduction would continue to be stitched together in the Reagan years and beyond.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore the connections that developed between white supremacist groups and the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s, which fed a growing extremism that brought anti-abortion terrorism to the fore in the 1990s.

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