The grassroots movement against abortion rights : Throughline The Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade transformed the landscape of abortion rights overnight. For the doctors, lawyers, feminists, and others who had fought for nationwide legalization, Roe was the end of a long battle. But for the growing movement against abortion rights, it was the beginning of a new battle: to protect the fetus, challenge abortion providers, and ultimately overturn Roe. This is the story of how opponents of abortion rights banded together, built power, and launched one of the most successful grassroots campaigns of the past century.

After Roe: A New Battlefield

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

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ARABLOUEI: And a warning before we start the show - there are descriptions of graphic violence and other heavy content in this episode. We hope you'll stay with us because this story is so important to understanding the changes taking place right now in our country.

ABDELFATAH: It begins on January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roe v. Wade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Several decisions of this court make clear that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment - Loving v. Virginia, Griswold v. Connecticut.

We recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. That right necessarily includes the right of a woman to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

JENNIFER HOLLAND: I think it was an earthquake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Supreme Court today ruled that abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) The word person, as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.

PHIL LEAHY: I can remember when they made that announcement. I just felt my legs are ready to collapse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If they think it should be legal to end a baby's life, to kill a baby, dismember that child in the womb, what won't they think is OK?

STEPHEN IMBARRATO: This is a culture of death, a structure of sin.

LEAHY: We often compare it to the Holocaust in Germany, but this is even worse.

DANEEN DOLCIE: She was standing in front of an abortion clinic, and I talked to her for over an hour and a half.

LEAHY: The ineffable brutality, the innocence of the children.

DOLCIE: Twelve years later, this woman walks in. And she said, this is my daughter, and you saved her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that this subject inspires.

ARABLOUEI: Roe v. Wade transformed the landscape of abortion rights overnight, making abortion legal in all 50 states, pushing it out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It was the culmination of a movement for abortion rights that brought together doctors, lawyers, feminists and Protestant institutions. For them, Roe was the end of a long battle.

ABDELFATAH: But for others, that moment marked the beginning of a new battle, a battle to overturn Roe v. Wade. They called themselves the pro-life movement.

HOLLAND: I think that there's a desire sometimes to think - especially by people who are not against legal abortion - to imagine this as a superficial commitment, one where they're - they don't really believe what they're saying or that they are sort of being duped by people with money and power high up in American politics. And that is not the case. People have made money and certainly made a lot - built a lot of political power with this movement. But the people who have been staffing this movement for 50 years are incredibly committed and do, I think, very sincerely and very strongly feel like this is an imperative issue, that this is the issue.

ABDELFATAH: This is Jennifer Holland.

HOLLAND: I'm a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.

ABDELFATAH: And author of the book "Tiny You: A Western History Of The Anti-Abortion Movement."

ARABLOUEI: According to new Gallup polls, more than half of Americans identify as pro-choice. Just under 40% identify as pro-life. And two-thirds believe abortion should be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Not the church, not the state - women must decide their fate.

ARABLOUEI: This means that a majority of Americans support abortion rights. But access to abortion care has become much harder in recent years as the movement against abortion rights has gained more ground.

ABDELFATAH: While researching her book, Jennifer Holland spent a lot of time talking to people in the movement who were there, building it up at the grassroots level since the Roe decision in 1973. Some of the oral histories you'll hear throughout this episode come from interviews she conducted.

HOLLAND: One of the things that made this movement so powerful is its ability to really mobilize a minority, a sizable minority of people who are dedicated to this above all other things, and vote on this issue above all other things, and that they'll always come to vote. Because this is such a life-or-death issue that they need to be prepared every day. And that makes them essential to American politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, how the movement against abortion rights grew to be one of the most successful grassroots campaigns of the past century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Hi. This is Kelly (ph) calling from rainy Portland, Ore. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Part I - The Silent Scream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA WILLKE: Now, I think we've covered most of the important facts on what a child should know about sex by the time he starts the first grade. There is one more, though, that no one has mentioned, and that's women's breasts.

JOHN WILLKE: We live in the most breast-happy country in the whole world. This topless business, the bathing suits, the low-cut gowns - everything has a message of breasts are for fun.

ABDELFATAH: In the 1960s, Dr. John C. Willke and his wife, Barbara Willke, began lecturing on abstinence-only sex education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J WILLKE: There's only one way that we can really effectively teach our children the value of a woman's breast, and that is to breastfeed again. There's nothing stimulating about seeing a woman nurse a child.

ABDELFATAH: Dr. Willke was an obstetrician. Barbara was a nurse. And both were devout Catholics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Free our sisters. Free ourselves. Free our sisters.

ABDELFATAH: And they watched with horror as a cultural firestorm overtook the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Sugar and spice and everything nice. That's what little girls are made of.

HOLLAND: Society is just changing at an incredible rate around issues of sexuality and reproduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies and to control their own lives.

HOLLAND: So people are having sex outside of marriage. The birth control pill is allowing that even more than ever before. And then you have movements - feminism and gay liberation - that are saying, you know, that sexuality is politics, that all of these structures around family and sexuality are fundamentally repressive and exclusive, that are skeptical of religious people sort of imposing their view on the majority through law.

ARABLOUEI: In the years leading up to the Roe decision in 1973, Catholics were the main opponents to abortion. The Catholic Church had ruled abortion was murder, on and off, for centuries. And for a lot of these early activists, opposition to abortion was part of a broader protection of life, from conception to natural death. So they were anti-war and anti-death penalty, too.

ABDELFATAH: In contrast, mainstream Protestant organizations had largely supported decriminalizing abortion. So as some states began to reform their abortion laws, Catholic activists, like the Willkes, decided they needed to do more. They founded early groups against abortion in the 1960s, the most prominent being the National Right to Life Committee.

ARABLOUEI: The Willkes started a local Right to Life organization in their hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio. They went on radio shows, made pamphlets. And in 1971...

HOLLAND: They published this little volume. And it combined all these anti-abortion arguments that people had been developing.

ARABLOUEI: They called it the "Handbook On Abortion."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Is this human life? This is the question that must first be considered, pondered, discussed and finally answered. In a sense, nothing else really matters.

ARABLOUEI: It spelled out who they believed the real victim in the abortion debate was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Termination of pregnancy, interruption of pregnancy are all verbal gymnastics behind which to hide. Killing the life within the mother, killing the fetus, or, most to the point, killing the unborn baby directly face the issue.

HOLLAND: Foregrounding fetuses as victims, as babies who are being murdered.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Abortion clinic? No, clinic sounds like a place of curing and caring. Rather use abortion chamber, reminding us of gas chambers. For isn't 1 of every 2 humans who enters that place exterminated?

ARABLOUEI: Even in cases of rape.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) She has been raped. That trauma will live with her all her life. But will abortion now be best for her, or will it bring her more harm yet?

HOLLAND: Perhaps most importantly, they put in pictures.

ARABLOUEI: Pictures of fetuses that had supposedly been aborted.

HOLLAND: We assume they're abortion, but we don't really know. They could be miscarriages as well. One of them is, you know, sort of a black trash bag full of fetal bodies. A lot of them are bloody. They're sort of really close up.

ABDELFATAH: You can kind of make out a face and kind of make out...

HOLLAND: Oh, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: ...The hands and the - yeah.

HOLLAND: Right, really zooming in on body parts.

ARABLOUEI: Perhaps the most famous is a close-up photo of an adult hand holding two tiny, fully formed feet, no bigger than a Tic Tac, which inspired the little pins that many still wear today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The "Handbook On Abortion"...

HOLLAND: It's this little cheap book that anyone can buy.

ABDELFATAH: ...Quickly became a North Star for the budding movement against abortion rights.

HOLLAND: Barbara and John Willke not only make the book, but the year later they go on a speaking tour around the country and sort of take slideshows and then encourage those people to do a similar type of slideshow with their friends and neighbors. And then you could reproduce them and put them in the newspaper or, you know, show them at a protest. They might push the person who does Sunday school and say, can you show the kids?

ABDELFATAH: It was a slow build - person by person, church by church, community by community, state by state. But while the Willkes were making waves, it was nothing compared to the tsunami unleashed in 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. What had been a state fight transformed overnight into a federal one. It was a huge setback for this young movement, which was beginning to call itself the pro-life movement.

HOLLAND: They really realized pretty early that they needed a party as a vehicle for their politics. And it's important to know that these activists are not Republican from the very beginning. They are mixed - Republican, Democrat, probably majority Democrat - in the late '60s and early '70s

ARABLOUEI: John F. Kennedy, the country's first Catholic president, had been a Democrat.

HOLLAND: But that had begun to change. Feminism had started to be embraced by more and more Democrats. Of course, the Democratic Party had already been embracing, you know, Black voters and issues around Black rights even longer.

ARABLOUEI: This pushed the movement to embrace the Republican Party, which seemed to be making traditional family values a priority.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) 1976 Republican platform - the American family.

HOLLAND: And the Republican Party - 1976 is the first time that they put an anti-abortion plank on their platform. It's not full-throated, but it's there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Because of our concern for family values, we affirm our beliefs in many elements that will make our country a more hospitable environment for family life - neighborhood schools, a position on abortion that values human life, a welfare policy...

ARABLOUEI: Pretty soon, evangelicals in the Republican Party began to take up the issue as their own. A televangelist named Jerry Falwell from Lynchburg, Va., founded a political action group called the Moral Majority. Ending abortion was one of its central goals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY FALWELL: Thirty-five hundred years ago, the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, said, living by God's principles promotes a nation to greatness. Violating those principles brings a nation to shame.

ABDELFATAH: Up to this point, abortion had been considered a mostly Catholic issue. So what changed?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EYES ON THE PRIZE")

JULIAN BOND: 1954 - the Supreme Court said Black children would go to school with white. The South said, never.

ABDELFATAH: After segregation was banned across the country, some evangelical leaders in the South, like Jerry Falwell, had set up private schools that were segregated and were tax-exempt. But around the time of Roe, that tax-exempt status was revoked on the grounds that those schools were discriminatory, so they had to look for a new cause. For some evangelicals, abortion became that cause. But Jennifer Holland says that's only part of the story because at the same time that was going on...

HOLLAND: You have individual evangelical activists pushing...

ABDELFATAH: Pushing their congregations to look at the Willke slides.

HOLLAND: ...Creating an environment that's incredibly rich for those arguments to take root.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUTH DOLAN: I was born in Denver, Colo., March 10, 1930. I was the fourth child born to John and Dorothy Race. They weren't too thrilled to see another baby in 1930 because the crash was in 1929, and I got involved with Colorado Pro Family.

ABDELFATAH: Ruth Dolan was involved in anti-abortion rights activism in the 1970s with a group called Colorado Pro Family.

DOLAN: I was a token Protestant, and this was where our areas of disagreement began. They said they didn't want to have prayer before or after meetings, and I gave a little speech that said - I said, well, if we want to pass anything, like a human life amendment, then we had to be on God's side. We'd better pray - or words to that effect. And they voted it down.

ABDELFATAH: Ruth was furious.

DOLAN: I was so mad. I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face because I thought, I don't think I can work with these people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KARISSA HAUGEBERG: This coincides with just a larger shift in American religious practice in general.

ARABLOUEI: Karissa Haugeberg, associate professor of history at Tulane University, is author of the book, "Women Against Abortion: Inside The Largest Moral Reform Movement Of The Twentieth Century."

HAUGEBERG: We see people shift away from traditional denominations into nondenominational evangelical churches.

ARABLOUEI: Evangelicals bring more people to the movement, and that helps turn the abortion issue into a more important part of the Republican Party platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Thank you very much.

ARABLOUEI: In 1980, the Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan, made opposition to abortion reform an important part of his campaign even though he'd supported laws to increase those rights while governor of California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We have projected Ronald Reagan the winner.

ARABLOUEI: And when he won the presidency, it signaled the beginning of a new era for the movement because now they had the president's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SILENT SCREAM")

BERNARD NATHANSON: Now we can discern the chilling silent scream on the face of this child who is now facing imminent extinction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Around this time, an OB-GYN doctor named Bernard Nathanson, who had carried out thousands of abortions in the past, began to oppose the procedure. He attributed his change of heart to the rise of new technologies, like ultrasounds, which offered a view of what happens to the fetus inside the womb like never before.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SILENT SCREAM")

NATHANSON: When I was a medical student in 1949, we were taught that the fetus was something, but it was really an article of faith as to whether or not it was a human being. But the whole story has changed.

ABDELFATAH: He worked with a production studio aligned with the movement to create and narrate a 28-minute film called "The Silent Scream."

HOLLAND: "The Silent Scream" was an ultrasound video of an abortion, supposedly, where you could sort of see some kind of tool entering the uterus.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SILENT SCREAM")

NATHANSON: The suction tip will begin to tear the child apart. The pieces of the body are torn away.

ABDELFATAH: The fetus is at 12 weeks.

HOLLAND: And then the fetus sort of shrinking back - right? - after it's touched.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SILENT SCREAM")

NATHANSON: We see the child's mouth wide open in a silent scream.

HOLLAND: They said, this is a scream, and this is a sign of pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SILENT SCREAM")

NATHANSON: Let's all, for humanity's sake, stop the killing.

ABDELFATAH: Scientists have rejected Nathanson's claims because, in the first trimester, the fetus has not yet developed a brain or neural pathways necessary to feel pain.

HOLLAND: But it doesn't matter because, in the context of this film, it was supposed to be evidence of pain.

ABDELFATAH: "The Silent Scream" took the idea behind the Wilke slides to a new level. It was more visceral, providing a direct view of the fetus in the womb. And that ultrasound image of the fetus supposedly screaming was worth a thousand slides.

ARABLOUEI: The film sold nearly a thousand copies within two months of its release. Religious schools played it for their students, and copies were sent to all members of Congress, the nine Supreme Court justices and President Reagan. A screening was even held at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: Surely recent advances in medical technology have changed the debate. Surgeons now speak of the patient in the womb.

ARABLOUEI: And this was Reagan's response after seeing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: If every member of the Congress could see this film of an early abortion, then Congress would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion, and I pray that they will.

ARABLOUEI: This film was just a small part of the growing effort by the movement to shift the narrative around abortion in mainstream American life. Roe had given abortion rights activists a major victory, but there were still vulnerabilities.

CAROLE JOFFE: What my scholarship has shown me is that mainstream medicine approved of legal abortion. They did not approve of those who provided abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: This is Carole Joffe. She's a sociologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco. Her latest book is called "Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle To Get An Abortion In America."

JOFFE: What was really so surprising to me, you know, when I tried to reconstruct the period right after Roe was what didn't happen. They didn't set up clinics in their hospitals. They didn't establish training. They didn't come up with standards. This was because of the legacy of the butcher. And so what happened was the establishment of freestanding clinics, which today still offer about 90, 95% of all abortions. You could perform an abortion much more cheaply than if you had to go into a hospital. You could do it on an outpatient basis. And here's the really important thing. You could hire abortion-friendly staff. However, the tradeoff was the marginalization and the separation of abortion care from the rest of medicine.

ABDELFATAH: A reality that would become really important as the movement against abortion rights changed direction.

JOFFE: I used to live in Philadelphia, and I remember driving around Philadelphia in those days. And on the radio, I heard an anti-abortion spokesman saying, now we're going to go after the providers.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, the movement makes abortion providers public enemy No. 1.

ADRIENNE STETTLER: Hi. This is Adrienne Stettler (ph) calling from Morgantown, W.Va., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Part II - The Weakest Link.

BERNARD ROSENFELD: My name is Bernard Rosenfeld. I'm a board-certified OB-GYN doctor. I'm an abortion provider.

ABDELFATAH: And you're talking to us from Texas.

ROSENFELD: Houston.

ABDELFATAH: Houston. How long have you lived in Houston?

ROSENFELD: Now 40 years.

ABDELFATAH: So 40 years ago would have been, I guess, the early '80s.

ROSENFELD: 1980.

ABDELFATAH: In 1980, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. And for Dr. Rosenfeld - who had carried out abortions in Michigan, Maryland and even Reagan's home state, California, before landing in Texas - some things seemed to be changing on the ground.

ROSENFELD: The anti-abortion groups started picketing the clinics and then even started picketing my home. So it really exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LEAHY: In Joshua, the soldiers walked around Jericho, you know, seven times. And they blew their trumpets, and the walls collapsed. You know, that's a metaphor for the psychological walls that we pray will collapse - the psychic staff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Please turn away here - from here. You're an image-bearer of God.

ROSENFELD: I just thought they were religious fanatics. You know, Jesus loves you, Dr. Rosenfeld. You can still save your soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LEAHY: We're there to save souls, including, you know, the abortion staff because, God forbid, if something were to happen to one of these abortionists, they'd go to hell.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Hey, ma'am. Can I give you some information? Young lady, whatever your circumstances are, would you just be willing to come talk with us?

ABDELFATAH: They called themselves sidewalk counselors and stood outside clinics to intervene before a woman had an abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: There have probably been lots of voices urging you to abort your child, but we're here to talk with you about whatever the situation is.

KENYA MARTIN: You are a little nerved up. You're a little afraid because you don't know what they're really up to.

ABDELFATAH: This is Kenya Martin. She had an abortion at Dr. Rosenfeld's clinic when she was 19 years old. She remembers arriving for her appointment with her mom and walking by a crowd of protesters shouting and holding up images of fetuses on her way to the front door.

MARTIN: Specifically, like, for me, you know, they would really hone in on the fact that I'm Black. They'd say things like, you know, you're committing Black genocide, or, you're - so you're going to really kill your Black baby - things like that. And, you know, that really would piss me off, to be perfectly honest. But it wasn't going to change my mind. It wasn't going to make me turn around and walk out. You know, I'm like, they don't know my life. They're, like, whole-ass random people who are trying to make me feel bad about something I'm doing that I know is best for me. But, yeah, it is scary for somebody who's going there for the first time like myself. My mom is just like, ignore them. Let's just go on in.

HOLLAND: They coordinate between all the anti-abortion groups in the city so that someone always takes a day, and so someone is protesting all the time.

ARABLOUEI: It was part of a larger strategy the movement was adopting in the early 1980s, centering women alongside the fetus as victims and abortion providers as the ones with blood on their hands.

HOLLAND: So there's this desire to sort of make them into genocidal leeches because it's hard to call women murderers. That's, like, a thornier accusation in a culture that's been remade by feminism.

ARABLOUEI: The movement began to push the idea that many women regretted having their abortions...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: We have Dr. Vincent Rue with us - professor with us in...

ARABLOUEI: ...And were even traumatized by the experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VINCENT RUE: Abortion is a traumatic experience because it is a human death intentionally caused experience.

HOLLAND: Vincent Rue, who is a anti-abortion psychotherapist, comes up with this term post-abortion syndrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUE: In 1981, I developed this and presented the diagnostic criteria before the U.S. Congress and talked about the impact of abortion on the individual as a traumatic episode and then also on the effect on family life. And it was modeled after the American Psychiatric Association's post-traumatic stress disorder category.

HOLLAND: And they start doing what they call post-abortion therapy to try to connect a woman's sort of sadness or depression to her abortion...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It took me a long time to open up to the idea I needed more healing.

HOLLAND: ...And ideally make her into an activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I really felt I had betrayed God.

ARABLOUEI: Crisis pregnancy centers were set up to aid in this effort.

HOLLAND: Which were these anti-abortion clinic-like spaces that were masquerading as abortion providers.

ARABLOUEI: One of the most famous examples of someone who changed sides was Norma McCorvey...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The plaintiff in the court case that made abortion legal.

ARABLOUEI: ...Aka Jane Roe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: But now she's having second thoughts.

NORMA MCCORVEY: I've cheated people out of money. I've sold drugs. I - you know, I was an abusive alcoholic for, you know, many, many years. I've done a lot against His teachings. But I think the far greater sin that I did was to be the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade.

ARABLOUEI: On her deathbed, McCorvey said that she'd only converted for money and that she'd never really supported the anti-abortion rights cause. But at the time, her testimony was powerful.

ABDELFATAH: Even though medical data does not actually back up the claims that abortion traumatizes women.

HOLLAND: The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association do study after study, and they say this is not a commonly trauma-inducing experience. You know, they say this is a syndrome that does not exist. But the movement is so successful at selling that story that women are damaged by abortion, either mentally or physically, and they're victims.

ABDELFATAH: Between the visceral images of fetuses and the somber stories of women expressing trauma, the movement was hoping to make people outside itself - average Americans - feel uneasy, maybe plant a seed of doubt about the morality of abortion. It started projecting its story even more widely, selling it not just outside of clinics, but also in the media...

HOLLAND: A whole host of movies. They have children's books. They have, you know, fetus dolls with - it's supposed to be real-feeling skin.

ABDELFATAH: ...And in the halls of government.

HOLLAND: Reagan passes laws giving more room to activists, especially in schools.

ABDELFATAH: State organizers formed PACs - political action committees - tried to get anti-abortion rights candidates elected and kept their eyes open for opportunities to take a case to the Supreme Court and maybe have a chance to overturn Roe, or at least chip away at it.

ARABLOUEI: But by the mid-1980s...

HOLLAND: Roe has been sort of the law of the land for a decade or more.

ARABLOUEI: And all of the movement's efforts hadn't moved the needle much.

HAUGEBERG: So if you were anti-abortion in 1986, you would wonder, like, you know, I've done everything. I've gone through the - you know, the traditional levers. I voted for an anti-abortion president, maybe anti-abortion senators. And nothing has changed.

HOLLAND: This is the moment when a certain segment embraces what they call the rescue movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Earlier this month, hundreds affiliated with a group called Operation Rescue staged anti-abortion demonstrations in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: They came from all across the country - from the Midwest, the South, even as far away as California.

JOFFE: Their mission was to end abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RANDALL TERRY: The judges, the politicians, they're getting the signal, as is Planned Parenthood, NOW, ACLU, etc. Legalized child-killing's days are numbered. We will win.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: This CBN News exclusive footage shows a clinic worker arriving just before 7 a.m. to open the doors. She is met by the sight of protesters blocking those doors. The confrontation you are seeing resulted in...

HOLLAND: You know, constant harassing phone calls, glue in locks, sometimes actually going in and chaining themselves to equipment.

LEAHY: We would sit down and it was, you know, like the sit-in movement in the '60s with - it was the civil rights movement. It was more or less the same thing.

HOLLAND: Some people began, you know, protesting outside of doctors' homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Many people in Wichita are calling this the summer of discontent. But Operation Rescue and the anti-abortion movement are calling it the summer of mercy.

TERRY: Right now, the blood is crying from the ground. It's crying from the ground here in Binghamton. It's crying from the ground here in Washington, D.C.

LEAHY: And then there would be arrests, and we'd just spend time in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Police did arrest 275 protesters at this demonstration. Six hundred and ninety more were...

HOLLAND: Trying to get the media to be present, to watch this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LEAHY: And we spent time in prayer. We spent time singing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Help us, O God. Help the moms, the dads, the grandmas, the grandpas, everyone that's present, the young men...

ROSENFELD: They destroyed property. They put garden hoses on our roof and wrecked the roof and, yeah, had chemicals that they threw.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Reform our country, God, before it's too late. Amen.

JOFFE: The first abortion doctor was killed in Pensacola, Fla., in March '93.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Singing) Amazing God...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: About a dozen abortion rights activists sang hymns, burned red candles and held a vigil outside Dr. George Tiller's clinic last night as police investigators look for clues in the shooting. One clinic volunteer who didn't want to be identified said the doctor was shot as he drove away from his office.

ROSENFELD: It got to a point where then there was really violence at clinics, and, you know, doctors were getting shot.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The National Abortion Federation reported 57 incidents of attempted bombings and arson in 1993. Two clinics burned to the ground this year. Acid attacks on property have become common, and a hundred and nineteen incidents of stalking clinic employees were reported.

ROSENFELD: The attorney general sent two federal marshals to my clinic for six months, so I guess they thought my life was in danger.

ABDELFATAH: Do you remember a particular incident that just kind of shook you a little bit and made you wonder whether you were in the right field?

ROSENFELD: Well, I mean, I got threats against my life. You know, they had targets with doctors' faces in the middle. And, you know, when I'd go into clinics, sometimes people would throw some bullets and say, you're killing babies. We're going to kill you.

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We are bound and determined not to lose by the bullet what we had hoped to gain with the ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAUGEBERG: So one thing that I think a lot of people don't understand is that there has been an undercurrent of violence to the anti-abortion movement since it began. So even in the 1960s, I found evidence of people sending hate mail, wishing people who are publicly identified as pro-choice or having had an abortion, sending them messages saying, like, you're going to hell; I hope you die - that sort of thing.

HOLLAND: But, you know, once it escalates into kidnapping and murder, that really did pose a real problem for the mainstream movement.

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DOLCIE: They picture me with six guns on my hips and bombs in my hand, you know? That's just not us. But that's what they want to see.

HOLLAND: They had to imagine these people as, you know, what I think the media calls, like, lone wolves, mentally unstable people and people who were marginal, not sort of a real part of the movement.

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DOLCIE: But there will always be those people.

ABDELFATAH: In 1994, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Freedom of Access to Abortion Clinic Entrances Act, which made it a federal crime to use physical force, threaten or obstruct someone from getting an abortion. That didn't mean protesters couldn't stand outside of clinics, but there were now more barriers against the worst kind of violence and vandalism. Despite that, violence would continue to plague clinics over the coming decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And it put the abortion issue front and center in the national conversation. With the violent wing of the movement facing more scrutiny, mainstream activists doubled down on their political ambitions, working within the system to make ending abortion and getting rid of Roe a central issue for the Republican Party.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, two words pave the way for Roe v. Wade to eventually be overturned.

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TOM CALLAHAN: Hi. This is Tom Callahan (ph) from Goldsboro, N.C. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Part III - Life in America.

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MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: We mourn 47 years of abortion on demand under Roe v. Wade, over 60 million little girls and boys intended for this world with a purpose, untold suffering of their mothers, families and communities.

ARABLOUEI: This is Marjorie Dannenfelser speaking at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in 2020.

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DANNENFELSER: That is not how it works, women's movement. You can't build rights on the broken bodies and rights of other human beings.

ARABLOUEI: Marjorie is one of the most prominent anti-abortion rights activists in the United States. Some credit her with being the strategic mind behind the legislative and political success of the anti-abortion rights movement. But back in the 1980s, when she was in college, even she probably wouldn't have imagined being where she is today. She was the head of the college Republicans, but she was what she calls pro-choice.

DANNENFELSER: When I was a student at Duke and the head of college Republicans and very pro-choice, I was just in many, many arguments, you know, ranging from embryology to philosophy to religion. And it just became very difficult for me to answer the question, what is that thing? Meaning the object of an abortion.

ARABLOUEI: That question haunted Marjorie, and it led to another question.

DANNENFELSER: Is there one person or two people in an abortion? If there are two people, they both need love and service. They need medical care. They need concrete service and support. If it's just a woman and - who has surgery, which is the - or a procedure that's the equivalent of an appendectomy or a tonsillectomy, then this argument from the pro-life side makes no sense. It's the dumbest rights movement - so-called rights movement ever. But if there are two people, it's the most compelling human rights cause. And I think that is obviously the latter.

ARABLOUEI: She ultimately came to believe the object of an abortion was a person - a human being - and she made it her mission to end abortion in the United States.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our hero, Marjorie Dannenfelser.

(APPLAUSE)

ARABLOUEI: After graduating from Duke, she worked for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. And in 1992, she helped start the Susan B. Anthony List, now called Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. It's an anti-abortion rights group that advocates for new laws and works to elect politicians who share their views. The organization is named after Susan B. Anthony, the legendary American feminist activist who fought for women's right to vote.

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DANNENFELSER: Here marks an historic moment in the tough and tender project we share, the mission of protecting boys and girls waiting to be born and embracing their mothers in need of our love.

We were raising money for pro-life women running for public office. But as we grew, it became very clear that what was unique to the pro-life movement was our deep, organic roots - not necessarily money, but definitely in numbers. We were massive. It became quite clear.

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DANNENFELSER: We, like our civil rights friends and our sisters and activists before us, will use the tools of democracy to right even the worst wrongs that plague our society, and we will form a more perfect union through the power of the pro-life movement.

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KATHRYN KOLBERT: Whether our Constitution endows government with the power to force a woman to continue or to end a pregnancy against her will is the central question in this case. Since this court's decision in Roe v. Wade, a generation of American women have come of age secure in the knowledge that the Constitution provides the highest level of protection for their childbearing decisions.

ABDELFATAH: This is audio from the oral arguments of the Supreme Court case commonly known as Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The case was about legal restrictions placed by the Pennsylvania state government on abortion. Planned Parenthood, the plaintiffs in the case, argued that the Pennsylvania laws violated the 14th Amendment because they rolled back the protections afforded by the Roe v. Wade ruling.

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KOLBERT: Should this court remove fundamental protections for the abortion right, women might again be forced to the back alleys for their medical care with grave consequences for their lives and health.

ABDELFATAH: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood and upheld the fundamental protection created by Roe v. Wade, but there was a huge caveat.

HAUGEBERG: In that decision, it really, like, abolished the trimester framework that made it really clear when there were protections for a woman's right to abortion, and that trimester framework was replaced by what was called the undue burden standard.

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SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: Roe's rigid trimester framework is rejected. To promote the state's interest in potential life throughout pregnancy, the state may take measures to ensure that the woman's choice is informed.

HAUGEBERG: So so long as state-led regulations didn't pose an undue burden on a woman, they were constitutional.

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DAY O'CONNOR: Measures designed to advance this interest should not be invalidated if their purpose is to persuade the woman to choose childbirth over abortion. These measures must not be an undue burden on the right.

HAUGEBERG: Sandra Day O'Connor, who crafted this, had hoped that this would provide, like, good resolution, that the trimester framework was a little difficult to parse as medical technologies changed, and she hoped that this would just offer clarity. Is this undue or not? Instead, it mucked the whole thing up. No one can agree what an undue burden is. Like, it's really messy.

ABDELFATAH: And anti-abortion rights activists ran with it.

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PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY: This decision is basically a right-to-know decision, the right of the mother to know about the unborn baby within her.

ABDELFATAH: This is the famous anti-abortion activist Phyllis Schlafly responding to the Casey ruling.

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SCHLAFLY: The right to have informed consent about this drastic surgery. This decision is supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people.

HOLLAND: A lot of anti-abortion legislation in these years - a lot of it gets named, like, in the name of women - right? - like, the women's right to know law mandating that doctors overemphasize and even give some medically inaccurate information to people seeking abortion.

ABDELFATAH: SBA Pro-Life America started the same year as the Casey decision. Marjorie says the decision itself was disappointing, but the vagueness of the undue burden standard opened the door to new restrictions. Some states began requiring women to attend multiple appointments before having an abortion. Other states required women to first see an ultrasound of the fetus. Regulations were put on clinics providing abortions that made them more difficult to run.

HAUGEBERG: In isolation, none of them seems like that big of a deal. But put together, it had a devastating effect on abortion provision in the United States. Like, we have far fewer clinics today than we did in the early 1980s, and it's because it's become so expensive to run these clinics. It's become so onerous for women, especially poor women, to be able to afford to go to multiple appointments. All roads kind of go back to Casey as permitting that.

ABDELFATAH: For many people in the anti-abortion rights movement, especially those working within the system, the new laws enacted after the Casey decision represented progress. But for others, it was nowhere near enough.

HOLLAND: Even as they are slowly, successfully putting in some of these restrictions, there's a frustration that these are just, you know, adding new hoops, perhaps slowing abortion, but not actually ending it.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: We must show the voters that the Republican Party can be counted on to keep the faith on this vital issue of life. And we must make sure that we have a president who will nominate judges and justices to the Supreme Court who respect innocent human life.

ABDELFATAH: The Republican Party, largely in response to grassroots pressure from its constituents, began trying a hard line on abortion. The movement had found its opportunity.

HOLLAND: And so gradually you see a really different kind of Republican get elected.

ABDELFATAH: The days of Republicans who supported abortion rights, like the Duke University version of Marjorie Dannenfelser, were pretty much gone.

HOLLAND: Then in the 2010s, when you see these big wave elections, these aren't just wave elections that are electing just any old Republican. You're - they are electing, more often than not, anti-abortion ideologues or people who really knew what they needed to do when they got in office.

ARABLOUEI: And this was the case for one of their most successful candidates, Donald Trump, who had stated publicly in 1999 that he was very pro-choice.

HOLLAND: Right. I don't think anyone would think that he, you know, sincerely committed to the movement. But, of course, once he got into office, he knew that what he needed to do was to nominate strongly anti-abortion justices.

ARABLOUEI: And that's exactly what he did. President Trump appointed three conservative justices in four years. The vision of the anti-abortion rights activists going back to the 1970s had come to fruition. There was a court in place that was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

ABDELFATAH: What would you say to a woman who says, I don't want to carry a baby to term, let's say, because I'm faced with crippling poverty or I had a life-threatening previous childbirth? Like, what do you say to someone who says, this feels like an infringement on my individual rights by having to carry the baby to term? Is it fair for them to think, well, from their perspective, that is an infringement on their individual rights?

DANNENFELSER: Well, there are two things. One is, you know, when I thought that I was pregnant, when I was very pro-choice, I didn't stop for a second to think, are there two people here? I thought, I am desperate. I am very worried that I'm not going to get to go to college. Everything is fading. All my hopes and dreams are going away. It was a terrible time to make a decision like that because I was afraid. By definition, it is a place of fear. That is where the obligation of the pro-life movement comes directly into focus, and it is where we are passionately involved in helping any woman in an unexpected pregnancy.

HOLLAND: I think that, for most activists, they mainly think that just a little bit of extra money or a little bit of extra support would be enough to, like, sort of make a pregnancy work. And so I think there's this - some acknowledgement that people need something. But the problem is the movement hasn't really pressed their legislators ever to do that. Like, even as they press their legislators to pass anti-abortion laws, they really haven't pressed their legislators to pass laws that allowed people who didn't have the same amount of wealth to support their families more. And a lot of these Republicans who are committed to anti-abortion ideology, you know, in deep red states, are also dedicated to small government.

The question is, is what we're going to see after Roe's overturned going to look like justice? There might be young people who've convinced themselves that abortion seekers writ large will be helped and they'll be better and they'll be happier and they'll be less traumatized. And is that what they're going to see in a post-Roe world?

ABDELFATAH: You know, when Roe is more or less overturned, how do you expect things will change for you and the clinic?

ROSENFELD: Well, I mean, we would have to shut down. I mean, there is no other options.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: Cristina Kim.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: Devin Katayama.

AMIRI TULLOCH, BYLINE: Amiri Tulloch.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to Casey Miner, Devin Katayama, Dan Boyce and Victor Yvellez for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Tamar Charney, Anya Grundmann, Tony Cavin and Sarah Mccammon.

ARABLOUEI: And to Oyez, the archive of the Supreme Court.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was mixed by Isaac Rodrigues. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: And before we go, NPR is doing its annual survey to better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts.

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ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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