On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v. Wade decision upholding abortion as a constitutional right and invalidating laws in several states that banned it.
In an article in Church & State the following March, Americans United called the decision a "middle way" and endorsed language from a New York Times editorial that asserted that the decision "provides a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution of a debate that has divided America too long."
In hindsight, it's easy to see that The Times's editorial and AU's optimism were misplaced. Far from providing a definitive solution to the issue of abortion, Roe ushered in a reproductive-rights-based culture war that has been raging for the past 46 years. While issues of women's rights, health care and reproductive freedom have dominated the debate, the issue of separation of church and state has percolated just beneath the surface all along.
That's because opposition to Roe tends to be grounded in religion. As Americans United noted in its 1973 report about Roe, the decision was immediately attacked by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Church leaders relied on thinly veiled --or sometimes blatant--religious arguments in opposing legal abortion. That's been their mainstay ever since.
By contrast, most Protestant groups were initially supportive of Roe--even the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and evangelical denominations. W.A. Criswell, a former SBC president who was at the time the pastor of a prominent Southern Baptist church in Dallas, issued a statement supporting the high court's decision. Prominent Jewish groups did the same.
But it didn't take long for the religious dynamic over abortion to begin shifting dramatically. By the late 1970s, the Catholic hierarchy had new religious allies in its quest to roll back Roe as the nation saw the rise of the Religious Right, a movement composed primarily of fundamentalist Protestants. Within a few years, a resurgent fundamentalist movement had seized control of the SBC and flipped its position on abortion. At the same time, far-right religious factions grew in power in other Protestant denominations and pressured their leaders to step away from a pro-choice view.
Motivated chiefly by religious zeal, far-right activists and their political allies in Congress and state legislatures immediately began working to undermine Roe. Just three years after the decision, Congress struck the first blow, passing a law banning the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions for poor women. As former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse noted in a May 23 column, the debate over the Hyde Amendment was laced with religious references, and a lobbyist for the Catholic Church advised anti-abortion legislators.
Various anti-abortion measures have passed since then, both in Congress and in the states. Some have been struck down...