In this article, the pro-life movement in the United States will be discussed. Pro-life is anti-abortion and for (protecting) life. Pro-lifers see abortion as immoral as it kills the innocent life inside the womb. The focus will lie on how the movement operates, online and offline, and how pro-life has been gaining ground.
An introduction to Pro-Life in the United States
Every four years during the presidential debates before the US Elections, the issue of abortion is an important point of discussion and disagreement. It can be the reason someone votes Republican or Democratic. Republicans are conservatives and claim they support Christian values, which most pro-lifers find very important. The Republican party has been running anti-abortion campaigns for years trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. In the legal case Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state law banning abortions is unconstitutional which made abortions legal in most cases. Because being anti-abortion has become an important ‘diacritic’ of the Republican identity, the vast majority of pro-lifers vote Republican.
The Pro-Life movement in the United States has a deeply complex religious background that, inevitably, has formed pro-lifers’ attitudes on abortion. To gain an understanding of pro-lifers' relationship with religion, Christianity in particular, their shared beliefs and values will be discussed. After, the two sides of pro-life will be discussed: the moderate pro-life 'feminist' side and the extreme pro-life side. Former President Donald Trump will be taken as a starting point for the extreme side. He has become a powerful actor in the anti-abortion movement and gathered a lot of votes based on his stance on abortion. He has appointed three conservative Supreme Court judges as he promised during the 2016 Elections. Today, SCOTUS (The Supreme Court of the U.S.) has a 6-3 conservative majority, which has long-term consequences for the country, like the Texas abortion ban that went into effect in September.
Lastly, we will discuss how the pro-life movement operates, online as well as offline, using two big Right to Life organisations to illustrate this. Also, a TikTok will be taken as an example to demonstrate how pro-lifers express their views online while debunking arguments from the other side of the spectrum: pro-choice.
Pro-life’s shared beliefs and values
The pro-life movement, as the name gives away, wants to protect life. The general understanding that pro-lifers have is that life is a sacred thing and that unborns should be protected from abortion. However, this focus on life has not always been there. There have been significant ideological shifts in the hegemonical view on abortion across history. Especially after Roe v. Wade went into effect in 1973, the anti-abortion movement effectively adopted the name pro-life to reframe their position to gain more support.
Pro-life and pro-choice fundamentally have different views on abortion, and one explanation lies in religion. Today, Christianity is the most prominent religion in the US. Every new-elected president swears on the Bible. Around 65% of Americans reported in 2018 and 2019 to identify as Christian, either as protestant or Catholic (Pew Research Center, 2019). Generally speaking, Christians are pro-life and oppose abortion. However, Joe Biden identifies as a Catholic and gets called out for being a fake catholic by conservative Christians for defending abortion rights.
Many Christian values that pro-lifers have are deeply rooted in their interpretations of the Bible. Over the years, entextualization processes have occurred: continuously, elements of discourse borrowed from earlier moments of usage are used and reused. Original passages of the Bible could have gone lost in translation, but more notably, they get explicitly reused, altering the meaning. Biblical text can also be interpreted in more than one way: literally or more loosely. Abortion is not directly mentioned in the original testaments of the Bible, and so, quotes from the Bible can easily be borrowed and taken from their original context to be redeployed in a new argument.
For example, pro-life believes abortion deliberately kills and takes the innocent life inside a womb. The bible states that 'you shall not murder'. As demonstrated in this tweet (Figure 1), Christian pro-lifers interpret it literally as: ‘then, abortion is also murder' (Gant, 2022).
A central Christian value that pro-lifers share is the importance of a family, where having children and a big household is the Christian norm. The notion of the family is to them a sacred thing that strengthens the fabric of society. Over the years, women have started to have fewer children or no children at all, due to more effective and accessible anticonception and other values becoming more prominent, like pursuing a career. In a Christian household, however, the mother is usually the parent that cares for the child, and the father is traditionally the breadwinner. Pro-lifers consider themselves pro-family and consider having children as a source of meaning and purpose. (Meyrat, 2021).
However, religious motivations do not account for all pro-lifers’ set of beliefs and values. Many other arguments used against abortion refer back to the different interpretations of factual information. The discursive battle of pro-life versus pro-choice is a battle to hegemonise the meaning of abortion and is waged over the definition of words, the interpretation of facts and the understanding of their ideology (Maly, 2014).
Pro-lifers believe that in the first stage of pregnancy, from conception on, the fetus is already considered ‘a baby’, and, therefore, is an innocent living human that should be protected. Additionally, they think the embryo having a heartbeat is way more important than respiration, as opposed to pro-choice (Luker, 2013). Both groups have a different understanding of fundamental rights. While pro-choicers see bodily autonomy as a basic right, pro-life see living and existing as a fundamental right, as all lives matter (Piper, 2020). Therefore, pro-life believes every unborn child should be protected.
Pro-life websites and organisations take official statistics of yearly abortions and reinterpret them. They conclude from these numbers that abortion is the leading cause of death each year (see Figure 2). Such a different framing of ‘facts’ causes pro-lifers to think widely different from pro-choicers. Pro-choice mostly focuses on numbers about deaths from unsafe, improvised abortions.
So, pro-lifers thus share more or less the same beliefs and values. They are rooted in the interpretations of the Bible and the assessment of facts. Nevertheless, the degree to which they fight abortion rights varies. In the following segments, the two sides of pro-life will be discussed, the first one forming the moderate side whose 'feminist' pro-lifers fight for both the unborn and the mother.
Pro-life 'feminists' as the moderate side
The moderate side of pro-life thinks from a self-proclaimed feministic stance and can be considered pro-family. This group consists of 'feminist' pro-lifers who see pro-life as pro-woman. They do not directly fight Roe v. Wade nor want to punish women for having an abortion. They have set up organisations to advocate for other solutions than abortion and better circumstances so that women can keep their babies.
Human Coalition is such an organisation with 29,3 thousand followers on Instagram. These pro-lifers see themselves as change agents and want to rescue both the woman and the baby. Human Coalition's website states: “It’s not simply because we are against abortion but because we are for life. We are for preborn babies who need to be protected in the womb; for women who should not have to choose the life of their baby for a fulfilling life”.
In Figure 3, one Instagram post of Human Coalition is shown with a quote claiming that real feminism is about telling a woman that she can achieve her dreams and parent a child. This post indicates that the organisation puts a lot of emphasis on the label ‘feminism’ and made it a central point to oppose abortion: women are powerful enough to keep and raise their babies. The caption of the post is also important, highlighting the value of acting in the best interest of the woman by empowering the mother with resources, preventing her from aborting her baby; an irreversible decision.
FeministsForLife (FFL), a similar organisation, was founded in 1972. These 'feminists' claim that the pro-life movement would be the true female empowerment movement. Abortion would reflect that we, as a society, have failed to meet the needs of women and that they deserve better. Their website states: “Abortion masks, rather than solves, the problems women face”. Abortion would be unnecessary if the woman’s circumstances improved. FFL emphasises other solutions like adoption and the importance of financial aid and emotional support so that women would not have to choose between education or work so that they can still raise a child.
Moderate pro-life’s emphasis on being ‘feminist’ is a central part of their discursive battle for meaning
FFL argues that their American intellectual grandmothers like Susan B. Anthony saw abortion as an affront to women's rights and FFL cites their testimonies (Rose, 2011). FFL believes Roe v. Wade’s 1973 law was a disastrous decision as it would be degrading and anti-woman. This is interesting since pro-choice supporters see the attempts in overturning Roe v. Wade as anti-woman. President Serrin Foster believes abortion is discrimination which would be the opposite of what feminism is about.
Moderate pro-life’s emphasis on being ‘feminist’ is a central part of their discursive battle for meaning. What we see here is moderate pro-life's appropriation of the label feminism in the pro-life battle. It is their redefinition of what it means to be a feminist and, thus, what feminism is.
Some history is important to conclude here. Being a feminist normally entails fighting for womxn’s rights. Over the years, the political left, but also liberalists who prioritise freedom and one’s autonomy, have taken action to make sure women get the same rights as men. According to pro-choice, this includes womxn’s right to bodily autonomy (link). The two discussed pro-life organisations label themselves as feminists but they do not consider the woman to be more important than the child. Moderate pro-life’s take on feminism, especially that of FFL’s, is a result of intertextuality. By partially adopting standpoints from early 'feminists’, FFL can produce legitimate entextualisations (Blommaert, 2005). The claim of being pro-woman can be seen as a frame extension in the anti-abortion movement (Rose, 2011).
Donald Trump as the voice and mobilizer of radical pro-life
Some pro-lifers think seeking abortion should be possible in some circumstances but are in favour of restricting abortion for other situations like getting pregnant accidentally. It could be argued that these people fall in between extreme and moderate. Donald Trump is one of them. He thinks of himself as a pro-lifer but with three exceptions: rape, incest, and when there is proof of danger to the mother's life. He says it also depends on how far along the mother is; he is strongly against late-term abortions (ABC News, 2016).
Trump has become a powerful actor in the anti-abortion movement who has helped mobilize, energize and amplify the pro-life movement
Most pro-lifers are republicans that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Even though Trump carefully constructed his message and discourse on abortion during the 2016 campaign, he acknowledged multiple times that he is a pro-lifer. In 2016, he made abortion a primal issue in his campaign to get as many Christian votes as possible. This worked: he won around 80% of the white Evangelical votes. During his presidency of just one term, Trump installed hundreds of federal judges plus 3 US supreme court justices as he pledged to do before being elected. He also heavily defunded Planned Parenthood (BBC, 2020). During the 2020 elections, Trump promised again to continue to fight abortion. Even though he did not get re-elected, he remains an important voice of the (extreme and radical) right and organises rallies where Trump supporters come together. To facilitate and strengthen his relationship with his followers online, he recently launched his own social media platform called ‘TRUTH social’ after he got banned from Facebook and Twitter.
Trump has become a powerful actor in the anti-abortion movement who has helped mobilize, energize and amplify the pro-life movement. Today, SCOTUS has a 6-3 conservative majority thanks to Trumps’ three designated Supreme judges who will serve until they retire or die. Because of this, the anti-abortion movement is winning ground. The Texas Heartbeat Bill was not blocked because of the 6-3 conservative majority. Likewise, in other states like Mississippi and Arizona, abortion bans in the early stages of pregnancy are around the corner. As a Christian himself, Trump represents the extreme side of pro-life which will be discussed in the next segment.
Extreme pro-life: conservative Christianity
Radical pro-lifers, part of the extreme side, believe that abortion is always murder with no exceptions allowed. The tweet below is emblematic of Pro-Life's radical view (Figure 4). Lila Rose is an American anti-abortion activist who considers an embryo already a child that gets killed by abortion and believes that this can never be justified.
The vast majority of radical pro-lifers have religious motivations to oppose abortion and go very far in that, especially the fundamentally religious ones. The group of right-wing conservative Christians practice their faith actively. They follow the bible as they believe they have a personal relationship with God and are called upon to spread his message. As mentioned before, the Biblical passages conservative Christians use are translations and the product of entextualisation processes. According to them, the Bible would state that God, the source of life, created all life and knows its creations even before conception and has assigned each one a purpose. Children are a gift from God and all life would begin at and even before conception. It is seen as a sin against God to take innocent life away (Active Christianity, 2018). People seeking abortions are, hence, seen as murderers.
It can be argued that religious pro-lifers share a certain group identity, in which there are cognitively framed phenomena to be found at the inter-subjective level of the community. Social actors in the group organise the structure and distribution of knowledge and ideas about, as well as perceptions and impressions of social phenomena, like abortion. Religion is for them still an identity-constituting parameter on which they navigate the world and base their morality and culture (Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998).
The anti-abortion movement: Pro-Life online and offline
Radical pro-lifers are very active on a local scale where they directly confront people and staff going inside abortion providers. According to The National Abortion Federation, violence against abortion clinics was at an all-time high in 2018, with 1,369 reported violent acts (Smith, 2019).
In 2021, even a global pandemic did not withhold radical pro-life supporters from protesting. Not exactly surprising because less than half of white evangelicals reported being willing to get vaccinated. The most conservative right-wing Christians seem to be leading the anti-vax movement (Coren, 2021). In Figure 5, such a pro-life protest is shown, where pro-lifers block the entrance of a women’s surgical center in Louisville, Kentucky. They carry signs with extreme slogans like “Abortion is murder” and religion-laden slogans like “Forgiveness can be found in Jesus Christ alone”. There are clinic escorts to accompany patients inside. Pro-lifers scream and preach at the people going in.
Not every radical pro-lifer will directly harass people seeking an abortion. On a more national and even transnational level, the pro-life movement, or as the major organisations call it the Right To Life movement, is active both online and offline to mobilise pro-life. The pro-choice movement has the nationwide Women’s March as their biggest nationwide pro-choice event. Pro-life cannot compete with that, but with the March For Life, pro-life also achieves a big turnout forming a strong front of voices advocating against abortion.
The March For Life collaborates with more local pro-life organisations and organise marches in multiple cities in the US and even outside of the country marches For Life take place. In January each year, America's biggest pro-life event takes place in Washington D.C on Capitol Hill. Thousands of pro-lifers of all ages attend the march and rally each year to celebrate life from the moment of conception. Whole families march along, as can be seen in Figure 6. The organisation has 115k followers on Twitter and actively promotes the event and post footage of the turnout, using the hashtag #whywemarch.
Figure 7, shows a video compilation of the turnout of the 2020 edition in January 2020, where pro-lifers shared their presence at the event using the hashtag #whywemarch.
Relatedly, Donald Trump delivered a speech at the 2020's edition of March For Life at the rally, which was live-streamed. He is the first president to ever personally attend this protest in Washington against Roe v. Wade. In his speech, he spoke to the pro-lifers and thanked them for the big turnout of thousands of people. He mentioned his Christian values to express his shared aversion to abortion: “It’s your generation that is making America the pro-family and pro-life nation” (Minute 3.54-4.01). “All of us here understand an eternal truth that every child is a precious and sacred gift from God” (Minute 5.37-5.45). This supports the claim that Christianity is embedded in pro-life’s ideology.
The biggest anti-abortion transnational organisation, Live Action, was founded by anti-abortion activist Lila Rose and claims to have more than 5 million supporters globally. The organisation has educational purposes but was founded for pro-lifers to take action and make a difference. They do undercover operations at Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics trying to expose abortion procedures and their ‘wrongdoings’. They also report pro-life news like Marches For Life not only in the US but also report on March for Life protests in other countries. Their Twitter account has more than 140k followers.
Live Action is very active on social media and has ambassadors that are on social media making pro-life content. Even on pro-choice-dominated online network sites like TikTok, pro-lifers make videos spreading pro-life’s ideology.
The pro-life advocate who made the TikTok above (Figure 8) is an ambassador for Live Action and provides different arguments for her pro-life position, while also trying to debunk arguments of pro-choice. She uses hashtags like #republican, #prolifetiktok, and #abortionismurder to target a pro-life audience but also uses #fyp to reach a wider range of users. This worked, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers saw the video which received 287.000 likes. She seems to perform a type of activism called algorithmic activism, as discussed by Maly (2019), where she contributes to spreading the pro-life message by interacting with the post to trigger the algorithms of the platform so that they boost the popularity rankings. She seems to support the message of her post that pro-lifers interact with and is aware of the algorithmic construction of the medium the post is part of (Maly, 2019a). She thus seems to understand how interaction, according to the popularity principle, generates visibility (Maly, 2019b).
As she is a Christian (her bio says: JLY= Jesus Loves You), it is not surprising that most of these arguments circle back to Christian and Republican values. She explicitly calls a fetus already a baby which refers to how pro-life interpret facts differently from pro-choice. She starts with a pro-choice argument: “if you don’t like abortions don’t get one” and tries to disprove this argument by comparing it to guns: “If you don’t like guns, just don’t get a gun", indicating she is pro-gun, a Republican value.
The other arguments she makes in her video are listed below:
- She says that abortion steals the most innocent form of life, referring to another argument that dependency does not determine humanity and worth (figure 8).
- She directly addresses pro-choicers in her video: "Don't say you fight for human rights if you don’t fight for it at the very beginning”. Doing this, she attempts to criticise pro-choice for not caring about life from conception onwards.
- “If you don’t want to get pregnant: don’t have sex in the first place”. This argument is likely descended from the Christian value to oppose premarital sex. While Christians wait till marriage, some pro-lifers criticise and blame women for not waiting and sometimes getting pregnant accidentally.
She ends the video with: “the right for life triumphs bodily autonomy”, proclaiming that her pro-life position is superior to a pro-choice stance. She received praise, critique, and sarcastic remarks in the comment section. It illustrates that on a platform like TikTok, pro-life and pro-choice clash just like they do offline.
Perspectives on the Pro-Life movement
It can be argued that due to processes of entextualisation, Christian values remain a great motivator for pro-life to oppose abortion rights. Even though pro-lifers share a lot of the same beliefs and values, not every pro-lifer is as active in practicing their Christian faith and pro-life organisations and individuals fight against pro-choice and abortion rights in different ways. However, as long as Roe v. Wade is in effect and people have abortions, the pro-life movement will continue the same battle to overturn the law allowing people to have abortions. 'The right to life’ and 'saving the unborn' will stay more important for pro-lifers than bodily autonomy. Organisations like March For Life and Live Action form a strong front of online and offline mobilisers of the Right to Life movement.
Trump played a significant role in giving power to the movement. The effects of Trump’s powerful move to appoint three conservative SCOTUS judges are long-term and dramatic for the pro-choice movement. Pro-life has been gaining significant ground considering the many restrictions of abortion the country suffered in recent years. Nevertheless, neither side will give up and pro-choice fights back just as much. The topic of abortion will most likely remain people’s urgent reason to vote and protest for the unforeseeable future.
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