The controversy surrounding William Barr’s confirmation as attorney general has mostly focused on his expansive views of executive power. But Barr’s views on social issues have also come center stage. After serving as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, Barr penned an essay calling on Catholics to fight abortion and to “restrain sexual immorality, obscenity, or euthanasia.”
For the most part, time seems to have passed Barr by. As marriage rates continue to decline, nonmarital cohabitation has spiked, especially among those over 50. In 2017, the number of Americans who saw divorce as morally acceptable hit an all-time high. Internet pornography is everywhere, and more than 40 percent of Americans find it morally acceptable.
Many of the cultural battles Barr has waged seem to be winding down, with one big exception. When Barr first became attorney general, many expected the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in a matter of years, or even months. The second time around, not much has changed.
Why have the abortion wars raged on as the left has gained the upper hand in other cultural skirmishes? The answer is complex. Thanks to their alliance with the GOP, abortion foes have sustained a steady siege on abortion rights. The contours of that alliance help explain why the abortion wars have continued to heat up — and why polarization on the issue only promises to get worse.
The union between the GOP and the pro-life movement began as a marriage of convenience. Through much of the 1970s, neither Democrats nor Republicans fully embraced abortion foes. But by 1980, the parties’ platforms on abortion had diverged considerably, and Ronald Reagan proudly proclaimed his support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Even though many abortion foes were registered Democrats, a relationship with the GOP promised political relevance and a path to passage of a constitutional amendment.
But by 1983, internal divisions and a lack of public support had doomed all of abortion foes’ constitutional proposals. The leaders of larger anti-abortion groups had fought for positions in the Republican National Committee and the Reagan White House, but it all seemed to be a waste. What was the value of a partnership with the GOP if the text of the Constitution would never change?
Rather than part ways, abortion foes and Republican leaders settled on a new justification for their political union: If a fetal-protective amendment was out of reach, the GOP could deliver a transformed Supreme Court. And a reconfigured court could undo Roe v. Wade.
Starting in the 1980s, therefore, both the GOP and pro-life groups set out to make control of the judiciary a core election issue. Republicans worked to unite a fractious group of voters with very different objections to various Supreme Court precedents. Voters angry about judicial opinions on guns, school prayer, the administrative state, affirmative action and abortion did not always have a lot in common. But the promise of controlling the courts could bring them together.
When Barr was attorney general previously, a preoccupation with the Supreme Court wove larger antiabortion groups ever more tightly into the fabric of the GOP. From official positions, leaders of the antiabortion movement often embraced electable candidates such as the formerly pro-choice George H.W. Bush rather than those with stronger pro-life credentials, because a winner would have a greater chance to change the composition of the court and ensure that Roe did not last forever.
They also broadened their cause in a way that aligned them even more closely with the GOP. For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, larger antiabortion groups such as the National Right to Life Committee immersed themselves in the war against campaign-finance regulations, viewing these laws as a barrier to GOP candidates and to control of the courts.
It is easy to think that this partnership has paid off for both abortion foes and the Republican Party. In 2016, Donald Trump alienated antiabortion voters because of comments made on the campaign trail and (in some cases) because of his positions on other issues. But because of the prospect of controlling the Supreme Court, many put those doubts aside. Fifty-six percent of those who listed the court as the most important issue voted for the GOP nominee, and an impressive 26 percent said that they voted for Trump only because of the court.
The bargain between the GOP and abortion foes offers a partial answer for why the abortion war rages on, even as other cultural battles have died out between Barr's stints as attorney general. In part, the abortion conflict remains intense because the GOP has worked closely with pro-lifers to guarantee it.
And yet, neither the antiabortion movement nor the GOP can claim complete credit for continuing polarization of the abortion conflict. Those on opposing sides still hold profoundly different views about the Constitution, and both see the issue as fundamental. In fact, in the years since Barr was last attorney general, disagreements between pro-choice and pro-life Americans have only multiplied as the two sides struggle to shape U.S. culture and law. In a quest to control the court, abortion foes have not only talked about a right to life but also made claims about the social, medical and psychological costs of ending a pregnancy.
And when dialogue turned to the costs and benefits of abortion, those on either side of the issue fought about what would be good or bad for the country. Everything from the welfare state to the meaning of maturity for teenagers to the future of health-care delivery has been sucked into the abortion wars.
An additional change has fueled this fight. Increasingly, pro-choice and pro-life Americans cannot reach a consensus on the basic facts about abortion. Republican distrust of the mainstream media — and the rapid spread of partisan sources of information on the left and the right — severely exacerbated this problem over the past quarter-century. Trump’s frequent complaints about fake news have only intensified the situation.
Now abortion foes sponsor laws based on claims about the harm done by abortion, including fetal-pain laws and prohibitions on specific procedures. This month, the 2019 March for Life, invoking these laws, stressed that pro-lifers have science on their side. Pro-choice Americans respond that pro-lifers indulge in junk science. The abortion wars not only pit the right to life against the right to choose. Since Barr’s last time in office, any common ground concerning the basic facts about abortion has vanished.
When he first became attorney general 27 years ago, abortion already stood out among the culture-war issues that Barr would write about several years later. In another two decades, we should not expect much to change. Common ground on abortion may be possible, but in the past several decades, it has been harder and harder to find.