On Thursday, the state of Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade. “Roe and Casey are egregiously wrong,” the state said in a brief submitted to the Court. “The conclusion that abortion is a constitutional right has no basis in text, structure, history, or tradition.”
Mississippi was laying out its arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that presents the best opportunity since Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) to unravel America’s abortion regime. Mississippi attorney general Lynn Fitch could have stopped short of asking for the reversal of Roe. But she did what was right.
For many years, opponents of abortion have enjoyed modest but real successes through a strategy of “incrementalism.” Instead of seeking to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the unborn (as the movement did without success in its early years), it has sought marginal restrictions on abortion that save a real but limited number of lives.
In many cases, incremental approaches have been the best available means to save the unborn. Unfortunately, some have come to favor them not out of concern for unborn life, but out of fear that bolder action might harm the political fortunes of the Republican Party.
For those who really are committed to upholding the rights of the unborn, however, Dobbs v. Jackson shows the limits of the incremental strategy. As Sherif Girgis has argued, anything less than a reversal of Roe will lead to a new entrenchment of legal abortion, rather than its gradual erosion.
Even in the coldest political terms, it is far from clear that incremental action is always truly expedient. Any diminishment of the abortion right, however marginal, will be held up as a sign that America is becoming a new Gilead, complete with hoods and red cloaks. When every move is treated as tantamount to a reversal of Roe, the political calculation is clear. It will be easier by far to reverse Roe once than to reverse it a hundred times.
As a moral and legal matter, the Court should overturn Roe. But powerful considerations may stand in its way. The justices of the Supreme Court are by any measure members of America’s ruling class. Whatever their background, they have acquired advanced degrees from the nation’s leading schools, and now belong to what may be the nation’s most exclusive club. They move in a world where educational attainment and professional success are highly valued.
All of this tends to place them on one side of the abortion divide. For on abortion, as on other issues, our culture war is a class war. As the New York Times recently noted, there is only a five-point gender gap on abortion (smaller than on several other contentious issues) but there is a 20-point class gap. Forty-seven percent of Americans with a high school education or less think that abortion should be illegal. Only 27 percent of those with a postgraduate degree agree.
America’s dominant class valorizes educational credentials and professional advancement, even at the costs of goods such as closeness to friends or family. Abortion is a powerful symbol of this class’s willingness to sacrifice whatever stands in the way of career.
It should not be surprising, then, that the rights of the most vulnerable are now being defended by the state of Mississippi. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, with a median household income less than half that of Washington, D.C. By some measures it is also the least educated. Mississippi is about as far as one can get from the centers of wealth and power in America. Neighboring Alabama is home to one Fortune 500 company, while Louisiana claims two and Arkansas five. Mississippi has none.
The abortion battle is not only a culture war. It is also a class war. In order to realize their aims, abortion opponents must take this fact to heart. To the extent that our country remains dominated by the professional class, the rights of the unborn are likely to be ignored.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.