the no-abortion zone

This semester, I am teaching an undergraduate course in social movements. We had an interesting discussion about the success of various movements. We got into the topic of pro-lifers, since we are reading Munson’s book on the topic.

Here’s what I said about the pro-life movement. The pro-life movement has not achieved its primary goal, which is to ban abortion outright. In the best case scenario for the movement, a reversal of Roe v. Wade would toss abortion back to the states. The major population centers of the country would still have legal abortion. Residents of many states where abortion may not be legal in a post-Roe legal environment might simply have to drive to a nearby state.

Since that discussion, I have changed my mind. The pro-life movement has had one important victory – the creation of the no-abortion zone. Basically, there’s a strip of land from Oklahoma to North Dakota where abortion is now unobtainable for most people. In sparsely populated Midwestern states, social pressure, state regulation, and the small population of doctors means that there is literally no one left to provide an legal abortion.

The LA Times article on March 5, 2012 illustrates the issue. Kansas is a state with almost no one qualified or willing to provide an abortion. The lone provider was shot by a pro-lifer a few years ago. A doctor was considering taking up the slack, but it became nearly impossible for her to do so – death threats, landlord problems, etc. No one else has volunteered. The pro-life movement has achieved a de facto victory in Kansas. By creating conditions that suppress the medical profession, they’ll likely achieve, or already have achieved, the same result in nearby states. A Supreme Court decision or state law is merely certifying what is happening on the ground.

For students of social movements, this is an interesting case of how movements can create a de facto victory. Public opinion and current law still support the option to have an abortion, but the movement has found a significant portion of the country where they can win by other means. Structurally, it seems that the movement needs a lot of support to make this happen, such as favorable party control of the legislature and low population density. But it can happen.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 13, 2012 at 12:02 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

10 Responses

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  1. Good to se a clear analysis of how this has come to pass. As I Tweeted just an hour before I read this post:

    Legislation proposals re Birth Control in US states = brutal, mysogynist and appallingly irresponsible when population is rising so rapidly.

    [It’s not ‘even’ ‘just’ a matter of basic human rights – though it is certainly that – It’s also a matter of sheer human use of resources in a world with so very many people, especially large-resource-consuming-people, in it. But how to shift the agenda? Now there’s a challenge….]


  2. The geography of health service availability is an interesting topic for org theorists in any case. There are several types of health services where geography will determine whether you survive with functional capacity, or wind up severely debilitated, or die (neuro stroke centers are a telling example). But, in the case of abortion, it is political power wielded by fundamentalist Christians, and not the lack of expensive health services, which withers health care options. And, it’s worse than you’d think. Even in Illinois, since we live in a rural area, abortion services are very limited–and so are other ob/gyn services (we have to drive 2 hours for an amnio!). First, people in rural areas (or underserved areas) get limited tests. When those tests come back, they may make informed decisions—but those shitty first screens (which are all you can get if you don’t have a research level hospital nearby) suck (a formal statistical term), and then you book an amnio for complete accuracy about what might be wrong with a fetus. In the end, people can be pressed up against a couple-week window for obtaining an abortion—or be forced to bear a severely disabled kid. Why? Because religious folk don’t want us to determine our own family choices, and health care providers are scared shitless to try to serve the people.



    March 13, 2012 at 1:57 am

  3. Will Saletan argues, I think convincingly, that the pro-life movement won a very important battle by pushing the pro-choice movement to frame abortion in narrowly libertarian terms instead of a more expansive vision of women’s rights.



    March 13, 2012 at 2:15 am

  4. I think it’s interesting to juxtapose the issues raised in this post with those raised in Prof. King’s most recent post on physician autonomy and authority. How come physician autonomy is not respected on abortions when it is respected in most all other cases in the Midwest? Does the fact that physicians in the Midwest have much less professional autonomy in the Midwest mean that their authority on other issues is not given as much weight as well?

    Perhaps the answer is obvious to everyone else because I’m dull, but it just occurred to me that it could have been possible for the physicians as a group to push back sufficiently against Pro-Lifers so that they wouldn’t have won the way they did in the Midwest.



    March 13, 2012 at 2:38 am

  5. This a good opportunity to plug my buddy Drew Halfmann’s book, Doctors and Demonstrators (Chicago). Perhaps worth a book forum discussion?



    March 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm

  6. @bob: If someone sends me a copy, I’d be happy to read it.

    @andy: Good question – where are the doctors? They fought tooth and nail in the 1990s over HMOs, but where are they in these other battles.



    March 13, 2012 at 5:29 pm

  7. For the most part, mainstream medical organizations stay out of the abortion fight because abortion has been organized out of mainstream medicine. The vast majority of ob-gyns do not perform abortions or do so only rarely. Instead, abortions are performed in single-purpose clinics by abortion specialists who are viewed with suspicion or pity by many of their mainstream colleagues. Even doctors who want to perform abortions are often prohibited from doing so by their group practices (who want to avoid controversy).

    Lori Freedman’s book is quite good on this.

    As for the success of the antiabortion movement, I think both Fabio’s earlier and later position are correct. The antiabortion movement has made some important gains, but these fall far short of its aspirations. It’s a good example of why it’s better to talk about social movement “impacts” than “successes” because the latter requires analysts to discuss impacts in the subjective terms of movement actors.

    @bob: thanks for the plug.
    @fabio: I’ll send you a book.


    Drew Halfmann

    March 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm

  8. The organization of abortion services at the periphery of medicine (and the controversy and stigma and everything else) tends to thwart individual physicians’ efforts to provide abortion in multiple ways.

    @ andy and fabio: I would also add the sticky problem that docs tend to avoid controversy (as Drew said). And the docs who are more activist on this topic often end up working for abortion clinics (in part because of the multiple barriers to integration of abortion into mainstream practice) and then tend to be discredited by mainstream because of that involvement.

    @drew: thanks for the book plug.


    Lori Freedman

    March 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm

  9. It seems to me the Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, barring abortion funding for the poor was a pretty significant success. It was due in part to previous success in framing the issue in libertarian terms (that Andy P. brings up). And it was also a key step in organizing abortion out of professional medicine (which Drew mentions). I suspect the whole face of the abortion debate would look much different without the Hyde Amendment first passing, and then becoming a routinized part of every annual appropriations bill.


    Z Munson

    March 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  10. It will be interesting to see what happens to the birthrate in this Oaklahoma – North Dakota strip.



    March 14, 2012 at 9:59 pm

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