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Abortion rights protests have been peaceful. Will that change?

Here’s what scholars know about when protesters are more likely to turn confrontational — or even violent.

- May 10, 2022

Outraged by the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion suggesting that Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned, elected Democrats from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, to scores in between have been denouncing the move. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters have gathered in front of the Supreme Court and courthouses across the country, angry that they might soon lose abortion rights. These protests so far have been peaceful, except for a few skirmishes between abortion rights and antiabortion activists. While a Wisconsin antiabortion lobbying office was vandalized and set on fire, that hasn’t been tied to abortion rights supporters.

Will those mostly peaceful protests become more turbulent? My research suggests that while we can expect street protests to increase over the next several months, pro-choice activism probably won’t turn violent … yet.

Here’s what you need to know:

Political losses can prompt protests and other political action

In my research on abortion, I’ve examined more than 30 years of abortion rights and antiabortion activism by analyzing archival materials, organizational newsletters and interviews I’ve conducted with 20 activists with Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Right to Life Committee and Concerned Women for America. I’ve consistently found that when governments impose new abortion restrictions, abortion rights supporters take to the streets.

For example, Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women and other reproductive rights groups organized massive rallies after Supreme Court decisions that allowed states to regulate abortion care and limit access, such as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Abortion rights supporters not only showed up in D.C. to protest the restrictions, but Planned Parenthood and NOW reported spikes in donations and volunteers after both decisions.

Journalists and scholars alike are trying to predict the effects of the coming decision — in the case of Dodd v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — on the midterm elections. But we don’t yet know definitively whether, when it’s finally issued, the decision will get abortion rights supporters to the polls in November.

Activists get more confrontational when they see few opportunities for institutional change

For the next several months, abortion rights supporters’ political actions should be legal and peaceful. When might that change?

Since the 1960s, social scientists have been investigating what conditions push people to protest. Here’s one key finding: When an aggrieved population believes it cannot make change through ordinary political or legal means, protests increase. For example, social scientists found that outrage over the 2008 bank bailout and an increasingly aggrieved sense among White residents that American values were threatened by people of color combined to spark the tea party movement. With both the White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, conservative tea partyers started protesting in Washington, in their House members’ home district meetings, and outside capitol buildings across the country.

Protest can get more confrontational when activists think that they haven’t seen enough political action. Some antiabortion groups, for example, began blocking clinics and attacking clinic personnel in the 1980s partly out of frustration with President Ronald Reagan, who had wooed antiabortion supporters while campaigning but, once in office, delivered few political victories for the cause.

Given what we know about protest, we might expect abortion rights activism to become increasingly confrontational if, for example, Republicans take control of Congress and the White House in the next two national elections. Without political allies, abortion rights supporters might use confrontational tactics, such as blockades, and violence to disrupt daily life and press politicians to make abortion available.

Why the risk for violence in the U.S. rises without Roe

Protests can get physical, and politicians are partly to blame

Protests can turn violent for several reasons. Sometimes activists holding opposing points of view confront one another directly and in anger. Sometimes a small group tries to cause trouble. But elected officials also influence how protests play out.

In a forthcoming paper, David Meyer and I analyzed primary data sources to help explain protests during the coronavirus pandemic. We found that two factors prompted protests against mask mandates in majority-Republican states in 2020. First were inconsistent government responses to the crisis from different layers of government, causing dissatisfaction among residents in more restrictive localities and states. Second was a president who said states should “liberate” citizens from coronavirus restrictions, which signaled to an aggrieved population that their president supported action against their state legislators. That led to violence in Michigan, when activists — whose outrage then-President Donald Trump had encouraged — tried to force their way into the legislative chamber.

Politicians can also prompt violence when they assign law enforcement or paramilitary units to crack down on protests they oppose. In that same year, Trump also sent Homeland Security officers to use force against protesters in Portland, Ore., after George Floyd’s death, escalating the situation into violence.

If abortion supporters’ protests grow, antiabortion governors might encourage law enforcement officers to use force to quash dissent — with violence particularly likely in states that passed anti-protest legislation after the Floyd protests.

What will Congress do on abortion, post-Roe?

What does this mean for abortion rights activism?

In the short term, pro-choice activists are likely to use protests and political pressure to push a Democratic Congress to protect access to abortion nationally. Such a bill seems unlikely to pass. We can also expect more skirmishes between opponents and supporters of legal abortion in the states, as they face off in state houses, courthouses and on the streets across the country.

The longer-term outlook for abortion rights activism is less clear. If Republicans take over Washington and move to ban abortion nationwide, abortion rights supporters’ tactics might become more confrontational than those used in the past — especially if the Supreme Court rolls back other civil rights as well. Decisions curtailing LGBTQ rights, for example, might unite the women’s rights and LGBTQ rights movements, which haven’t always played well together in the past. With linked fates, activists may envision new goals and ways to achieve them. And if they feel they have no legislative or legal options, they may find more confrontational — and violent — ways to press those claims.

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Deana A. Rohlinger (@DeanaRohlinger1) is a professor of sociology, director of research for the Institute of Politics at Florida State University and author of “Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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If the Supreme Court undermines Roe v. Wade, contraception could be banned

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