New Book Traces the Religious Right’s Decades-Long Campaign to End Roe

On a Thursday two years ago today, at exactly 10:10 in the morning, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs, the landmark case overruling Roe v. Wade and ending the federal right to abortion. The decision was not necessarily a surprise — almost two months earlier, a leaked draft of the ruling was published by Politico — so much as a confirmation of abortion rights supporters’ worst fears.

The real surprise, as New York Times reporters Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer write in their new book The Fall of Roe, was the date of its release. Almost everyone was caught off guard — from the White House counsel, to Julie Rikelman, the Center for Reproductive Rights lawyer who argued the case, to House Democrats, who’d chosen that inopportune moment to gather on the Capitol steps and sing “God Bless America” in celebration of the passage of an unrelated piece of legislation.

Most had assumed the decision would come out, as most major rulings do, in the last week of the court’s term, but it landed a week early, puzzling observers. Catholic Americans, however, found a special reason to celebrate not just the decision itself, but the fact that it arrived on June 24, a date that, in 2022, coincided with one of the holiest days on the Church’s calendar: the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

And for Leonard Leo — the Catholic architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority — that particular holiday holds additional significance. The Leos, and many of their powerful friends, associate Leo’s daughter Margaret, who died from complications of spina bifida at age 14 in 2007, with the sacred heart. A portrait of Margaret, whom Leo credits with deepening his commitment to the anti-abortion cause, hangs on the wall in the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., which also hands out prayer cards emblazoned with her image. According to a book written by the conservative activist Austin Ruse, for some believers, the sacred heart has become a symbol that Leo’s late daughter has interceded on their behalf.

There is a strong suggestion that delivering the Dobbs decision on this particular day would have represented something of a gift to Leo, if the timing was intentional — though Dias and Lerer never say outright that it was. When they ask Leo himself, he demurs. “It wouldn’t have been Sam’s, Clarence’s decision anyway,” Leo tells the reporters, referring to Justices Alito and Thomas, with whom he has close, personal relationships. (Thomas reportedly keeps a drawing by Margaret Leo, whom he apparently called his “best friend,” on his desk.) Leo went on to say that Chief Justice John Roberts “would have decided the order of decisions that would come out that day. And I don’t think he… well, I don’t know. Maybe he knew it was the Feast of the Sacred Heart.”

Who decided that millions of American women would lose access to the full suite of reproductive health care — and at that particular time? Was it a political partisan on the Court who chose that day with a wink and nod to his benefactor? Was it God himself? Was it just a weird coincidence?

For Dias, who has reported on religion for 15 years, in the space between those possibilities lies the fundamental tension at the heart of American politics today: “There is a set of people who look at this [decision] and say, What a miracle! God was with us all along in this fight, this was a spiritual fight, and there was divine intervention and we won. And then there’s a majority of Americans who look at this and say: This is an unbelievable example of earthly might. Look at the strategy. Look what the right did here to make this happen. They each represent two very different visions for where the country is going to go.”

The Fall of Roe is a rich narrative that begins the moment the Dobbs decision came down, then tracks backwards, guiding readers through the hotel ballrooms, law office conference rooms, and political chambers where each pivotal moment and critical misstep took place in the decade preceding the momentous decision. The book is stuffed with interviews with activists — the authors spoke with more than 350 of them over the two years they spent reporting — on both sides of that fight.

On the right, that group includes not just Leo, but Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. One of, if not the single most influential anti-abortion activist in the country, Dannenfelser, Dias and Lerer write, actually grew up pro-choice, and resolved to get an abortion herself rather than have her education and career derailed during a pregnancy scare at the start of her freshman year in college. (She was not actually pregnant, it turned out.) It was a Catholic boyfriend who, a few years later, changed her mind on the issue, and introduced her to the philosophy that would underpin her life’s work.

On the left, it’s people like Cecile Richards, the long-time president of Planned Parenthood, and Hillary Clinton, whose 2016 loss to Donald Trump represented one of the pivot points that hastened Roe’s demise. The story of the Roe era, Dias says, “is really a story of conservative Christianity versus liberal feminism … and you can see that through Clinton’s story.”

But, rather than pinpoint the 2016 election as the “what if” moment that could have changed the course of history, the book makes the more complicated case that there was a small, powerful network of activists and lawyers determined to end Roe and, for a number of reasons — including because of mistakes made by supporters of abortion rights — they likely would have succeeded eventually, whether or not Clinton was in office.

“The fight would have absolutely continued,” Dias says. “It may have looked very different had Trump lost … [But] one of the main lessons about the anti-abortion movement — and it is a conservative Christian movement — is that it’s a generational fight for them … They see this as the biggest moral battle of the modern age, they’re deeply devoted to that conviction that, at its heart, it’s a spiritual battle that operates on an eternal timescale. It’s not operating on election cycles.”

There is an unsettling refrain, vocalized by activists on both sides of the abortion fight, throughout the book: the powerful, ultra-religious individuals who helped engineer the fall of Roe are just getting started. But that cuts both ways, Dias notes. “This is the very beginning for Democrats, abortion rights activists figuring out new ways to win — and in some ways, they have. Their ballot initiatives have been enormously successful.”

Dias says she has been shocked by how quickly the landscape has changed since Dobbs was decided. The book opens on June 24, 2022, at a crisis pregnancy center in Ohio, the moment that state’s trigger law banning abortion at six weeks went into effect. Two years later, the right to an abortion, up to 22 weeks, is now enshrined in the state’s constitution. “It’s a very different place,” Dias says. “And a lot of that has been the work of new activism for Democrats.”

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone