Two Journalists Investigated the Decade-Long Campaign to Criminalize Abortion. Here’s What They Found Out.

A new book takes a deep dive into the right-wing Christian campaign that overturned Roe v Wade. Ahead of this year’s presidential election, its authors uncover an America that is as divided on the issue as ever.

Two Journalists Investigated the Decade-Long Campaign to Criminalize Abortion. Here’s What They Found Out.
The journalists Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer. Illustration by Natalie Newsome.

Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer were on opposite coasts of the U.S. at the time that Roe vs. Wade—the landmark 1973 case that guaranteed the federal constitutional right to an abortion—was overturned.

It was a moment that sent shockwaves across the U.S. and for Dias, a reporter covering religion and politics at The New York Times, and Lerer, a national political correspondent, also at The New York Times, it very much felt like their moment. 

“It deserved a really serious journalistic treatment, looking at the facts about how this happened,” Lerer said. After all, five decades of abortion rights were coming to an end, thanks to a campaign that had been meticulously laid, brick by brick, by religious lawyers, anti-choice activists and conservative politicians.

The result of that treatment is their book The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America, a painstakingly detailed insider account which focuses on the decade leading up to Roe’s collapse in June 2022. Dias and Lerer interviewed more than 350 people—from the pro-life activists who secretly coached Republican politicians on their rhetoric, to the lawyer defending the young illegal immigrant whose fight to get an abortion made her a pawn in a much larger battle.

The book couldn’t come at a more important time: As the U.S. presidential election approaches, abortion is increasingly becoming an albatross for Donald Trump. A recent Gallup poll indicated that a record high number of voters—32 percent—will only elect a candidate who shares their views on abortion. It puts Trump in the tricky position of now walking a very fine line on the issue.  

We asked Dias and Lerer how the fall of Roe will affect November’s election—and what the future looks like for those fighting to restore universal abortion in the U.S.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

It’s been nearly two years since Roe fell. Why publish this book now? 

Lerer: We wanted to show that this didn't just happen: There was a long-term political and legal strategy that got the country to this point, but people weren't paying attention. 

But there’s more to it: Whenever we start talking about this book in our real life—the moms I know from school or camp or whatever—everyone immediately starts telling me about their IVF, their miscarriages, their pregnancy story. Because this issue connects in a way that is just so deep.

For most of the Roe era, nobody really asked: “What does pro-life mean? What does pro-choice mean?”

Dias: The personal has become political, and the country is now having conversations that, two years ago, were unimaginable. 

You point out that Republican voters were historically a lot more likely than Democrats to list abortion as important. Will that still be the case in the U.S. election in November?

Dias: That was the case—it worked to the advantage of the anti-abortion movement for years and years. But since Roe fell, we've seen it completely flip.

That's because abortion symbolizes this much larger set of values and priorities; it gets into what it means to be a woman and questions of morality, religion, race and identity. When Roe fell, it was an awakening.

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Lerer: For most of the 50-year history of Roe, abortion was more motivating for those who opposed it than those who supported it, which makes total sense—because if you're against something, you'll feel more passionate about it than if you're just supportive of the status quo. 

After Roe fell, that switched immediately. Abortion has been a motivator for voters in both of the most recent elections. 

You write about Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a law firm which you characterize in the book as this faceless legal organization behind the Christian right. ADF played a significant role in getting Roe reversed, but before it was arguing against abortion, it was arguing against trans rights. How are these connected?

Dias: For the coalition of conservative Christians behind the changes, it's part of an effort to roll back the suite of changes that the sexual revolution ushered in. They're trying to Make America Great Again, right?

That ends up elevating a conservative Christian idea of family, marriage, and how parents and children should function, so they are intertwined. 

Your book gives us a sense of how many women were pivotal to the downfall of Roe. How did you feel writing about them?

Dias: It was important to document the role that conservative women played. There has been a lot of attention to the role of men in the religious right historically, but some key players at the center of this are women.

The anti-abortion movement has leveraged that as a strategy—having lawmakers who were women in statehouses to be the faces of bills and talk about them publicly. It was very effective: It's much harder for the left to make an argument that the right are anti-woman that way. 

We felt strongly that understanding the personal stories of these women was instructive to knowing who they are and why they were doing what they were doing. You can't get the full scope of the issues at stake without getting that human element. 

What we found was that stories of pregnancy and abortion and child rearing, in some cases rearing children with disabilities, was central to their actions.

Overturning Roe now feels like a liability for Republicans. Will it have an effect on the number of people who vote for Trump?

Dias: It was enormously unpopular. I don't know that anyone was prepared for the overwhelming backlash; neither main side here had a plan for that. 

It has made it difficult for the anti-abortion movement to figure out what its next steps are because they've benefited from a belief from everyday Americans that they just would never succeed. But now that spell of denial is gone.

Take Donald Trump. He used to openly brag about being the most pro-life president ever. And now he does not want to touch the issue because it’s so unpopular.

Lerer: For most of the Roe era, nobody really asked: “What does pro-life mean? What does pro-choice mean?” There was no granular detail, like, “If a woman is bleeding out from a miscarriage, how sick do they need to be to be covered by a medical exemption?”

Now these politicians find themselves confronting questions about abortion medication versus surgical medication, and which should be allowed. It's not just a question of [how many] weeks, it's these questions that really ground the issue and the lived reality of it, which hadn't happened previously. 

Take Donald Trump. He used to openly brag about being the most pro-life president ever. And now he does not want to touch the issue because it’s so unpopular.

And Trump, when he's asked those questions, tends not to quite know where he wants to end up. 

What could reinstating universal abortion rights in the U.S. look like?

Dias: It's going to be really hard. Right now, each state makes its own laws; there's not a blanket right any more. 

The anti-abortion movement successfully figured out how to pull the levers of power to create the cultural outcome that they wanted, and they built a lot of infrastructure and institutional power to be able to do that. It took them generations to build that, it was a long game. 

It's a time of flux here. But we do know that the Roe era is over. 

Lerer: Biden is going out on the campaign trail and promising to enshrine abortion rights into federal law

He needs 60 votes to do that in the Senate. Currently, it's pretty unlikely that he will get that kind of a margin. So what's happening now is a state-by-state fight for abortion rights. That's what we'll see in this election: referendums to enshrine and protect abortion rights through state constitutions. We could see as many as a dozen state referendums on the ballot in November. 

There's certainly a piece of the anti-abortion movement that saw Roe as the beginning, not the end of their fight, so they're pushing for a lot of other things such as banning medication abortion, which accounts for 60 percent of all abortions in the country; there are some people who would like to restrict access to IVF and restrict access to some forms of contraception.

It can be easy to dismiss these efforts because they are not shared by mainstream Republicans or even by a broad swath of the anti-abortion movement. But I think our book shows how those views can become the mainstream. That’s why, if you want to understand this moment in America—American politics, American religion, American culture—you really have to understand how we got to this point over the past 10 years.

The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America by Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer is published by Flatiron Books and is out now

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