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Last month, a leaked draft opinion showed that the Supreme Court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that provided a right to abortion across the country. That decision is not yet final, but as special correspondent Cat Wise reports, the work by abortion-rights opponents to arrive at this moment has been decades in the making.
Last month, a leaked draft opinion show that the Supreme Court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that provided a right to abortion across the country. That decision is not yet final.
But, as special correspondent Cat Wise reports, the work by abortion rights opponents to arrive at this moment has been decades in the making.
James Bopp Jr., General Counsel, Right to Life: And then, of course, Vice President Cheney, President George W. Bush.
Known to presidents vice presidents and senators, James Bopp Jr. may be one of the most important conservative voices you have never heard of.
From a quiet office in Terre Haute, Indiana, population 60,000, the 74-year-old lawyer has had a hand in major conservative cases for years, including Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and the decades-long effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
James Bopp Jr.:
My philosophy has been from the very beginning I don't lose unless I give up.
Bopp grew up here, the son and grandson of doctors, and remembers borrowing his father's medical books while still in high school.
The one that fascinated me the most was the embryology textbook. You got to see the entire — all the stages of development, a lot of very interesting drawings and information, et cetera, about how that occurred.
And, of course, as now, there's no dispute, as far as biology is concerned, that the unborn is a human life from conception.
He came to strongly oppose abortion, just as his father did, and thought he too would end up in medicine. A college course in organic chemistry taught him otherwise. So he chose law.
And in January of 1973, during his third year in law school, he learned of the decision that would change his life.
Roe v. Wade had been handed down and they had found a constitutional right for abortion. And, of course, I was just shocked and devastated.
He knew he wanted to overturn Roe, but he didn't know how. So he began to study the highest court in the land and how it came to overturn previous precedents.
The Negro students encountered violence in their attempt to register at a previously all-white school.
He found a model in the civil rights movement, and specifically in the NAACP's efforts to overturn the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson. The result of that effort? The 1954 ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended decades of school segregation.
I studied up on how they did it. And I, of course, see this play out over and over again. When they overturn the precedent, it's almost invariably through a series of cases where they question, explain, distinguish, undermine, in other words, the precedent, until they're willing, because you can't make the Supreme Court do anything until they're willing to overturn the precedent, and then they do.
As general counsel for National Right to Life, he helped draft model state laws to restrict abortion and distribute them to lawmakers across the country.
Robert MacNeil, News Anchor:
By a vote of 7-2, the court agreed to oppose three of four restrictions on abortions in Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court, for the first time ever, has upheld a federal ban on a certain type of abortion.
Anne-Marie Green, News Anchor:
Justices heard oral arguments yesterday in the first major abortion case under the Trump administration.
Those laws sparked legal challenges. When those challenges came before the Supreme Court, they gave the court the chance to shift its legal reasoning on abortion, often resulting in more restrictions.
We always knew, of course, that, in every case that the Supreme Court took up where Roe v. Wade is being asked to be applied, that the validity, the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade is before the court.
And it's just a matter of continuing to present them cases until they're willing.
Just chipping away at it.
It is chip — keep chipping. Knocking on the door is also the way I call it.
Mary Ziegler, University of California, Davis: That was by design, right? That was the point. The anti-abortion movement was bringing these cases to create this instability, and then using the same instability that the movement had created as a sign that Roe needed to be reversed.
Mary Ziegler is a legal historian and the author of many books on abortion and the law, including the forthcoming "Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment."
She's also a professor at the University of California, Davis.
I think to compare what the anti-abortion movement was doing to what the NAACP did is to sort of not fully give the anti-abortion movement credit for the kind of full complexity of its strategy, because there came a time, I think, when the movement leaders, including Bopp, began to realize that it was not enough to have the perfect test cases.
It was not enough to have the best model legislation. You also needed to have the right people on the Supreme Court.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, President, Susan B. Anthony List:
Years ago, that idea that we would focus our energies and our strategy on a Supreme Court strategy was met with a lot of scoffing, because it just seems so hard.
Key to changing the Supreme Court were people like Marjorie Dannenfelser. She's head of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit founded in 1992 to limit and ultimately end abortion in the United States, primarily by electing politicians who will pass laws and appoint judges to do just that.
The strategy worked. I mean, it was very simple. You can write it out in three sentences, but very hard. It takes bringing people together that don't always agree to do something really important and high-impact that you don't have 100 percent chances of success.
For decades, her group has worked diligently to defeat abortion rights candidates, even if that meant opposing the Republican in the race.
So that then, in 2016, when we elected a president who would follow through on his promises to nominate only pro-life, Supreme Court nominees, that we would have a Senate to confirm those nominees. We didn't know that we were going to get three.
But getting three confirmations was the setup then for finding the right case to test Roe vs. Wade, and we're living with that now.
The stars really had to align, in some sense.
And a lot of little decisions that led to huge consequences. And I would say one, of course, was Leader McConnell deciding to hold up the Merrick Garland nominee and wait until the election to see what the Senate could sustain after the election.
And if that nomination had gone through, we wouldn't be sitting here right now and having this particular conversation.
There are going to be some constitutional concerns in places also like Michigan.
Dannenfelser isn't just waiting for Roe to be overturned. She is preparing, working on a state-by-state approach to further restrict abortion access.
Well, I'm working on right now a post-Roe model abortion law, just like we have done over the years.
Back in Terre Haute, James Bopp is helping in that effort, while also taking a moment to consider his legacy.
That's the culmination of a life's work. Personally, it'll be a great, wonderful step for America. All of our laws, like, for instance, racial discrimination or sex discrimination or the way we treat people with disabilities, is premised on the notion that every individual human life has inherent value, not relative value.
It is the fountainhead of what makes America great.
For legal historian Mary Ziegler, the potential overturning of Roe and all the changes to our political system and courts required to make that happen is monumental.
A post-Roe America is not just a post-Roe America when you think about what that means for abortion. It's what you think about what that means for a Supreme Court that's going to do lots of other things that are going to be explosive, what it means for a Republican Party that was transformed in part by the anti-abortion movement.
The world that was made by this quest or partially shaped by this quest to overturn Roe is one that people may not be comfortable with well beyond their views on abortion.
But for Bopp, Dannenfelser and the millions opposed to abortion in this country, a potential victory to be savored for years to come.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Terre Haute, Indiana.
And on the "NewsHour" online now, a look back at a 19th century doctor who pioneered some women's reproductive care, but also opposed abortion. You can read more about what Dr. Mary Jones' controversial legacy can and cannot teach us about the abortion debate today.
That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.
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