As Roe’s fortieth anniversary approaches, scholars have offered new perspectives on the efficacy of pro-life incrementalism. As framed by the movement, incrementalism involves a focus on small victories—legislation restricting but not banning abortion. Incrementalists themselves claim to be making significant headway, pointing to the proliferation of restrictions on abortion in the states, several of which the Supreme Court has upheld. By contrast, in a forthcoming piece, by contrast, Caitlin Borgmann argues that incrementalism has failed to deliver on its promise to change hearts and minds.
Whether incrementalism is succeeding, of course, depends on what its proponents have set out to achieve. In my current project, I explore the roots and rise of antiabortion incrementalism as an overarching strategy in the 1970s. Early incremental efforts came primarily in the courts, as organizations like Americans United for Life argued that new restrictions on abortion did not violate the right set out in Roe. In the late 1970s, activists like James Bopp, Jr. and Sandra Faucher saw great potential in an incremental approach. Bopp, a Catholic attorney from Indiana, told me about his instinctual aversion to abortion as an overarching philosophy for the movement. Faucher, a liberal Democrat from Maine, described her natural discomfort with Phyllis Schlafly. In spite of their differences, the two played an important part in making incrementalism a philosophy, a strategy, and a battle cry. Small victories could energize a movement disillusioned by the continuing failure of the human life amendment and could dramatically limit access to abortion. As importantly, incrementalism could make Roe hollow and incoherent—protecting an abortion right that guaranteed little access to abortion. Between 1973 and 1983, the antiabortion movement had worked to create a right to live that would reach beyond the abortion context. Incrementalism defined a much more modest goal—the overruling of Roe.
Measuring the efficacy of incrementalism is a delicate business, for even in the 1970s, proponents disagreed about what the incrementalist project entailed. Incrementalists adopted different substantive aims and rhetorical strategies. Even as an overarching strategy, incrementalism sent conflicting messages. Its proponents often adopted the rhetoric of new movement allies in the Religious Right and New Right while urging movement members to focus primarily on compromise solutions that would limit abortion without banning it entirely. The complexity of incrementalism points out some of the challenges in measuring whether there was indeed a backlash to Roe and whether reaction to the decision was particularly costly to the abortion-rights movement. Those incrementalists from whom I took oral histories never tired of reminding me of how they defied easy categorization, and they were right.