Perhaps no Supreme Court case has so fundamentally changed the course of women’s lives in the United States as Roe v. Wade. Frances Hogan was no exception.
A devout Catholic, Hogan, 73, started volunteering for antiabortion causes in 1968 when she was a student at Boston College Law School. But she didn’t become a full-fledged activist until the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 1973, affirming women’s access to abortion as a constitutional right.
Hogan was shocked, incredulous even. Then she remembered something her father had said years before, during a childhood vacation to Washington, D.C.
They were standing in the well of the Supreme Court sometime in the aftermath of another historic ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 struck down racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. Her father, an attorney, told her: “ ‘This is the last bastion for people who have no one to speak for them. You can always depend on the Supreme Court. Look what they’ve done here,’ ” Hogan recalled.
“So when the decision came down in ’73, from my perspective,” she continued, “the unborn had no one to speak for them.”
A Boston real estate lawyer, Hogan has since dedicated much of her life to that cause, toiling on the front lines of the antiabortion movement in left-leaning Massachusetts.
Now, as lawmakers across the South and Midwest pass sweeping abortion restrictions and new conservative voices are confirmed to the Supreme Court, the battle over abortion rights may be reaching an inflection point, with both sides bracing for a judicial showdown that could topple Roe v. Wade. It’s a possibility that leaves antiabortion activists like Hogan as hopeful as they are skeptical.
“I’d like to be hopeful, but I have my doubts,” said Hogan. “But it isn’t my job to win this, it’s my job to try. I want to be able to say I did everything I could do.”
For many abortion opponents, the stars aligned with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, tilting the court rightward with a 5-4 conservative majority. For the first time in decades, they saw an opportunity to directly challenge Roe, and they’ve seized it.
“What we’re seeing now is a faction of the antiabortion movement that wants to see an overturning of Roe v. Wade, a full repeal, take center stage,” said abortion historian Gillian Frank, a research fellow at the University of Virginia. “They want this to go to the Supreme Court in hopes that Roe will be, if not overturned and sent back to the states, then so gutted, it will be effectively hamstrung and more meaningless than it is now.”
In the aftermath of Roe, antiabortion activists launched a two-pronged attack to curtail abortion access. One strategy, according to Frank, was aimed at reversing Roe and redefining personhood by enshrining a fetus’s right to life in the Constitution through the passage of the Human Life Amendment, a measure that failed repeatedly over the decades.
The second and more successful strategy took an incrementalist approach. Through a series of legal challenges, including the court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, abortion opponents successfully introduced legislation across the country that imposed greater regulations on abortion providers, effectively shutting down clinics and making the process of obtaining a legal abortion more onerous.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I tend to see the court focusing more on those specific kinds of laws that would further amend Roe rather than completing overturning it,” said Marianne Luthin, director of the Pro-Life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Anything is possible,” she added. No matter what happens, she said, the objective of the movement will remain the same.
“Our goal now is the same as it was in 1973, and it was to protect the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death,” she said. “From my perspective, you need to change hearts and minds before you can change the law, and I think we are on that route.”
The specter of male legislators making decisions about women’s bodies sparks outrage among many abortion- rights supporters. But when it comes to public opinion, men and women tend to hold similar views on abortion. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 36 percent of women and 37 percent of men believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Gallup found in 2018 that 47 percent of men and 44 percent of women identify as “pro-life,” though women have become slightly more “pro-choice” over the years.
Since the outset of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, women have served at the vanguard of the antiabortion movement. Women were instrumental, for example, in the proliferation of so-called crisis pregnancy centers across the nation, organizations where women are counseled not to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Those efforts gained steam in the 1990s, at the height of anti-abortion violence, as public opinion turned on the militant faction of the movement.
“There’s this assumption that’s easy to make that men lead particular movements, and that’s not been the case when you look at the history of the patriarchy, including slavery and abortion politics,” said Tulane University historian Karissa Haugeberg, author of the 2017 book “Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century.”
“It’s not like women are being duped,” she added, “or having the wool pulled over their eyes.”
Massachusetts’s own Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, rose to prominence after Roe, first as a founder of Massachusetts Citizens for Life and later as president of the National Right to Life Committee from 1975 to 1978.
She was called as an expert witness for the prosecution in the 1975 trial of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a black Boston City Hospital obstetrician, who was charged with manslaughter in the death of a fetus for performing an abortion on a 17-year-old girl. (Although Edelin was convicted and sentenced, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the verdict a year later.)
Hogan was one of Jefferson’s successors as the head of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Her activism has spanned multiple decades and numerous pro-life organizations. A self-described pro-life activist — she bristles at the term “antiabortion” — Hogan was president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the state’s oldest and largest antiabortion organization, in the mid-’80s before cofounding Women Affirming Life, a national group for pro-life Catholic women. She’s currently on the board of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state’s Roman Catholic Church.
Hogan testified in the 1996 trial of John C. Salvi III, the aspiring hairdresser who murdered two receptionists and wounded five others at a pair of abortion clinics in Brookline two years earlier. Salvi, she recalled, used to park his black pickup truck — emblazoned with a photograph of an aborted fetus — in front of her Everett parish’s parking lot. She identified Salvi in court as the owner of the truck.
The shootings at the Brookline clinics were the tragic culmination of an escalating war on abortion rights, a period of time between the mid-1970s and late 1990s that saw hundreds of episodes of violence at abortion clinics, including bombings, arson, blockades, and assassinations of abortion providers.
For Hogan, the rampage also served as a brutal reminder of the need for civil discourse and a cooling of the inflammatory rhetoric on all sides of the debate. Over the course of the next 5½ years, she and two other local antiabortion leaders met in secret with three prominent abortion-rights advocates, including Nicki Nichols Gamble, the former president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, to discuss their disagreements and come to some kind of truce.
The experience, which they revealed in a 2001 op-ed for the Globe, was a lesson in recognizing the humanity of others, Hogan said, even in people with whom you disagree vehemently about fundamental questions of life and death.
“I just think you have to be civil or you’ll never have a seat at the table,” she said.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood’s Greater Boston Health Center on Saturday morning, C.J. Williams greeted the young women who approached the clinic’s doors with a friendly “good morning” and a wholehearted plea. “Ask to see your ultrasound!” she implored as volunteer clinic escorts hurried patrons inside.
If Hogan represents the veterans of the antiabortion movement, 29-year-old Williams is a member of the new guard, part of a generation of young activists born under Roe v. Wade who could see it dismantled in their lifetimes.
Williams is the director of community engagement and digital media strategist at Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Wearing a zip-up hoodie, aviator sunglasses, and a sporty black backpack slung over her slight shoulders, she wouldn’t look out of place cutting across Boston University’s campus or rallying outside the White House in a pink cat-eared beanie.
Her political views are mostly in step with liberal ideals: She supports social programs, immigrant rights, animal welfare, and paid family leave. She rides her bike — in part to dodge Boston traffic and in part because it’s better for the environment. She was a vegan until her doctor advised her against following such a stringent diet. She calls herself a feminist without hesitation.
But as a staunch abortion opponent, Williams is something of an ideological castaway.
She spends a couple of Saturday mornings a month doing “sidewalk outreach” at Planned Parenthood alongside local church groups singing psalms and praying the rosary, and members of Operation Rescue Boston.
Williams didn’t grow up in a religious household; her mother was an atheist and her father a Southern Baptist. Although she has since converted to Catholicism, Williams said she views the issue of abortion through a “humanist” lens, rather than a religious one. And she believes history is on her side.
“I think Roe v. Wade is going to be obsolete whether it’s overturned or not,” she said. “It’s against science; it’s against progress; it’s against human rights; it’s against women.”