For as long as many of us can remember, being a Republican has meant being against abortion. But this wasn’t always the case—in fact, there was once a time when the A-word barely graced conservatives’ lips. Hard to believe, I know.
So how did the GOP become the anti-abortion monster it is today? It’s a common misperception that the pro-life movement emerged in response to Roe vs Wade, the seminal Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in this country—but the movement’s origin story is, in fact, far more convoluted. And fascinating.
In a segment from the TBS show Full Frontal that's now going viral, comedian and host Samantha Bee reveals the true story behind the movement. It turns out the party’s initial motivation had less to do with Roe vs Wade and more to do with winning elections.
After watching the video, I came away with a few key takeaways that feel essential to understanding the current state of political affairs in this country.
First, Bee begins by pointing out that abortion was legalized through a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, which voted 7 to 2 in favor of legalization—and at the time, the decision was endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention.
Indeed, in a 2014 story for Politico outlining the history of the religious right, Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer explains that many evangelicals stayed out of the abortion debate altogether. "Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a 'Catholic issue,'" he wrote.
So what changed?
Well, the second thing I learned from Bee is that, in the years after Roe passed, Republicans Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich were desperately searching for an issue around which to rally their conservative base—you know, considering they had recently lost the segregation battle.
Social issues including pornography, school prayer, and equal rights had been discussed as possible causes célèbres and dismissed. Eventually, someone suggested using abortion to light a fire in the bellies of evangelicals.
"Several people suggested possible issues," explained Balmer in a clip used by Bee. "Finally a voice on the end of one of the lines asked, 'How about abortion?'"
They’d found a winner.
A third interesting revelation: In 1979, six years after Roe passed, Falwell and Weyrich’s cause was given a boost when Francis Schaeffer, a theologian advocating for "secular humanism,” created a series of anti-abortion books and videos called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
The series was basically just creepy anti-abortion propaganda that used white face paint, toddlers in cages, and scattered baby doll parts to argue that abortion is murder and will lead to the downfall of humanity.
In the segment, Bee interviews Schaeffer's son, Frank Schaeffer, who says that helping his father create that film stands as the "the single greatest regret" of his life.
Despite the support of Falwell, Weyrich, and Schaeffer, the anti-abortion agenda still didn't immediately catch on with evangelicals.
"Abortion was something Catholics worried about," explained Schaeffer, "most evangelical leaders didn't want anything to do with it … we had to talk them into it."
Schaeffer told Bee that, at that point, they enlisted the help of 50 Republican congressman—including Bob Dole and Henry Hyde—and convinced them to push the anti-abortion message to solidify their political base.
A fourth learning: It was during the 1980 elections, seven years after Roe, that "pro-life" became a rallying cry for Republicans and the pro-life movement finally found an audience.
A final lesson I learned from Bee? For those who truly believe the movement is about what the Bible says—not political motivations—Bee is quick to point out that the Bible mentions abortion exactly zero times. So there’s that.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.