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Social movements professor shares tactics used by advocates to restrict abortion access

woman holding sign
(Image: VPM News)

Hundreds of activists across the U.S. took to the streets moments after a draft majority opinion from the United States Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked to the public. In a studio interview with Angie Miles, Derek Sweetman, who teaches social movements and conflict resolution at George Mason University, discusses how activism on both sides of the abortion debate has led to this point. 


Angie Miles: Abortion is one of the most volatile social and political causes of the century. We have a guest today to help bring into focus the very tactics used by pro-life and pro-choice activists to achieve their goals. Derek Sweetman teaches courses in social movements at George Mason University. And thank you for being with us today.  

Derek Sweetman: Thank you for having me.  

Miles: Now we're all looking at the legal issues now that this document has been leaked. We have some watershed moments in the legal history of abortion in Virginia, all worth considering. But at its heart, isn't this really an activist issue? It's two social movements that clash on this one topic, correct? 

Sweetman: I think you're right. I think you could say both the decision in 1973 with Roe and this current decision was the product of activists working on opposite sides for this process.  

Miles: And using different tactics. So in the past, the pro-choice, or the pro-life movement, sometimes resorted to violence. We saw picketing, right? We saw sometimes attacks on clinics or on physicians. We don't see that so much anymore. What's changed?  

Sweetman: Well, there was a pretty concerted effort on the part of the pro-life movement to adopt a strategy that focused strongly on using the courts to overturn Roe v. Wade, and that involved bringing in judges, and getting them appointed, who would do that. And in a sense, that's what makes what's going on right now somewhat inevitable. This fight was won by the movement already and we're just seeing the results.  

Miles: And I think that those who are most active in the pro-choice movement recognize that as well. It is still such a divisive issue. It seems that the pro-life movement is winning at this point. Is there any common ground or enough common ground that there could ever be a compromise on this?  

Sweetman: Well, I think it's a difficult issue to compromise on if you believe in the extremes. There is a lot of practical compromise that could be done because it could focus on reducing the demand for abortion. And that will involve empowering young people, making sure everyone has the resources they need and the information that they need, to make good decisions.  

Miles: So sex education, which of course has been in schools for many years, contraception access, but that is objectionable to a lot of people, too. Can you speak on that a little?  

Sweetman: Well I think that's what makes this very difficult, is ultimately, although abortion has been the label under which people have been organizing, this goes beyond that to issues of which lives matter, who should have control over their own lives, and ultimately is a fight that's going to continue on both sides.  

Miles: It seems that if there could be more interest in reducing the desire or the need for abortion, less on whether there's access to abortion, both sides could be happy, but how to get there that's a tricky part, so.  

Sweetman: Correct.  

Miles: Thank you for helping us to understand this a little better today, Derek Sweetman, our guest in the studio. 

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