by Risa Cromer
It has been one year since the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, ending nearly fifty years of constitutionally protected abortion rights. Opposing Roe v. Wade—the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide—had long been the centerpiece of the Christian Right’s organizing strategy, which focused on amassing political power by aligning religious nationalists and economic conservatives around so-called family issues. The Dobbs ruling handed religious conservatives a major victory and, with Roe out of the picture, paved the way for their more extreme nationalist ambitions to flourish.
As strategists across the political spectrum reorient to the new legal landscape, we can look to conservative policy efforts over the last year for clues about where the religious right-wing is headed. Republican state lawmakers moved swiftly in the wake of Dobbs to restrict abortion, achieving wins in fourteen states that now ban abortion completely and in many more litigating for policies on behalf of “unborn human beings.” At the same time, antiabortion leaders have pushed nationally for fetal personhood—the idea that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses deserve equal rights and protections as citizens. Once a fringe position in antiabortion advocacy, Dobbs emboldened mainstream groups to advance extreme personhood proposals. Relatedly, we saw conservatives mount unprecedented attacks on LGBTQ+ rights during the 2023 legislative session, with policy successes organized around “protecting vulnerable children,” such as banning trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care.
Dobbs has allowed conservative strategists to test out new and more aggressive policies. However, as the examples above suggest, they continue to use one of their well-worn tactics of fomenting moral panic around a particular figure–e.g., fetus, child, gun owner, white American–framed as vulnerable and worthy of protection. I encountered this tactic while researching the Christian Right’s strategic inroads in the arena of assisted reproduction and discuss it as part of the long history of white saviorism in my forthcoming book, Conceiving Christian America: Embryo Adoption and Reproductive Politics. White saviorism often has a do-gooding veneer yet its tactics fearmonger, reproduce hierarchical ideas about social worth, and moralize and mask power grabs. One way to prepare for the wave of right-wing politics emboldened by Dobbs is to better understand the role of white saviorism and related tactics within the Christian Right’s political playbook.
Conceiving Christian America offers a primer on the Christian Right’s white savior strategies through an ethnographic look inside the practice of embryo adoption. In 1997, a group of white pro-life evangelical Christians in the United States created the nation’s first embryo adoption program to “save” the thousands of frozen human embryos remaining from assisted reproduction procedures, which they contend are “frozen orphans” deserving families and futures. Embryo adoption occupies a small corner of US fertility services, though it has played an outsized role in conservative US politics, from high-profile battles over public investment in human embryonic stem cell research to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. This is due in part to how advocates strategically wield white saviorism in embryo adoption to advance the Christian Right’s broad-reaching political ambitions.
A takeaway from researching the reproductive politics of white saviorism in the years leading up to Roe’s demise and in the immediate aftermath of Dobbs is the importance of being wary of saviorism in all its forms. I suggest wariness as a critical mode of curiosity and care that encourages us to not take the world at face value but to consider what is hidden from view. Here, I offer a few ways of being wary that have helped me–a cultural anthropologist and advocate for reproductive justice–understand how right-wing politics are unfolding in a post-Roe world and respond creatively and critically to them:
- Be wary of saviorism’s ceaseless reach. White saviorism is an old narrative with wide-ranging influence in US politics. The enrollment of frozen IVF embryos within the Christian Right’s nationalist politics was not obvious or inevitable. Rather, interfacing with assisted reproduction was a strategic move for testing radical ideas in covert places while expanding the influence of right-wing ideals, such as opposition to reproductive rights, support for asymmetrical gender relations and white supremacy, and reverence for patriarchal and divine power. The Christian Right’s search for new strategic terrains and casts of characters to fit into white savior narratives is already underway in the post-Roe context. Awareness of how white saviorism is wielded across diverse topics and in unexpected places can teach us about their successes and limitations and generate alternatives to all saviorist politics.
- Be wary of saviorism’s strategic stand-ins. White saviorist tactics are rife with proxies that simultaneously represent something else, allowing for the promotion of multiple agendas at once. The expressed mission of embryo adoption is to “save” IVF embryos from freezers, though a closer look at everyday practices reveals them to operate as proxies for nationalist goals of conceiving a Christian nation–framed as imperiled and awaiting (re)birth. Proxies in white savior politics are important to pay attention to because they mask power and behave powerfully. For example, opposing abortion in Christian Right advocacy has never solely been about fetal rights or gender roles, as dominant narratives suggest, but serves a strategic signifier for a host of other issues that has helped religious conservatives mobilize political power. Being wary of strategic stand-ins can help to discern, for instance, how recent antiabortion politics are being used to dismantle democratic processes and how policy assaults on LGBTQ+ communities are undermining constitutionally protected speech and expression.
- Be wary of saviorism’s fearmongering. White saviorist strategies weaponize fear to foment and moralize panic around the idea that something dear is at grave risk. Casting certain conditions as risky often relies on and reproduces reductive renderings of a complex world. I noticed that narratives of embryos imperiled in cryostorage flattened over a range of feelings that fertility patients experienced during IVF and how rhetoric of embryo “orphans” needing “parents” undermined their essential role in embryo adoption, deciding if, when, and who would receive their embryos for procreative use. Being wary of fearmongering in white saviorist politics involves interrogating alarmist narratives, even ones that we embrace, that align with existing tropes and often discriminatory views. Being wary encourages us to look beyond the stressful story for what is being hidden from view–the oversimplifications, assumptions, motives, and other realities.
Dobbs has been an ending as much as a beginning. Abortion rights are surging in popularity. Legal strategists, healthcare providers, and activists are collaborating on bold ideas for more just reproductive and sexual health care. Reproductive justice advocates continue to lead the way by visioning the world we want and deserve. Wariness of white saviorism is a part of what I have come to think of as the ongoing and necessary work of conceiving futures in which we might all thrive.