Progressives have long recognized the tremendous political appeal of originalism: it achieves results consistent with conservative values but promises the public judicial neutrality. By drawing on new historical research on antiabortion constitutionalism, this Article argues for a radically different understanding of the originalist ascendancy. Contrary to what we often think, conservative social movements at times made significant sacrifices in joining an originalist coalition. These costs were built in to what this Article calls originalism talk — the use of arguments, terms, and objectives associated with conservative originalism.
Scholars have documented the costs confronted by social movements reliant on rights-based rhetoric, particularly when activists seek social change in the courts. Originalism talk was similarly constraining. By becoming part of an originalist coalition, abortion opponents increased their influence over the selection of federal judicial nominees. At the same time, in stressing originalist rhetoric, abortion opponents had to set aside longstanding constitutional commitments involving the right to life, the personhood of the fetus, and the existence of rights based in natural law or human-rights principles.
The story of antiabortion constitutionalism offers insight into progressive attempts to create a doctrinally satisfying and politically resonant alternative to conservative originalism. Often, the issue is how to create an interpretive method that accomplishes as much as originalism: advancing progressive constitutional beliefs while appealing to the public’s interest in the rule of law. As this Article shows, however, it is not clear that the benefits of belonging to the originalist coalition outweigh its costs.