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University of Colorado Law Review

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U. Colo. L. Rev.





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What do we mean by a right to life? Should—or does—such a right cover only antiabortion claims? Or should the term apply more broadly—to debates about class and welfare, about the death penalty, or even about human rights? In the abortion wars, litigation strategy has helped to dictate the answers to these questions. Historians and legal scholars have studied the tensions between lawyers and the lay actors they represent, chronicling how lawyers modify and even limit the social changes activists demand. By putting the attorney-client relationship center stage, scholars have sometimes obscured an equally important story about how litigation strategy—as in the case of the antiabortion movement—can make a difference to internal battles about the meaning of a social cause. This Article explores the influence of litigation on a different struggle, one involving a movement’s constitutional vision and place in American politics. The Article uses the history of the antiabortion movement as an entry point for rethinking the role of litigation in the politics of social-movement identity, recovering how court-centered strategies transformed the meaning of a right to life. This history shows that victories in court can convince both lay actors and lawyers to discount alternative political identities and constitutional commitments, creating winners and losers in internal struggles over what defines a movement.


© 2015 Mary Ziegler


First published in University of Colorado Law Review.

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