Fighting words: pro-choice cause lawyering, legal-framing innovations, and hostile political-legal contexts

Drawing on social-movement and sociolegal theorizing, we investigate legal-framing innovations in the briefs of reproductive-rights cause lawyers in prominent US Supreme Court abortion cases. Our results show that pro-choice activist attorneys engage in innovative women’s-rights framing when the political-legal context is more resistant to abortion rights for women, that is, when the political-legal opportunity structure is generally closed to reproductive-rights activism. We consider reproductive-rights framing in three types of pivotal abortion cases over the last half-century: challenges to limitations on public funding of abortion, challenges to regulations that include multiple restrictions on abortion access, and challenges to bans on second-trimester abortions. Our analysis proceeds both qualitatively and quantitatively, with close reading of the briefs to distill the main women’s-rights frames, a count analysis using text mining to examine use of the frames in the briefs, and assessment of the political-judicial context to discern its influence on cause-lawyer legal framing. We conclude by theorizing the importance of the broader political-legal context in understanding cause-lawyer legal-framing innovations.
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