Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling
By Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $26
In the early 1960s, the practice of abortion was prohibited by criminal law throughout the United States, but the forces that would prompt change had begun to appear.
Abortion had been outlawed for at least a century, except as necessary to save a pregnant woman's life or, in a few jurisdictions, to preserve her health. The organized medical profession, which led the effort to criminalize abortion in the mid-19th century, still opposed liberalizing abortion laws. But specialists in public health were beginning to raise alarms about the health consequences of illegal abortion, obtained by an estimated one million American women every year. Increasingly, Americans recoiled from the harms that laws criminalizing abortion inflicted on women and their families.
Several streams of concern fed the growing public sense that criminalization of abortion was wrong — least in certain cases. A German measles epidemic in 1965 that resulted in the birth of thousands of babies with serious disabilities, along with one pregnant woman's highly publicized encounter with Thalidomide, a drug that caused devastating harm to a developing fetus, made abortion a topic of media attention and public conversation as never before.
There was new attention paid by public health authorities, the media, and local prosecutors to the injuries that illegal abortionists inflicted on women, particularly on poor women who lacked the connections necessary to obtain an authorized abortion and the money needed to travel to Japan, England, Sweden, or other countries that had legalized abortion. The invention of oral contraception, "the Pill," in 1960 helped make control over the timing and spacing of parenthood feasible, acceptable, and, for some, even ethically required, in turn altering sexual mores and leading to public concern about "unwanted babies." By the end of the decade, a growing movement for women's liberation advanced the claim for "repeal" of abortion laws, as part of a more broad-based challenge to traditional sexual mores and family roles.
While no single narrative explains the shift in public consciousness, it is clear that increasingly, Americans came to believe that, at least in some cases, abortion ought to be permitted. The elite reaches of the legal profession began to advocate reform of abortion laws. The American Law Institute proposed a model statute that authorized committees of doctors to evaluate a woman's reasons for seeking an abortion and to grant permission if the woman's situation met specified criteria. By the end of the decade, 12 state legislatures would relax their criminal prohibitions and enact all or part of the institute's reform model. Four other states — three by legislation and one by public referendum —would act by the end of 1970 to eliminate all or nearly all restrictions on access to abortion.
Organized religion responded to these signs of change in different ways. Some denominations supported the cause of change, and liberal members of the clergy formed a network to help women find safe, even if illegal, abortions. Other Protestant denominations sat on the sidelines. The Catholic Church, however, alarmed by the spread of new mores and driven by internal dispute over whether and how to enforce its longstanding prohibition on the use of contraception, began to focus on abortion. By the decade's end, as forces mobilized in support of liberalizing abortion laws, the Church began to make increasingly visible and organized efforts to block reform — first speaking in religious registers and then shifting to secular and nondenominational grounds for opposing abortion. Catholic legal scholars began calling on secular sources of law from which to argue for a legally protected right to life for the unborn.
Even as the Church was beginning to organize the right-to-life movement, support for liberalizing abortion was emerging from sources that would fatefully change abortion's social meaning and expression. In the mid-1960s, an increasingly invigorated women's movement was training its attention on discrimination in the workplace and had not yet assigned a high priority to giving women the right to control their reproductive lives. But by the decade's end, feminists had begun to frame a right to abortion as essential both to women's autonomy and to their full participation in economic and political life.
In short, debate about abortion in the mid-1960s had many moving and intersecting parts, offering a snapshot of a society on the cusp of change, as the documents collected in Part I reflect. In what follows, we present voices from that debate as it unfolded over the course of the decade, as the winds of reform became a demand for repeal of the old laws, in turn generating an increasingly strategic and politicized reaction from those opposed to change.
Our documents are organized thematically rather than strictly chronologically. We endeavor to reconstruct a national conversation that endowed abortion with weighty and increasingly contradictory social and political meanings that over the course of the decade began to crowd out the space available for consensus and compromise.
Excerpted from Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel. Copyright 2010 by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel. Excerpted with permission by Kaplan Publishing.