The Rhetoric That Shaped The Abortion Debate

1977 Abortion demonstration i i

Women take part in a 1977 demonstration in New York City demanding safe and legal abortions for all women. Peter Keegan/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Keegan/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1977 Abortion demonstration

Women take part in a 1977 demonstration in New York City demanding safe and legal abortions for all women.

Peter Keegan/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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
Kaplan Publishing
List Price: $26
Read an Excerpt

Before the Supreme Court struck down many state laws restricting abortion in the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade, the Justices read briefs from both abortion-rights supporters and opponents.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse has collected the best of these briefs — as well as important documents leading up to the decision — in a new book, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Greenhouse explains the arguments in favor of decriminalizing abortion — and the rhetoric used by both sides of the debate that continues to resonate more than 35 years after Roe.

After researching the book, Greenhouse says, she came away with a more nuanced understanding of how the abortion debate has affected so many other issues.

"What the research did indicate to me is how multifaceted the issue is and how the word [abortion] came over time to stand for so much more than the termination of a pregnancy," she says. "It really came to stand for a debate about the place of women in the world."


Linda Greenhouse i i

Linda Greenhouse is a senior fellow at Yale Law School. She covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times for three decades. courtesy of the author hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the author
Linda Greenhouse

Linda Greenhouse is a senior fellow at Yale Law School. She covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times for three decades.

courtesy of the author

Interview Highlights

On why the medical community's lobbying groups shifted to support the decriminalization of abortion

"The medical impetus to start reforming the old abortion laws actually came, not from the American Medical Association but from the American Public Health Association — from the public health profession. There is a public health doctor, Mary Calderon, who was medical director of Planned Parenthood and also very active in professional public health circles. She wrote some influential articles depicting abortion as a serious public health issue — that is to say, illegal abortion, back-alley abortion, as a serious public health issue — and basically started calling on the medical profession to take a new look at this old issue. Abortion could now be a very safe medical procedure when done properly and under the right conditions. And so the facts on the ground had changed: Women were having secret abortions in large numbers; there was a good deal of medical bad consequences and suffering because of this, and it was really the public health doctors who sounded the call."

On the use of the phrase 'the right to choose'

"Jimmye Kimmey was a young woman who was executive director of an organization called the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA), which was one of the early reform groups and was migrating in the early 1970s from a position of reforming the existing abortion laws to the outright repeal of existing abortion laws, and she wrote a memorandum framing the issue of how the pro-repeal position should be described: 'Right to life is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words — an important consideration in English. We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And ... choice has to do with action, and it's action that we're concerned with.' "

On the significance of J.C. Willke, who wrote Handbook on Abortion

"He is a key figure in the right-to-life movement. He and his wife self-published this little book called Handbook on Abortion in 1971 in the form of questions and answers about abortions from the right-to-life point of view. And it got distributed like wildfire. It now exists in many, many editions. People can go on Google and Amazon and find it easily. It's been translated in many languages, and it really became a Bible of the right-to-life movement. And we were grateful to Dr. Willke for giving us permission to republish it. The reason we wanted to have a substantial excerpt from it is because people on the pro-choice side, I'm quite certain, have never seen it. And it's a very striking document and his voice was and continues to be an important voice on that side."

On feminism's role in shaping the abortion debate

"The feminist community at that time, in the mid-'60s, was much more interested in empowering women to take a full place in the economy, in the world-place. Things like child care. Things like equal pay. Things like getting rid of sex-specific help-wanted ads. Woman wanted, man wanted — that type of thing. And there wasn't much talk about abortion reform in feminist circles until quite late in the '60s, when Betty Friedan, in a very influential speech, drew the connection between the ability of women to participate fully in the economy and the ability of women to control their reproductive lives. That began a reframing in feminist terms of the issue of abortion reform as part of women's empowerment and of women assuming a new role in society."

Excerpt: 'Before Roe v. Wade'

Cover Detail: Before Roe v. Wade
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
Kaplan Publishing
List Price: $26

Introduction

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.

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Before Roe v. Wade

Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling

by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel

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