Abortion has been an extremely contentious issue in the United States, socially culturally, and politically, for over a half century. For some, it is a moral issue rooted in Christianity; for others it is a matter of self-determination and the right of an individual to access healthcare. More than four decades after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision ruled that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, the right to privacy, protects a woman’s right to have an abortion, abortion rights opponents (commonly known as pro-life) and abortion rights supporters (commonly known as pro-choice) are still engaged in acrimonious debate in the courts, in elections, and in legislatures. Let us trace this controversy through five stages: Prior to the aforementioned landmark court decision, the decision itself, the Reagan years (pivotal in the genesis of the rightward drift of American politics), the years between Reagan and Trump, and the era of the 45thpresident.
- Prior to 1973
Abortion was common in early America. Native American societies used a variety of methods to include natural and herbal agents such as black root and cedar root. In colonial times the legality of abortion varied from colony to colony and generally depended on the attitudes and laws of the European country that controlled the specific colony. In British colonies abortion was legal until quickening (the time when the fetus began moving), in French colonies, although illegal, they were frequently performed. In Spanish and Portuguese colonies they were also illegal. From 1776 until the mid 19thcentury, while generally frowned on, abortion was legal and widely practiced throughout most of the U.S. By the 1860s, a few states had passed ambiguous and difficult to enforce laws prohibiting abortion. Also during the early years of the republic, the abortion situation was much different for enslaved women. As “property,” (Acevedo, 1979, p. 159). slaves were subject to the dictates of their owners, who generally forbade abortion as it reduced the amount and value of their economic assets. After 1860, legislation become stronger and generally more enforced, forcing many women to begin utilizing “underground” abortion services.
Scholars estimate that in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, 20-25% of all pregnancies in America were terminated by abortions. (Haugeberg 2019). Immediately before Roe v. Wade, the average approximate total of “official” deaths stemming from the use of substandard underground services was 200. The most commonplace alternative was “self- induction.” Examples of self-induction were women trying to fall down steps, or ingesting poisons. The unregulated market was another method commonly used. Some licensed providers were willing to safely perform procedures, but at great risk of imprisonment or loss of livelihood. Immediately prior to 1973 there was a an uneven system in which wealthier women in major metropolitan areas often had legal access to abortion services, whereas women in poor rural areas and in states with higher percentages of African American women did not. The latter group was cut off from these services both legally and economically.
- Roe v. Wade
On 22 January 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled (7-2) that any unduly restrictive state regulation is unconstitutional and in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process clause (“…. nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”) (Roe v. Wade, 1973). The majority opinion, written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun held that a set of Texas statutes criminalizing abortion, violated a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.
Jane Roe was the fictionalized name for Norma McCorvey, who instituted federal action against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas where McCorvey resided. While the court did not uphold a woman’s unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy, it framed the matter as a question of women’s privacy and decreed that states should only make regulations that explicitly pertain to compelling state interests. The court placed the point at which states could regulate at “capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb, ” (Roe v. Wade) or viability. Since the January 1973 decision, women have been subject to a relentless barrage of attempts to chip away at their reproductive health rights.
Reaction to Roe v. Wade in 1973 was mixed from the outset. It enjoyed wide support in a diverse cross section of the American public from feminists, environmentalists, medical reformers, advocates for the poor, and even the Protestant clergy (they organized Clergy Consultation which helped women find safe abortions). However, the Catholic Church stepped up its efforts to recruit secular opposition. Around the time of the 1972 presidential election and just prior to Roe v Wade, strategists for the Nixon campaign began theorizing on how to create a new coalition of disaffected southern conservatives who were estranged from the Democratic party over civil rights issues, and Northern Catholics who were now crystalizing their support around opposition to abortion. Behind the scenes political operators like Patrick Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly waged a successful campaign to link the anti abortion-rights forces with opposition to the perceived growth of societal permissiveness, thus creating a new party strategy. Nixon, previously pro-abortion rights, switched his position in an attempt to create a coalition of disaffected “New Deal” voters in the Republican Party. (Greenhouse & Siegel, 2011).
- Reagan and the Mexico City Rule
The political realignment begun during the Nixon years became heavily entrenched during the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan ran on a platform that combined trickle down economics with social conservatism, staunch anti-communism and emotional appeals to bring “God” back into the public sphere. In 1976 the anti abortion forces had no stake in the presidential race as both Ford and Carter opposed banning abortion. However as early as April of 1980, the Washington Post reported that the nascent “pro-life” forces had a preference in the upcoming election. “After waging war for months against candidates they oppose, antiabortionists are mounting a coordinated effort in support of Ronald Reagan, the most outspoken abortion foe of the remaining presidential hopefuls.” (Reid, 1980) In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan imposed an anti-abortion rule known as the “Mexico City policy” after the city where he announced it. The rule blocked federal funding for international family planning charities unless they agreed not to “promote” abortion by, among other actions, providing patients with information about the procedure or referrals to providers who perform it. Reagan had now extended the American controversy outside of its borders, regardless of what would or would not benefit the many developing nations it would affect.
- G.H.W Bush – Obama
In the intervening years, whenever the U.S. presidency has changed parties, the incoming leader has reversed his predecessor’s position on the ban. President Clinton lifted it in 1993. President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001. And President Obama rescinded it once more in 2009. Statistically, the approach taken by Democratic presidential administrations has proven to be far more effective in the years since Reagan. Under George H.W. Bush abortion rates fell from 24 per 1000 to 23 per 1000. Under Bill Clinton, rates fell drastically from 23 to 16.2 per 1000. Abortion rates hovered at about 16 per every 1,000 women for most of Bush’s time in the White House then dropped from 15.8 in 2008 to 15 in 2009. “Under Obama the rates dropped to just below 12, less than half of what they were in 1980” (Bagri 2016). The reason for the more precipitous decline of abortions under the Democrats has been increased and more affordable access to contraception and other forms of reproductive health care offered by organizations like Planned Parenthood. Republican administrations have, for the sake of political expediency, unfailingly opted to demonize these organizations (especially Planned Parenthood), and equate them with extremist political outcomes such as the holocaust and the Stalinist purges.
- The Trump Era
When the White House changed party hands in 2017, Donald Trump (as is the norm) reinstated Reagan’s Mexico City rule (also now known as the Global Gag Rule.) Donald Trump’s “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy” expanded the global gag rule, applying it to recipients of any U.S. global health funding, totaling an unprecedented “$8.8 billion” (Cha & Morello 2017). The new policy negatively impacted everything from HIV /AIDS programming, and health systems strengthening, to programs that support water, sanitation, and hygiene. This year (2019) the Trump administration announced an even further expansion of the implementation of restrictions on organizations from funding groups that provide abortion and reproductive health care, even though those organizations don’t get any U.S. aid. Now these organizations, donor governments, and funders will be bound by a U.S. government policy, even if they do not accept any U.S. government funding. This expansion has been implemented despite multiple studies that indicate the global gag rule has not decreased rates of abortions but instead has increased the number of unsafe abortions. Emboldened by Trump’s 2016 victory several states have mounted challenges to Roe v. Wade in the last few years. While several Southern and Midwestern states have enacted bans of various degrees, in 2017 Alabama managed to pass the most extreme legislation. The Alabama law makes the procedure a felony at any stage of pregnancy unless the mother’s health is endangered. These laws, currently not constitutional in light of Roe v. Wade, “are designed to bring about a challenge to the high court’s landmark decision.” (WFSA Evening News)
The anti-abortion movement has successfully created a cultural/political movement with legislative underpinnings by casting a medical procedure that is safe and legal as one that is somehow nefarious and immoral. Conclusive research shows that the antiabortionist movement continues to negatively impact woman and vulnerable populations both locally and globally.
Acevedo, Z., (1979) Abortion in Early America Women and Health, Volume 4, 1979, Issue 2, pages 159-167
Bagri, N., Partisan Politics, Quartz.com, 7 December 2016, https://qz.com/857273/the-sharpest-drops-in-abortion-rates-in-america-have- been-under-democratic-presidents
Cha, A, & Morello, C., “Trump expansion of abortion ‘gag rule’ will restrict $8.8 billion in U.S. aid,” The Washinton Post, 15 May 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/05/15/trump- expansion-of-abortion-gag-rule-will-restrict-8-8-billion-in-u-s-aid/
Greenhouse, L. & Siegel, R. (2011) Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions About Backlash Yale Law Journal, Vol. 120, pgs. 2028-20885-32
Haugeberg, K. “What Abortion was Like in the U.S. Before Roe v. Wade,” Audio blog post. All Things Considered,National Public Radio, 20 May 2019.
Reid, T., “Reagan is Favored by Anti-Abortionists” The Washinton Post, 12 April 1980, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/04/12/
“Roe v. Wade,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Roe-v-Wade, June 13, 2019
Roe v. Wade. No. 113. Supreme Ct. of the US.
WFSA 12 Evening News. National Broadcasting Company (NBC), WFSA 12 News, Montgomery, AL, 15 May 2019