By Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel, Kaplan Publishing, 335 pages, $26
Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), said the case was “a most sensitive, emotional and controversial one, perhaps one of the most emotional that has reached the court for some time.” Yet, meaningful democratic participation requires that people understand opposing views—regardless of how passionately people hold onto their beliefs.
“Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court Ruling” takes on this challenge, concisely presenting a wide range of “pro-choice” and “pro-life” arguments.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times for 30 years, and Yale Law School professor Reva B. Siegel weave together more than 63 original documents that narrate a balanced, intellectual history of the abortion debate from 1960 through the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision. Greenhouse and Siegel give crisp contextual introductions to documents. They skillfully edit speeches, letters and papers, breathing life into legal and policy arguments, with the words of people who stood up and fought for and against legalized abortion. The authors’ purpose is not advocacy but to give readers multiple perspectives to draw their own conclusions.
In Roe, the high court held the right to privacy protects a woman’s decision in consultation with her physician whether to terminate her pregnancy—but not as an absolute right. Following the first trimester, Roe allows the state to regulate abortions in ways “reasonably related” to maternal health. Efforts to regulate abortions and access remain fiercely contested. This book underscores how today’s laws did not emerge in a vacuum but are the result of an ongoing continuum of beliefs and the exercise of influence.
“Before Roe v. Wade” flashes back to the initial movement for abortion reform, which did not focus on women’s rights. The American Law Institute and American Medical Association in the 1960s sought to decriminalize abortions to protect doctors from prosecution. Public discussion subsequently moved from reform to repeal of abortion laws.
The National Organization for Women (NOW), established to end workplace discrimination, held a 1969 Chicago conference on abortion laws. The event led to the formation of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), a leading pro-choice advocacy group today.
NOW President Betty Friedan’s speech tied abortion rights to the women’s movement: “Reform is something dreamed up by men, abortion reform. Maybe good ordered men…but they can only think from their point of view of men. Women are the passive objects that somehow must be regulated—thalidomide, rape, incest… What right have they to say? What right has any man to say to any woman: You must bear this child?”
As efforts to change abortion laws reached state legislatures, religious groups responded. The Roman Catholic Church originally supervised and funded the National Right to Life Committee. A Catholic organization, the Society for a Christian Commonwealth, funded Americans United for Life (AUL). AUL argued that abortion violated the sanctity of human life and the rights of the unborn child. The AUL book, “Abortion and Social Justice,” proposed greater societal compassion as an alternative:
What we can, and must do is change our hearts, open our hands, extend our help and begin to deeply care. This is really the basis of an active love—an involvement in life, its beauties and its difficulties. This is the very best we have to offer the pregnant woman and the distressed.
With highly charged emotions in the debate, politics entered the mix. The Gallup Poll reported that in 1972, two out of three Americans felt abortion should be a decision between women and their physicians, and more Republicans than Democrats supported that position.
Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican governor of New York, vetoed an anti-abortion bill. He said:
It would only end abortions under safe and supervised medical conditions. The truth is that a safe abortion would remain the optional choice of the well-to-do woman, while the poor would again be seeking abortions at a grave risk to life in back-room abortion mills. The truth is that, under the present law, no woman is compelled to undergo an abortion. Those whose personal and religious principles forbid abortion are in no way compelled against their convictions under the present law. Every woman has the right to make her own choice.
But Republican political strategists including President Nixon’s speech writer, Patrick Buchanan, identified the abortion issue as a way to bring religious voters and social conservatives under the GOP tent. In 1972, President Nixon wrote a letter to the Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York expressing opposition to abortion. The archbishop in the previous month had participated in an anti-abortion rally of more than 10,000 attendees. Someone “leaked” Nixon’s letter to the media, pushing abortion politics into the presidential election.
Nixon’s letter acknowledged that abortion was a state issue, outside of federal jurisdiction but said liberalized abortion policies
seem to me impossible to reconcile with either our religious traditions or our Western heritage. One of the foundation stones of our society and civilization is the profound belief that human life, all human life, is a precious commodity—not to be taken without the gravest of causes… Your decision, and that of tens of thousands of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and men and women of no particular faith, to act in the public forum as defenders of the right to life of the unborn, is truly a noble endeavor. In this calling, you and they have my admiration, sympathy and support.
This Republican strategy of aligning with conservative social groups endures today.
In the afterword, Greenhouse and Siegel trace the political influences in subsequent challenges to Roe. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), reaffirms Roe but allows the government to regulate abortions from the onset of pregnancy provided the regulations do not impose an “undue burden.” Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007), upholds the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. These cases will not be the last challenges to abortion that the Supreme Court hears.
Both authors acknowledge they are pro-choice, but say the future of abortion remains to be written. Some readers may wish that these two intelligent, well-spoken writers had passionately taken a side. But instead of a call for political action, the book is, at bottom, a call for education. And it is important in a democracy that even issues as emotional as abortion be determined not simply by the loudest voices but by the most well-reasoned and informative participants in the debate.
Betsy Kim works in public relations and is a writer living in New York City. She is licensed to practice law in California and Illinois.