I spent the early part of the morning practicing my own paper in front of the mirror in my hotel room, and then headed out to the Hotel Roosevelt for a panel exploring the legacy of Roe v Wade on its fortieth anniversary. A quartet of scholars teased apart the threads of the often black and white discussion on abortion rights in the United States, revealing, as only historians can, the importance of specificity and a close attention to chronology.
Johanna Schoen, of Rutgers – New Brunswick, dealt with the evolution of the controversy over late term abortion in the 1970s, beginning with the case of a Massachusetts doctor prosecuted for manslaughter for performing an abortion. Key to her analysis was the move on the part of anti-abortion activists to shift the debate from abstract moral principles or discussion of the medical reasoning behind different types and timings of abortion to aesthetic concerns.
Sarah Rowley, of Indiana University Bloomington, examined “Roe” as a symbol, noting that for the first decade of its existence, it was rarely mentioned by name in discussions of abortion rights. In the 1980s, Rowley argued, the rhetoric of “Roe” changed. She claims that for American social conservatives, “Roe” came to signify all that they feared from an overreaching government acting through an unelected court that endangered local control. “Roe,” therefore, could remind one as much of one’s personal anger over the removal of prayer from schools as much as any feelings about abortion.
Sara DuBow, of Williams College, began her paper on the history of conscience clauses with several court decisions from previous weeks, serving as an effective reminder of the pressing importance of her work. In examining the 1973 conscience clause, DuBow noted the very different political landscape that allowed it to gain bipartisan support, not necessarily because legislators agreed with it, but because many of them felt its effects would be minimal. In light of current debates, and in light of the fact that 87% of U.S. counties now have no abortion provider, DuBow closed by pondering whether the legislators who voted for the conscience clause out of pragmatism not conviction would vote for it again today.
The final paper, by Mary Ziegler of Saint Louis University, examined the conflicts within groups like NARAL and NOW in the wake of the decision. Activists had hoped that implementation and education would be the next step after the court’s decision, and for many of them, that meant a broader agenda of reproductive health and social justice issues, focusing on intersecting racial and social issues. When state level limitations on abortion began to pile up in the 1970s, however, many activists disagreed on whether or not to pursue a single-issue agenda to defend a woman’s right to choose. The Reagan revolution and the increased attention on a state’s rights agenda from some in Congress caused many activists to resign themselves to a continued focus on abortion rights.
After a brief comment from Reva Siegel (Yale) because the panel itself was only 90 minutes, the audience had a chance to weigh in. The discussion shifted quite quickly to the issue of sources, more particularly to a discussion of the availability of archival holdings for the anti-abortion movement, and the effect that the dearth of sources has on historiography of that part of the movement. Nancy Cott testified to the fact that her attempts to work with archives to preserve the anti-abortion movement’s history for the use of scholars had met with resistance from those within the movement, and all present agreed that the nuanced, complex arguments necessary in understanding this issue could only be helped by the preservation of more of the relevant documents from all perspectives.