23 January 2013
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the US. For many Americans, the ruling stands as a triumphal moment for feminism and reproductive rights, but the past four decades have made it clear it was also a major victory for anti-abortion activists.
In nationalising the issue of abortion, Roe laid the groundwork for a realignment of political interests. What abortion rights advocates saw as a settled matter became for opponents an opportunity to increasingly restrict abortion services for American women.
Although it is now seen as a central conservative, Republican and evangelical issue, there was very little organised opposition to abortion in the pre-Roe era. Because libertarians chafed at the call for greater government regulation of medical decisions, conservatives avoided the issue in the early 1970s. Many evangelicals saw the anti-abortion positions as distinctly Catholic, and some even promoted more liberalised abortion laws. And the Republican Party, though today lambasted for its "war on women", was in the pre-Roe era a relative stronghold of feminism, contraception and abortion rights.
In an era in which states could restrict access to contraceptives, the GOP pushed for greater family-planning resources. And it was Republican politicians who sought therapeutic abortion laws at the state level in the 1960s.
Barry Goldwater supported Planned Parenthood and his wife helped found the branch in Arizona.
As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in the nation. His future vice-president George HW Bush was so keen on family planning that fellow representatives nicknamed him "Rubbers".
So what happened? How did the GOP go from the party of Rubbers and Planned Parenthood to the party of pro-life politics?
As abortion became a national issue in the 1970s, Republicans saw an opening. Catholics were the most ardently anti-abortion group of the day, and they were also some of the most dedicated Democrats. But as the Democratic Party lurched Left, embracing feminism and reproductive rights, Catholic voters appeared to be up for grabs.
Richard Nixon was the first to try to peel anti-abortionists from the Democratic coalition. In his 1972 re-election campaign, he tarred George McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion". Not only did he win 63 per cent of the Catholic vote (compared with 37 per cent four years earlier), he also forged a new argument about abortion: it was not a Catholic or a women's issue, but a cultural one. By connecting it to dope and draft-dodging, Nixon reframed abortion as part of the Left's rejection of American values and traditions.
Recast as an assault on family and patriotism, abortion became a cornerstone Republican issue.
By 1976, just three years after the Roe decision, the GOP platform called for an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. And not long after, Reagan, who had once signed the most liberal abortion law in the nation, made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Republicans.
When it came time for Reagan to choose a running mate, he turned to Bush, a moderate with extensive government experience. Bush was a natural choice but for one thing - he didn't share Reagan's new opposition to abortion. So the Reagan team placed a condition on their offer: Bush had to endorse the Reagan platform, which meant dropping his long-held support of abortion rights. Bush agreed.
Four years later, Reagan (not known for his erudition) became the first sitting president to publish a book, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. A decade after Roe, the GOP had become, stem to stern, a party opposed to abortion rights.
This newly articulated opposition to abortion has had real political consequences in the US. Conservative judges and politicians have reinterpreted and revised the Roe decision along increasingly narrow lines. The Hyde Amendment, named after Republican representative Henry Hyde, prohibits federal funding of abortion services. States are now rife with laws limiting abortion funding and access.
And these laws are rapidly proliferating. The Guttmacher Institute noted that in 2011 a record number of provisions restricting abortions had been passed at state level - four times as many as in 2008. Forty years after Roe, anti-abortion activists continue to score political victories.
Today, Americans will commemorate an important milestone in the history of reproductive rights. It was a moment that altered the political landscape of the US, but in ambivalent ways: Roe v Wade marked the height of 20th-century feminism, but it also signalled the start of a powerful and surprisingly successful anti-abortion movement.
This article was originally published at The Australian