The XX Factor

Book of the Week: Before Roe v. Wade

What were the politics of abortion like in this country before Roe v. Wade ? Different than what I thought in a couple of important ways, I’ve learned from a new book, Before Roe v. Wade , by Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel.

First history lesson: In the 1960s, the push to expand access to abortion gained momentum as a public health concern: It wasn’t a feminist demand until 1969, when Betty Friedan made it one in a speech in Chicago at the First National Conference on Abortion Laws. The pro-choice framing we’ve become accustomed to began with that speech; Friedan says, “There is only one voice that needs to be heard on the question of the final decision as to whether a woman will or will not bear a child, and that is the voice of the woman herself. Her own conscience, her own conscious choice.”

Second history lesson: Before Roe , the Catholic church stood pretty much alone among religious institutions in opposition to Roe . Evangelical Christians “did not share the Catholic Community’s implacable opposition to abortion under all circumstances,” as Greenhouse puts it in an interview with the Brennan Center. But smart Nixon aides looking to reach out to Catholics, who at the time were more loyal to the Democrats, picked up on abortion as a way to woo them.

This book is perfect for college students interested in tracing the history of abortion politics and the social movements of the period. It’s also an invaluable and meaty collection of sources for anyone trying to understand the context for the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion a national constitutional right. How much did Roe itself galvanize the entrenched opposition that is still with us? Greenhouse and Siegel, whom I know, don’t think the court started it all. On the other hand, the national reach of the decision changed the stakes. It’s an historical question that has lost none of its bite over time.