Friday, December 28, 2012

Abortion, Legal History, and Common Ground

This post ends my time on Legal History Blog. It’s been a pleasure. I wanted to end my posts by considering what might be the central historical question surrounding Roe—whether the opinion made it impossible for opposing activists to identify common ground on abortion or on any other issue involving sex equality or reproductive health. Recently, Gene Burns, Linda Greenhouse, and Reva Siegel have shown that polarization often attributed to Roe began before the decision.

My current project shows that opportunities to find common ground remained available in the decade after Roe. In the 1970s, those on opposing sides worked together on legislation involving pregnancy discrimination, publicly funded childcare, and contraceptive access for adolescents. When collaboration of this kind became politically difficult, Roe alone was not to blame. Political party realignment, the mobilization of the New Right and the Religious Right, and the strengthening of feminist consensus on abortion rights led to an alliance between the antiabortion movement and social conservatism. Those who had fought for common ground found themselves marginalized or forced to set aside other political commitments to advance antiabortion goals. One member of Feminists for Life put it particularly poignantly in 1979:

The best description of what it’s like to be a feminist for life is something like this: You walk into a lovely walled garden . . ., and you take a deep breath and go at the wall full gallop! And you do the same thing tomorrow, bashing your head against anything available that isn’t soft, in your determination to continue to walk that painful, frustrating road that bridges the right to life movement and the left.

In the research for my project, I came upon a common ground meeting held in 1979. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the meeting ended in failure, as antiabortion activists interrupted a press conference to display two dead fetuses. Many of those with whom I conducted oral history interviews remembered the meeting, but as they so often reminded me, these activists were not getting any younger. One went so far as to ask me for a copy of a newspaper article about the meeting. Younger activists, she said, could no longer believe that such a meeting had taken place.

As this story reminded me, the lost world of abortion politics in the 1970s looks very different from the clash of absolutes that is now so familiar to us. Studying this history makes clear that there was nothing inevitable about the way in which abortion law and politics evolved. This messiness, this fluidity and unpredictability—as one activist put it—are part of what makes these stories so deserving of study.