Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Remaking Roe as a Women's-Rights Decision

Between 1973 and 1975, Mildred Jefferson often spoke to the press about how little Roe v. Wade did for women. Jefferson was the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and she was something of a media darling, described by the press as charismatic and accomplished. In discussing Roe, Jefferson argued that abortion rights at most gave women a false sense of autonomy. The true power, she suggested, belonged to the doctor.

Along with most activists on either side of the abortion issue, Jefferson later adopted a different account of abortion rights, linking them to second-wave feminism and condemning both. Jefferson’s recent passing gave me reason to think about why we came to associate abortion so much with abortion rights. Reva Siegel, Leslie Reagan, and David Garrow are among those to trace the arguments about physicians, women, privacy, and equality that set the terms of the debate before Roe. Jefferson’s story, though, shows us something important about how the meaning of Roe itself might have changed. Jefferson’s reasons for describing the holding of Roe or the meaning of abortion rights differently were strategic. Talking about Roe in a different way made sense as a means of raising money or winning new recruits.                              

Those on both sides made arguments for similar reasons. Jefferson’s movement realized in the mid-1970s that it needed to do more to recruit and reassure women. Describing Roe as a decision about physicians worked well for a movement seeking to show women that abortion rights did nothing for them. Mainstream abortion-rights organizations initially addressed medical rights arguments. While not believing that Roe had resolved conflict about abortion, major abortion-rights groups still saw the debate about the meaning of Roe as counterproductive. Talking further about abortion rights would suggest that the question was still open and would call into question an otherwise respectable rationale for abortion.

When women’s-rights arguments gained currency in the later 1970s, strategic reasoning again played a role. The abortion-rights movement had to respond to the successes of abortion opponents in recruiting women. Abortion opponents took the same position as part of an effort to cement a new alliance with the New Right and Religious Right.  The newly reconfigured antiabortion movement criticized second wave feminism as much as did abortion and closely connected the two.

It seems that we owe our understanding of Roe only partly to the Supreme Court. Activists like Jefferson also played an important part in the change. Why we still think of Roe as a decision about women’s rights is a separate question, especially at a time when pro-life feminism is back in the news. Phyllis Schlafly fondly remembers Mildred Jefferson as an ally and effective orator at antifeminist rallies. Today, Lila Rose and leading abortion opponents proclaim themselves to be feminist. Now that activists on both sides again claim to speak for feminism, popular understandings of Roe may well change again.