The recent momentum enjoyed by the pro-life movement has alarmed many supporters of legal abortion, many of whom are considering various short-term strategies to limit pro-life progress. Others have taken a longer-term view and actually expressed regret for the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. They argue that the expansion of abortion rights through the democratic process was inevitable, but the Supreme Court short-circuited this progress and inadvertently created a strong, vibrant pro-life movement.
This latter view is shared by many historians, political scientists, and pro-choice activists; the actual history of abortion politics in the 1960s and ’70s tells a much different story.
Five states substantially expanded access to abortion before the Roe v. Wade decision: California, New York, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. However, even in these states, the legality of abortion was still very controversial. In 1972, the New York state legislature voted to repeal the legislation making abortion legal — only to have it vetoed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Frustrated by their lack of progress in state legislatures, supporters of legal abortion turned to the initiative process. In 1972, well-funded initiatives that would have expanded abortion access appeared on the ballot in both Michigan and North Dakota — where they were resoundingly defeated by majorities of 63 percent and 78 percent. By the end of 1972, it seemed that supporters of legal abortion were losing momentum. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court handed them a substantial victory and changed the nation’s political landscape for decades.
Supporters of legal abortion should be grateful for Roe, as it has paid them handsome dividends that last to this day. It legalized abortion on demand and made abortion policy resistant to change. It changed sexual and cultural mores in ways that made subsequent restrictions on abortion more difficult to enact. It gave abortion rights mainstream political legitimacy. It created a national network of abortion providers with a financial interest in easy access to abortion. These have been difficult hurdles for the pro-life movement to overcome.
Since 1973, the pro-life movement has worked tirelessly on a number of different fronts and has had its success stories. It has convinced millions of Americans that abortion is wrong, supported pregnancy resources centers that have helped countless women facing crisis pregnancies, passed many incremental laws to protect the unborn, and enjoyed legislative success defunding abortion at both the state and federal levels. Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, Supreme Court decisions are resistant to change, and even if Roe were overturned, the broader battle would have only just begun.
Supporters of legal abortion may be frustrated by the pro-life movement’s momentum. However, an honest reading of the history of abortion politics shows that the Supreme Court’s ham-handed decision granted today’s pro-choicers a victory their predecessors never thought possible — a legal regime protecting abortion on demand throughout nine months of pregnancy in all 50 states.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.