What came before Roe v. Wade

January 22, 2010

The period before the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion tells a lot about how we can defend access to abortion today, says Elizabeth Schulte.

IT WAS necessary to protect "unborn children."

That's the defense that the lawyer for Scott Roeder--the man who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, one of the last doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions--plans to use in the coming trial.

Earlier this month, Roeder's lawyer announced he was a seeking voluntary manslaughter defense, because Roeder believed that killing of the doctor would, in the end, save lives.

While it's obvious (to everyone except the Kansas judge who accepted this defense) that Roeder's ideas are on the fringe of the abortion debate, his case does highlight some of what's wrong with the debate itself. Abortion shouldn't be viewed, as the right wing does, as "killing the unborn" or, as a growing number of people who might even consider themselves pro-choice do, as an unfortunate choice that should be avoided.

Women who seek abortions are acting on their right to make decisions about their own bodies and their own futures. When a woman can't make a choice--free of legal or financial restrictions and free of outside pressures from her family, partner or religion--about whether to carry a pregnancy to term, she can't be considered equal or free.

Activists rally to defend safe and legal abortions in San Francisco
Activists rally to defend safe and legal abortions in San Francisco (Josh On | SW)

Dr. Tiller wore a button with a message that summed it up: Trust women.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's worth going back to what the era before abortion was legal has to tell us--about the lengths that women will take to end a pregnancy, but also the role that activists played in radically transforming the way women and our reproductive rights were viewed in U.S. society.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, women have, and still do, seek to end pregnancies. When abortion is illegal or inaccessible, women suffer. Before abortion was legal, women were maimed or died trying to obtain back-alley abortions. And when limitations are placed on access to abortion, women still face great hardship, and in some cases personal physical harm.

Before Roe v. Wade, women sought out abortion in any way they could. If they had enough money, they could travel outside the U.S. for a legal abortion, or possibly obtain an abortion from a doctor in the U.S.--although the outcome wasn't always dependable since women were at the whims of the doctor. Homemade methods--often ineffective or dangerous or both--were the only option for many women. They included douching with soap or bleach, or injecting lye or inserting a wire coat hanger.

In the book Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era by Ellen Messer and Kathryn May, Kathleen, a women who had to have two illegal abortions to end her pregnancy in 1969, explained her decision: "Probably the only thing that gave me the strength to have the abortion was that I felt that I would just as soon die as be trapped into poverty and motherhood, and that's what it would have been. I didn't think it would have been a fair life for a child or a mother."

There were few women who didn't know a story like this one, or who had a firsthand experience trying to obtain an abortion. Yet for the most part, these stories were shared secretly, if at all. Later, they would play an important role in helping lift the ban on abortions.

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe on January 22, 1973, the change was felt immediately. Though it remained to be seen how accessible or affordable abortion would be for most women, the back-alley abortion ceased to be a necessary risk for most women.

But Roe didn't happen in isolation. Before the Court's decision, 17 states had passed laws decriminalizing or legalizing abortion, and anti-abortion laws had been challenged in 29 other states and the District of Columbia.

The Court's decision came about during a period of a larger shift in public opinion and policy over women's status in society. The actions of activists played a key role in shifting that debate.

Many of the people who took part in the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early '70s had previous experience organizing in the civil rights and anti-poverty movements. These activists, pressing demands that challenged the status quo of segregation and poverty, also began to take a hard look at the day-to-day sexism that they experienced. In some cases, activists had to take on sexism, as it appeared in other movements, and fight to put women's liberation on the list of demands.

The more that activists exposed and protested that inequality, the more public opinion at large shifted, too.

ONE OF the women's liberation movement's most powerful tools was speak-outs, where women told personal stories about their illegal abortions. It began when a group of women crashed a legislative hearing on the issue of abortion law reform in New York City in February 1969, and found that the only testimony being presented was that of 14 men and one woman (a nun).

After the committee refused to hear the women, they decided to organize their own public testimony. Some 300 people turned out to this first speak-out in March 1969. Thousands of people heard about it and organized their own similar actions.

In her book Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End, Sara Evans quotes journalist Gloria Steinem's realization: "For the first time, I understood that the abortion I had kept so shamefully quiet about for years was an experience I had probably shared with at least one out of four American women of every race and group."

Not only did these actions have an impact on pressuring politicians and judges to do the right thing, but they had a broader impact in drawing attention to women's real concerns to the public at large. Women who took part in these events or heard about them now had proof that they were not alone in their experiences trying to obtain an abortion--and they should not be ashamed.

In New York, many of these stories were later used in court, as depositions in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, the 1972 case that challenged and overturned New York state's abortion ban. People packed into the courthouse to hear women's testimonies, like Barbara Susan, who described trying to obtain an abortion, but every time she set up an appointment with an abortionist that claimed to be a doctor, they didn't show up.

"I tried to find an abortionist, but since, in New York state, abortion is illegal and I wasn't a criminal and I didn't know any criminals, I had a hard time finding one," she said. Susan ended up putting her education on hold, marrying a guy she didn't want to marry and having the child. She felt like everything was stacked against her.

In her testimony, quoted in Jennifer Nelson's Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, Susan said, "[T]he state was on the side of the people who were supporting my getting married, and not on the side of my deciding what to do with my life." She ended up giving her child up for adoption, but she had to pay for doctor's and lawyer's fees.

The fight for women's reproductive rights wasn't limited to abortion rights. Activists also took up the right of women to have children if they chose to do so. The forced or coerced sterilization of welfare recipients and other poor women, particularly Latinas and Black women, was a common practice up into the 1970s. The Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) investigated and documented thousands of cases of forced sterilization.

In many cases, women were threatened with cancellation of their welfare benefits if they didn't agree to the procedure. In other cases, the sterilization happened without their knowledge or consent.

Between the 1930s and 1970s, about a third of the female population of childbearing age in of Puerto Rico, where abortion was illegal, had been sterilized. As noted in a 1977 CARASA position paper by Joan Kelly, "The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare subsidized these sterilizations, paying 80 percent of the budget of Puerto Rico's major sterilizing agency, the Family Planning Association."

Demanding an end to these forced sterilization against women went hand in hand with the concept that women, and women alone, have the right to say what they do with their bodies. As a 1979 CARASA statement argued, "Reproductive freedom means the freedom to have as well as not to have children."

The Young Lords Party, the Puerto Rican organization that modeled themselves on the Black Panthers, also took up the demand for women's reproductive freedom, in large part due to arguments from their women members, some of whom were also involved with feminist organizing in CARASA.

With an eye toward the very real danger of hospitals for Puerto Rican women, the Young Lords made Point 6 of their 13-point program:

"We want community control of our institutions and our land." This means that we want institutions, like hospitals where sisters go to have abortions, to be under the control of our people to be sure that they really serve our needs. Until we struggle together to change our present situation, women will not be allowed to have the children they can support without suffering any consequences.

Their slogan was "End all genocide. Abortion under community control."

AS THE confidence of the women's movement grew, so did the demands. So when a national Women's Strike for Equality was called for August 26, 1970, the demands included equal pay, free abortion on demand and free child care. Some 50,000 men and women turned out to protests called in cities across the country.

Sharon Smith points out in Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation:

But more important than the actual numbers drawn into the movement, the ideas of women's liberation found a much larger audience in the population at large. Effective social movements have a transforming impact on popular opinion. The effects of the women's movement were far-reaching in raising the consciousness and expectations of millions of women workers and students. By 1976, a Harris survey reported that 65 percent of American women supported "efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society."

It's shocking to think of the change that appears to have happened in a relatively short period of time, but it was in the making years beforehand.

At the same time, the fight was far from over. While Roe did indeed change everything, it left the door open for further attacks on abortion rights, such as bans on late-term procedures. After Roe, it was still that case that poor women had little real access to abortion, especially after the 1976 passage of the Hyde Amendment banning poor women from using Medicaid funds to obtain abortions.

Today, as we face a vicious assault on a woman's right to choose--from elected officials and well as the fringes of the religious right--there's much to be learned from the days before Roe.

Public opinion can be shifted in support of women's right to abortion when people know the facts. Activists have to expose the lies that the abortion opponents tell--that women are "hurt" by abortion, for example, or that someone else should decide the point when she is allowed to get one.

Before the women's liberation movement, opinions about "a woman's place" were no less outrageous. But the movement set the record straight, put forward its demands and helped create a sea change in opinions about women and their reproductive rights.

Women's right to abortion is a matter of our freedom and equality. The women's movement of the 1960s and '70s waged a war--our side won, and we should refuse to go back.

Further Reading

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