Today, the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, thousands will gather in Washington to partake in the March for Life, an annual demonstration against “the greatest human rights violation of our time.” The March is but one of countless expressions of the common understanding of Roe as a signal event in the formation of America’s political and cultural divide. As legal scholar Mary Ziegler argues in After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, though, by paying attention so exclusively to the Supreme Court we have lost a much richer story about the evolution of abortion politics. “Rather than remaining preoccupied by the Court’s actions,” she writes, “competing social movements had to navigate the realignment of both major political parties, the mobilization of the Religious Right and the New Right, the changing politics of population control and civil rights, and the popularization of neoliberalism.”
After Roe, to be published this spring, traces these forces through the decade following the Roe decision, informed by oral histories taken from over 100 of the activists and advocates who comprised those social movements.
An adapted excerpt from Ziegler’s Foreword appears below.
The conventional wisdom holds that the Roe opinion provoked a major grassroots pro-life challenge to the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. For the abortion-rights movement, the story goes, Roe discouraged efforts to develop a broader and more equitable agenda that advanced all women’s interest in accessing contraception, child care, and health care and in avoiding sterilization abuse.
Historians, Supreme Court justices, and legal scholars with disparate normative views on abortion have united in their criticism of Roe’s broader societal impact: the opinion supposedly short-circuited a previously innovative dialogue between competing movements about what abortion rights ought to mean. Roe purportedly pushed American movement politics toward the “clash of absolutes” famously described by Laurence Tribe, as activists fought bitterly about the Equal Rights Amendment, contraception, and women’s role in the American polity. By focusing so heavily on the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision, however, scholars have exaggerated the importance of judicial intervention. In putting the Court at the center of the story, we have lost sight of equally important contributions made by the politicians, lobbyists, and grassroots activists who shaped the clash of absolutes Tribe discusses.
Events and activism since 1973 have transformed and multiplied the meanings of “Roe.” Opposing activists deployed Roe in ways calculated to change the course of abortion politics. Within the abortion-rights movement, feminists used Roe as a reminder that abortion was a women’s issue. At times, some movement members saw Roe as a symbol of the dangers of a single-issue agenda. In fundraising campaigns and efforts to mobilize new supporters, activists on opposing sides of the abortion wars reinterpreted the Roe decision in order to shape public consciousness of what the Court had said and whether its opinion deserved support.