When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade ruling that protected the right to an abortion, it set off a 50-year crusade by its opponents to reverse the decision. Up until then, the procedure hadn’t been politicized in the U.S. Now the anti-abortion movement is likely to culminate this summer with the overturning of Roe and another landmark case — Planned Parenthood v. Casey. KCRW talks to University of Oklahoma professor Jennifer Holland about the history of the anti-abortion movement, its rhetoric, and where it might go from here.
During the 19th century, abortions were common and legal, Holland tells KCRW. Midwives often performed the procedures, using techniques handed down from generations of women.
“Abortion was really [an] everyday experience. Birth control and abortion were fused together. People would grow these herbs or know what herbs to grow to restore your menses. And only after quickening was abortion illegal … where some believed that the fetus became a potential life,” Holland explains.
However, after the American Civil War, Holland says a group of doctors — who worked in reproductive health care — took up an anti-abortion platform to distiguish themselves from midwives.
“Doctors in this moment were not what we imagine now. They didn't necessarily have more medical knowledge. They did not have better medical outcomes. Their medical training sometimes involved classes and sometimes you just bought your degree. And they were competing with a whole host of other practitioners. It really was medical anarchy in the 19th century,” she explains.
Holland says this sect of doctors convinced the recently formed American Medical Association to adopt an anti-abortion stance.
“They pressed state legislatures to impose these laws, alongside … regulations about who can provide medicine in states. They didn't have those,” Holland notes. “Gradually, state by state, this is successful. They convince legislators that it's doctors who really know when life begins, not midwives, and certainly not women themselves.”
By 1900, abortion was declared illegal in the U.S. The procedure was only allowed if a mother’s life was at stake. But by 1967, Colorado reformed its own abortion laws, after advocates pushed for more exceptions to the ban. Holland says they included rape, incest, and extreme mental health situations.
“Now psychiatrists are the ones who are having to determine whether a woman's mental health is at stake. And what does that mean? Does it mean that she just has to say, ‘I am considering suicide?’ Or is there something else? So psychiatrists become this essential cog in this wheel, and some openly reject this and start allowing any woman who comes to them the exception, whereas others are much more rigid.”
During the late 1960s, Holland says some of the most outspoken, religious people were actually supported legal access to abortion. But she notes that as states started relaxing abortion laws, small groups of anti-abortion proponents started to form. Eventually, they coalesced into a unified and national movement.
How abortion became a partisan issue
Initially, the anti-abortion movement wasn’t partisan, Holland explains. But early on, there was a realization that the Republican and Democratic Parties were dramatically shifting.
“The feminist movement had been remaking the Democratic Party in certain ways and pushing them to reconsider those politics. So by 1976, the anti-abortion movement realizes the democrats are not going to be their party. And the republicans are very much open to those voters who are going to help their candidates get elected.”
In 1976, Holland says the Republican Party went public with its first anti-abortion policy. For nearly two decades, they continued to use that platform to attract voters, but didn’t always follow through on the agenda.
In the 1990s, Holland points out that new socially conservative and right-wing religious leaders made a stand and announced they wouldn’t vote for candidates that won’t follow through on an anti-abortion agenda.
At the same time, these supporters were also working on swaying everyday people to join their movement.
“What the movement had done so well is that it had entered very particular, intimate spaces of people's lives like churches, homes, schools, and convinced them that this was not only an important political issue, but the only political issue. And so by the late 1990s, they have a constituency of Americans for whom this is the only issue that matters.”
Holland says that dedication translated into a reliable voting base that, at times, held more influence at the polls.
“That made them an incredibly powerful group, especially in wave elections in the 21st century. It means that they're not just electing republicans, or they're electing republicans who are maybe themselves anti-abortion activists or ideologues, or at least they know what they need to do once they get an office.”
What happens after Roe v. Wade?
Holland says that although anti-abortion advocates would be elated at the overturning of Roe v. Wade, they would still want to end abortion everywhere.
They will also have to figure out how to pass and implement new anti-abortion laws: “Deep red states are going to have to stop medical migrations out into other states, and they're going to have to stop abortion pills from coming in. So they're going to have to figure out how to police both of those things in earnest.”
She adds, “They're going to now finally have this opportunity they've been seeking …does this … anti-abortion utopia that the movement has been imagining for 50 years, will it be realized? Will women and pregnant people be better off without legal abortion? We are going to be confronted with the outcome of this. And the movement’s gonna have to reckon with that in real ways in a way that it hasn't had to for 50 years.”