Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
September 3, 2021
In the light of day today, the political fallout from Texas’s anti-abortion S.B. 8 law and the Supreme Court’s acceptance of that law continues to become clear.
By 1:00 this afternoon, the Fox News Channel had mentioned the decision only in a 20-second news brief in the 5 am hour. In political terms, it seems the dog has caught the car.
As I’ve said repeatedly, most Americans agree on most issues, even the hot button ones like abortion. A Gallup poll from June examining the issue of abortion concluded that only 32% of Americans wanted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision overturned, while 58% of Americans opposed overturning it.
“’Overturning Roe v. Wade,’” Lydia Saad of Gallup wrote, “is a shorthand way of saying the Supreme Court could decide abortion is not a constitutional right after all, thus giving control of abortion laws back to the states. This does not sit well with a majority of Americans or even a large subset of Republicans. Not only do Americans oppose overturning Roe in principle, but they oppose laws limiting abortion in early stages of pregnancy that would have the same practical effect.”
While it is hard to remember today, the modern-day opposition to abortion had its roots not in a moral defense of life but rather in the need for President Richard Nixon to win votes before the 1972 election. Pushing the idea that abortion was a central issue of American life was about rejecting the equal protection of the laws embraced by the Democrats far more than it was ever about using the government to protect fetuses.
Abortion had been a part of American life since its inception, but states began to criminalize abortion in the 1870s. By 1960, an observer estimated that there were between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal U.S. abortions a year, endangering women, primarily poor ones who could not afford a workaround.
To stem this public health crisis, doctors wanted to decriminalize abortion and keep it between a woman and her doctor. In the 1960s, states began to decriminalize abortion on this medical model, and support for abortion rights grew.
The rising women’s movement wanted women to have control over their lives. Its leaders were latecomers to the reproductive rights movement, but they came to see reproductive rights as key to self-determination. In 1969, activist Betty Friedan told a medical abortion meeting: “[M]y only claim to be here, is our belated recognition, if you will, that there is no freedom, no equality, no full human dignity and personhood possible for women until we assert and demand the control over our own bodies, over our own reproductive process….”
In 1971, even the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention agreed that abortion should be legal in some cases, and vowed to work for modernization. Their convention that year reiterated its “belief that society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves” but also called on “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
By 1972, Gallup pollsters reported that 64% of Americans agreed that abortion was between a woman and her doctor. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans, who had always liked family planning, agreed, as did 59% of Democrats.
In keeping with that sentiment, in 1973, the Supreme Court, under Republican Chief Justice Warren Burger, in a decision written by Republican Harry Blackmun, decided Roe v. Wade, legalizing first-trimester abortion.
The common story is that Roe sparked a backlash. But legal scholars Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel found something interesting. In a 2011 article in the Yale Law Journal, they showed that opposition to the eventual Roe v. Wade decision began in 1972—the year before the decision—and that it was a deliberate attempt to polarize American politics.
In 1972, Nixon was up for reelection, and he and his people were paranoid that he would lose. His adviser Pat Buchanan was a Goldwater man who wanted to destroy the popular New Deal state that regulated the economy and protected social welfare and civil rights. To that end, he believed Democrats and traditional Republicans must be kept from power and Nixon must win reelection.
Catholics, who opposed abortion and believed that “the right of innocent human beings to life is sacred,” tended to vote for Democratic candidates. Buchanan, who was a Catholic himself, urged Nixon to woo Catholic Democrats before the 1972 election over the issue of abortion. In 1970, Nixon had directed U.S. military hospitals to perform abortions regardless of state law; in 1971, using Catholic language, he reversed course to split the Democrats, citing his personal belief “in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn.”
Although Nixon and Democratic nominee George McGovern had similar stances on abortion, Nixon and Buchanan defined McGovern as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion,” a radical framing designed to alienate traditionalists.
As Nixon split the U.S. in two to rally voters, his supporters used abortion to stand in for women’s rights in general. Railing against the Equal Rights Amendment, in her first statement on abortion in 1972, activist Phyllis Schlafly did not talk about fetuses; she said: “Women’s lib is a total assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother and on the family as the basic unit of society. Women’s libbers are trying to make wives and mothers unhappy with their career, make them feel that they are ‘second-class citizens’ and ‘abject slaves.’ Women’s libbers are promoting free sex instead of the ‘slavery’ of marriage. They are promoting Federal ‘day-care centers’ for babies instead of homes. They are promoting abortions instead of families.”
Traditional Republicans supported an activist government that regulated business and promoted social welfare, but radical right Movement Conservatives wanted to kill the active government. They attacked anyone who supported such a government as immoral. Abortion turned women’s rights into murder.
Movement Conservatives preached traditional roles, and in 1974, the TV show Little House on the Prairie started its 9-year run, contributing, as historian Peggy O’Donnell has explored, to the image of white women as wives and mothers in the West protected by their menfolk. So-called prairie dresses became the rage in the 1970s.
This image was the female side of the cowboy individualism personified by Ronald Reagan. A man should control his own destiny and take care of his family unencumbered by government. Women should be wives and mothers in a nuclear family. In 1984, sociologist Kristin Luker discovered that “pro-life” activists believed that selfish “pro-choice” women were denigrating the roles of wife and mother. They wanted an active government to give them rights they didn’t need or deserve.
By 1988, Rush Limbaugh, the voice of Movement Conservatism, who was virulently opposed to taxation and active government, demonized women’s rights advocates as “Femi-nazis” for whom “the most important thing in life is ensuring that as many abortions as possible occur.” The complicated issue of abortion had become a proxy for a way to denigrate the political opponents of the radicalizing Republican Party.
Such threats turned out Republican voters, especially the evangelical base. But support for safe and legal abortion has always been strong, as it remains today. Until yesterday, Republican politicians could pay lip service to opposing the Roe v. Wade decision to get anti-abortion voters to show up at the polls, without facing the political fallout of actually getting rid of the decision.
Now, though, Texas has effectively destroyed the right to legal abortion.
The fact that the Fox News Channel is not mentioning what should have been a landmark triumph of its viewers’ ideology suggests Republicans know that ending safe and legal abortion is deeply unpopular. Their base finally, after all these years, got what it wanted. But now the rest of the nation, which had been assured as recently as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that Roe v. Wade was settled law that would not be overturned, gets a chance to weigh in.