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Before Roe

Abortion Policy in the States

Rosemary Nossiff

Publication Year: 2001

Few issues in contemporary U.S> politics have remained on the public agenda so long and so divisively as abortion policy. The landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Waade, which held that laws prohibiting first trimester abortions were illegal because they violated a woman's right to privacy, still generates heated controversy today, a quarter of a century after it was made. The seeds of that controversy were sown in the seven years immediately preceding Roe, when state legislatures tried to reconcile religious opposition to abortion and individuals' civil liberties.

In this groundbreaking book, Rosemary Nossiff examines the force that shaped abortion policy during those years, and the ways in which states responded to them. To provide in-depth analysis while still looking broadly at the picture, she studies New York, which passed the  most permissive abortion bill in the country, and Pennsylvania, which passed one of the most restrictive. That these two states, which share similar demographic, political, and  economic characteristics, should reach two such different outcomes provides a perfect case study for observing political dynamics at the state level.

Nossiff examines the medical, religious, and legal discourses employed on both sides of the debate, as well as the role played by feminist discourse. She looks at the role of the political parties in the campaigns, as well as such interest groups as the National Council of Catholic Bishops, the Clergy Consultation Service, the National Organization for Women, and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. In addition, she analyzes the strategies used by both sides, as well as partisan and institutionalized developments that facilitated success or failure. Finally, in the Epilogue, she assesses the Roe decision and its aftermath, including an analysis of the pro-life movement in Pennsylvania.

As the author remarks, "Without question people's positions on abortion are shaped by a myriad of social, moral, and economic factors. But ultimately abortion policy is shaped in the political arena. This book examines how one of the most intimate decisions a woman makes, whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, has become one of the most politicized issues in contemporary American politics.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

In writing this book I drew on the support, commitment, and dedication of many people. Ted Lowi’s enthusiasm and interest sustained me throughout. Another supporter was Elizabeth Sanders, who read the manuscript and offered several suggestions that improved it immeasurably. Martin Shefter’s work and Benjamin Ginsberg’s ideas about American...

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pp. 1-12

Few issues in contemporary American politics have remained on the public agenda as long or split the country as divisively as abortion policy. Its inherent political, social, and moral dimensions make it an explosive issue that no institution, group, or religion has succeeded in containing. It was not always so. Until the nineteenth century it was...

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1. Reform and Opportunity

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pp. 13-27

When pro-abortion activists in New York and Pennsylvania began their campaigns to change the abortion laws, the obstacles they faced were similar: public opposition to reform, well-organized opponents, party indifference, and limited resources. Yet within five years the state legislatures in Albany and Harrisburg had passed radically different policies...

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2. Competing Discourses

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pp. 28-55

Why a topic becomes a political issue is a central question addressed by theorists of agenda-setting.1 Although these theorists focus on different aspects of the agenda making process, what unites them is the significance they assign to discourse as a tool used by competing forces to get their respective issues into the policy stream. Discourse is the...

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3. Gender Identity and Political Mobilization

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pp. 56-76

The political conflict over abortion policy stems partly from competing ideas about the meaning of womanhood. Because opposing interpretations of gender, sexuality, and reproduction are central to the debate over abortion policy, the pre-Roe conflict provides a particularly appropriate context...

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4. Party Politics in New York

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pp. 77-105

Among the first states to repeal its abortion law in the pre- period was New York, which in 1970 joined Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington in legalizing early elective abortions with few restrictions. Unlike Washington, which bypassed the legislative route and its inherent obstacles by holding a referendum on repeal, pro- and antiabortion...

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5. Interest-Group Politics in Pennsylvania

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pp. 106-126

In the midst of a nationwide effort to update abortion statutes, the one state that went against the tide was Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1967, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) built a well-organized, comprehensive campaign on the state and local levels that pre-empted its opponents and generated broad-based legislative support...

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6. Party, Discourse, and Policy

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pp. 127-142

The pre-Roe story was one of winners and losers. To be sure, groups on both sides of the debate in New York and Pennsylvania encountered party systems that were more or less suited to their needs. But it is no coincidence that the winners in this study, pro-abortion activists in New York and antiabortion forces in Pennsylvania, framed their demands...

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7. After Roe: The Pendulum Swings Back

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pp. 143-169

After Roe, abortion politics in America were transformed. The decision put abortion policy on the national agenda and expanded the influence of the women’s movement; later it did the same for the pro-life movement.1 Roe decriminalized early abortions: without it, most states would have retained their restrictive abortion laws and many women who wanted...

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pp. 170-175

With the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, pro-abortion activists succeeded in securing women’s rights to early abortions with limited state interference. But Roe did not settle the issue. After 1973, abortion policy became a national issue, and the next twenty-five years saw a passionate struggle...


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pp. 177-187

Index of Cases

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pp. 189

General Index

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pp. 191-195

E-ISBN-13: 9781439907740
Print-ISBN-13: 9781566398107

Publication Year: 2001