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Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 463-478

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Abortion Policy Before Roe: Grassroots and Interest-Group Mobilization

Rosemary Nossiff

In 1965 abortion was illegal in every state in America except when the woman's life was endangered. Eight years later, in its decision in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that a woman's decision to have an early elective abortion was constitutionally protected. 1

The battle over abortion policy that led to Roe took place on the state level, where pro-abortion activists attempted to reform, and in some cases repeal, the abortion laws. They were opposed by anti-abortion groups, who sought to defeat any attempts to allow abortions in cases other than life endangerment. 2

The legal basis for the campaign to change the abortion statutes was the Supreme Court's 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to married couples violated their rights to privacy. 3 Using Griswold, pro-abortion activists argued that if access to contraception was protected by the right to privacy, then access to therapeutic abortions, which enabled women to terminate pregnancies that endangered their physical or mental health, should be granted the same degree of constitutional protection. Their opponents countered that abortion was murder.

In the 1960s abortion was a taboo subject, rarely spoken about in public outside the narrow domains of medical, legal, and public health circles. As one early pro-abortion activist recalled: "No matter what our degrees or titles, we were all considered slightly cracked, if not outright fanatics, that first year (1966)." 4 How, in a short eight years, the issue of abortion moved out of the back alleys and into the courts and the legislatures can be best understood by examining the [End Page 463] interplay between parties and interest and grassroots groups on the state level, where it all began.

Social Regulatory Policy

The moral nature of social regulatory policies like abortion means that the debate surrounding them also has a moral dimension. Thus, while the adoption of distributive and redistributive policies is primarily influenced by economic indicators such as personal income levels and the relative wealth of a state (Dawson and Robinson 1963; Dye 1966), studies on a range of "morality-based" policies--from laws restricting abortion access (Mooney and Lee, 1995) and the sale and use of alcohol (Meier and Johnson, 1990), to state lottery adoption (Berry and Berry, 1990)--demonstrate that the decision whether to adopt social regulatory policies is governed less by economic factors than by cultural, religious, and political ones. 5

Profiles of grassroots activists on both sides of the debate have illustrated the cultural dimension of the issue (Hunter, 1991; Luker, 1984; Skerry, 1978; Ginsburg, 1989). 6 They show that, in general, activists in favor of restrictive abortion laws attend religious services more regularly and have lower levels of education than their opponents. 7 Luker's analysis of abortion activists in California, however, offers a more nuanced portrait. At the core of the divide between activists are two opposing world views; one that considers having children to be a fundamental part of existence; the other that regards child-raising as a personal choice. 8 As Hunter notes, the contemporary culture war, which includes the debate over abortion, is "over how we are to order our lives together." 9

Various public opinion polls taken in the pre-Roe period between 1965 and 1972 highlighted these differences. In terms of the relationship between religious commitment and attitudes toward abortion, Finner and Gamache (1969) found that an individual's understanding of what it means to be religious, in terms of behavior and expectations, was significantly related to negative attitudes concerning elective abortions. 10 Building on Finner and Gamache, Clayton and Tolone (1973) demonstrated that as religiosity (ideological commitment) increases, support for abortion declines. 11 Studies analyzing the relationship between attitudes to abortion and class and religion (Mileti and Barnett, 1972; Arney and Trescher, 1976; Blake, 1971) showed formal education to be the best predictor of [End Page 464] support for abortion in...


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