- Abortion in the Contemporary United States
Receiving two books with such similar titles, invoking the same epoch-making decision of the Supreme Court inscribing the constitutional right to abortion in the United States, gave me some concern that I was going to be reading the same story twice. In fact, these two works are important complementary studies that take entirely different perspectives, and while one encounters the same organizations, the same individuals, and many of the same crisis points, the emphasis is very different. Both books open up the intricacies and complexities of a contested subject in an era during which it has often been depicted as a simplistic binary struggle between the advocates of reproductive rights and women's bodily autonomy and the defenders of the right to life of the unborn fetus.
These two works also intersect with growing transnational interest in the progress, or lack thereof, of women's right to abortion over the past fifty or so years. There have been several conferences and conference panels exploring aspects of the topic. There is currently a major scholarly project in the UK that addresses the fifty years since the 1967 David Steel Abortion Act, and several conferences were held during 2017 commemorating its passage. Susanne Klausen's Abortion under Apartheid (2015) has recently illuminated the intersection of racial and gender concerns in South Africa.1
What these works reveal is a complex and by no means inevitable trajectory of abortion politics and provision in the United States since the ruling in Roe v. Wade, inflected by the specific context of a period of social, economic, and political change. What both books make very clear is that on both sides of the divide, there were considerable differences and even dissensions based in ideology, individual conflicts, and contested opinions on the most productive way forward.
While there is already a substantial historiography of the struggle for abortion rights and the ravages of illegal abortion in the US, so far—to the [End Page 139] best of my knowledge—less has been written on the rise of the anti-abortion or pro-life movement. This may partly be because it arose relatively late in reaction to the perception that the struggle for legalization was beginning to bear fruit. In the UK, the David Steel Abortion Law Reform Bill was already on its way through Parliament before organized opposition began, and Ziegler indicates that the origins of the US pro-life movement were local initiatives against reforms to specific state laws. Another reason, as Ziegler notes in the preface, is that "some advocates, particularly abortion opponents, have not preserved or donated relevant materials"—something reflected in my own experience as an archivist in the UK (xix).
In After Roe, Ziegler thus performs a valuable service in recuperating the lost history of the rise of the pro-life movement during the decade after Roe. Her use of the available archival sources, along with oral testimony from diverse strata of activists and relevant published materials, provides an invaluable depth, revealing a by no means monolithic movement. She counters a great number of preconceptions. It is surprising to see how relatively late the evangelical protestant Religious Right became such a leading player in pro-life activism. In the early 1970s, this was still strongly associated with Roman Catholicism, and there were significant adherents in the Democratic Party. It was by no means part of the Republican platform during that period.
As Ziegler also reveals, there was a strand of activism that was by no means hostile to women's rights even though it considered abortion ethically repugnant. The alternative strategies posited to counter the resort to abortion were improved maternity care, workplace rights, childcare facilities, sex education provision, and access to contraception. There were therefore possibilities of compromise...