A central debate in U.S. politics: the history and significance of abortion rights

Ever since I was a teenager, U.S. politics fascinated me. I don’t know whether it is the thrill of the elections, the crooked electoral system or the intensity and influence American politics has on the globe.

In a sense, I always viewed that the Democratic-Republican rivalry represented two irreconcilable sides of a spectrum that itself is not defined enough. However, growing up, I started noticing that a number of issues which seemed so trivial to the realm of politics in Europe and the Middle East, were of a gigantic significance in the United States - medical care, gun violence, but most importantly abortion rights.

The conservative stance on abortion specifies that termination of pregnancy should not be available as a solution to women except in very slender circumstances. This perspective, today fuelled by the majority of Republicans, does not in itself surprise me - the lobbying movement behind it does. I mean, I always asked myself: why do these people fight continuously for a matter that does not concern them? If you don’t want to do it, then fine, just don’t. But why do you want others to stop doing it too? Why do you ceaselessly look to impel a whole population to adhere to your beliefs? Wasn’t politics all about consensus after all?

When a close relative of mine recommended the documentary Reversing Roe, I started understanding the origins and motivations of the pro-life movement in the U.S.

Up until 1873, abortions were legal and widely practiced in the United States. It was only in that year that abortion drugs were banned from the country due to poisoning concerns. Very few activists, at the time, manifested any attention to the issue of abortions. However, in 1965, it was estimated that 5000 women died every year by attempting to have an abortion themselves, using pills and hangers. The restrictive policies of the time started being challenged by the public during that period, with the support of the New Politics and New Left movements, but also of a significant chunk of Republican partisans. The famous TV personality Sherri Finkbine’s abortion in Sweden played a pivotal role in changing the general opinion on the matter, and states started allowing the termination of pregnancies.

In the 1970s, the pro-choice movement had the support of the moderate conservatives in the Republican party, as well as the endorsement of the Church. In fact, in 1970, the first abortion clinic in the United States opened in New York City by the Clergy under Republican Governor Rockefeller, while in California, then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed a pro-choice bill into law. Moreover, 68% of Republicans at the time believed that abortion should be a matter settled between a woman and her physician. In 1973, the revolutionary Supreme Court cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, argued before a court with four Nixon judicial appointees, legalised the choice of abortions in the United States. While Republican President Gerald Ford opposed the ruling, his wife, First Lady Betty Ford, supported the pro-choice movement and welcomed the Supreme Court's landmark decision (North 2019).

Republican Party affiliation was at its lowest, at the time, due to the Watergate scandal (McKeegan 1993). However, by the time Reagan became the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential election in 1980, conservative activists such as Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell Sr. mobilised two-thirds of the Christian religious electorate to go on and win the election. However, a clear decline in Republican votes was observed on the African-American and low-income individuals fronts, who started shifting to the Democratic camp, due to Reagan’s conservative stance on abortion, which mostly hurt poorer minorities.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, argued in 1992 upheld Roe v. Wade, but gave latitude for states to impose stricter rules on reproductive rights. The Republican Party picked up on this decision by slowly curtailing abortion, using terms which are not medically-recognised to pass legislation, such as the “partial-term abortions”. Today, this margin of lenience is used by pro-life organisations, most notably Operation Rescue, National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, to lobby red stated into passing restrictive legislation, as was recently the case in Kentucky and Alabama.

In the pro-life movement, the anti-abortion outlook is not founded on morals. In fact, the abortion debate is, per se, not a religious debate in developed countries: in the United Kingdom for example, 28% of the population identifies as following traditional religions, but only 5% support a complete ban on abortions (YouGov 2019). Similar results can be observed in other states such as Canada, where 70% of the surveyed population finds abortion acceptable (CityNews 2020), when only less than a quarter of the population identifies as non-religious (Chui et al. 2013).

Why, then, does the pro-life movement claim to impose its views on the general population on the basis of Christianity and the existence of a living soul in the womb?

Abortions become an ethical problem where triggered on a twofold rhetoric.

Firstly, in the age of decentralisation, abortion is used in the United States as a central issue to generate political momentum. In fact, a big portion of the U.S. electorate only possesses a preconceived opinion on abortion due to the partisanship of the problem. Utilising the issue of reproductive rights has enabled the American political elite to draw visible party lines by influencing people through issues which do not concern them. Due to the federal system in place in the United States, this crack has drifted Democrats and Republicans even further. For instance, the pro-life rhetoric is nourished by the assertion that the “change starts in your state” doctrine was usurped by Washington, notably by the unelected U.S. Supreme Court.

More generally, a theory explaining the significance of the abortion debate in the U.S. since the late 1950s is post-materialism, a sociological concept birthed by Ronald Inglehart. The scholar posits that post-war generations, born and raised in an environment of economic security, hold post-materialist values and are hence concerned with matters which are more abstract and which do not directly affect them. Those values include gender equality, the safeguarding of rights such as freedom, choice and autonomy, environmental protection, etc.

As such, traditionalism is seen as adhering to the materialist perspective, whereas the abortion rights movement is inherently post-materialist. In fact, being pro-choice is not necessarily being pro-abortion. It is being supportive of the right to autonomy, to make one’s own decisions, to let the patient and her physician be “free to determine, without regulation by the State” (Roe v. Wade), the outcome of her pregnancy.

In the era of post-materialism, abortion rights are normally mirrored in the political agenda of individuals who are upper-educated and living in cosmopolitan cities. This reflects, yet again, the Republican-Democratic divide eating into the American society on the basis of ethnicity, religion and income. Actually, about half of the women who have had abortions in the U.S. in 2014 lived under the poverty line (Olmstead 2020). This phenomenon of “stratified reproduction”, as called by Shellee Colen (1995), undoubtedly deepens the rift isolating minorities.

Eventually, both arguments on the abortion issue present noticeable flaws. The liberal argument contains a clear problem on the political level, as it undermines the importance of local custom and puts federal institutions on the pedestal, at the detriment of the state’s small government. Meanwhile, the conservative stance on abortion showcases clear disinformation and hypocrisy. Not only is the movement’s claim that taxpayers’ money fund abortions a simple lie, but in attempting to obtrude the pro-life perspective, and all the restrictions it entails, upon everyone, the pro-life movement goes against its own principle of “forcing an ideology” on the whole population.

Ultimately, it is noticeable that the growing partisanship on the issue of abortion rights will not cease any soon. The abortion debate in the United States has become symbolic of a cultural struggle driven by political gain, and today reaches, way further than the problem itself, a block of voters for both parties which otherwise would not turn up. As such, with the Senate confirmation of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, we are definitely not far from witnessing further evolution in this neverending debate.

Sources consulted

Chui, Tina and John Flanders (2013). Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada. Available at: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.cfm

CityNews (2020). ‘Majority of Canadians 'satisfied' with the country's abortion policies: poll’, CityNews, Toronto, January 31. Available at: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2020/01/31/canada-abortion-poll-2020/

Colen, Shelley (1995). ‘‘Like a Mother to Them’: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York’ in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, edited by Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, pp. 78–102. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKeegan, Michele (1993). ‘The politics of abortion: A historical perspective’, Women's Health Issues,

Volume 3, Issue 3, pp. 127-131.

North, Anna (2019). ‘How abortion became a partisan issue in America’, Vox, April 10. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2019/4/10/18295513/abortion-2020-roe-joe-biden-democrats-republicans

Olmstead, Gracy (2020). ‘How Abortion Warps Our Politics’, New York Times, New York, February 5. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/opinion/abortion-trump.html

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Reversing Roe (2018). [Online] Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. United States: Netflix. Available on Netflix.

YouGov (2019). Should women have the right to an abortion?. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/should-women-have-the-right-to-an-abortion