Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Roe V. Wade’ Turns 40, But Abortion Debate Is Even Older

Photo caption:

Photo by Bob Daugherty

While the U.S. Supreme Court's

Photo caption:

Photo by NPR

Dubbed "the father of the abortion-rights movement" by the media, Bill Baird was instrumental in raising awareness in the late 1960s of the substandard medical conditions common for women obtaining illegal abortions at the time. He's seen here, at an undated news conference in Boston, with women he helped get abortions who are hooded to prevent identification and arrest.

Photo caption:

Photo by NPR

On Jan. 22, 1973, the day of the court's decision, an estimated 5,000 women and men formed a "ring of life" around the Minnesota Capitol building and marched in protest of the ruling that "abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy."

Photo caption:

Photo by Stephan Savoia

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton marches with abortion-rights supporters past the White House, April 6, 1992. Although many positions vary at the state, local and even lower federal levels, Democrats at the national level have made abortion rights part of their party platform since 1976; Republicans began calling for

Photo caption:

Photo by Tim Sloan

Each January, anti-abortion protesters mark the anniversary of the

Photo caption:

Photo by Cameron Craig

Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of the 1973 decision, embraces the Rev. Robert L. Schenck of the National Clergy Council before she addresses a memorial service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 1996. A year earlier McCorvey shocked abortion-rights advocates by becoming a spokeswoman for the other side of the debate, stating she no longer supported abortion rights.

Photo caption:

Photo by Charlie Riedel

While protesters on both sides of the debate have by and large acted in peace, the

Photo caption:

Photo by Peter Keegan

The Catholic Church put a priority on keeping abortions illegal, helping support the formation of the original National Right to Life Committee in 1969. But as this abortion-rights campaigner noted in 1973, a majority of Catholics at the time believed the abortion decision should be left to a woman and her doctor.



Jan. 22, 2013, marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

But the conventional wisdom that the court's 7-2 decision marked the beginning of a contentious battle that still rages today is not the case, according to those on both sides of the dispute.

Michael Taylor, executive director of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, has been involved in the anti-abortion effort since the late 1960s. He says the present fight dates back to the 1950s, when some groups "began urging the overturn or modification of existing laws" banning abortion.

Linda Greenhouse agrees. "It's important to understand how we got to where we are, and not to misunderstand the various lessons of Roe," says Greenhouse, who spent 30 years covering the Supreme Court for the New York Times and now lectures at Yale Law School.

But, not surprisingly, not everyone agrees on what those lessons are.

Abortion foes like Taylor say the court's Roe decision, by nationalizing the debate, set the nation on its current path toward making the issue a seemingly intractable one.

"I'm not sure if you'd have as much black and white in politics as you do today if the court had not taken this very aggressive position," he says. "As another scholar said, the court has made legislators and citizens mute on this issue."

But Greenhouse, along with Yale Law professor Reva Siegel, disagrees. In both a recent book, Before Roe v. Wade, and the Yale Law Journal article "Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions About Backlash," the authors suggest that factors other than the court decision may have had much more to do with the state of today's debate.

One important thing most people don't realize, says Greenhouse, is that the move to relax state abortion laws came not from women's rights groups but from the medical profession and a prominent apolitical group of judges and lawyers called the American Law Institute.

"These were heavily, heavily male-dominated professional organizations that looked at the regime of criminal abortion laws that were driving women to back alleys and were putting doctors in legal jeopardy if they acted in what they considered to be the best interests of their patients," Greenhouse says. "And that's where the impetus really began."

Even those on the other side of the abortion debate don't dispute that the debate began well before the Supreme Court entered the fray. David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, notes that the American Law Institute's model law called for allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality, and to preserve the physical health of the pregnant woman.

"And that law was passed in a number of states," he says. "Between 1967 and 1970, a total of 19 states had legalized abortion for reasons other than to save the life of the mother."

It's the next part of Greenhouse's and Siegel's argument that's more controversial. They say one of the things that really politicized the abortion issue was the efforts of those working to re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972. His aides, including future Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, wanted to lure Northern Catholic voters, who had traditionally voted Democratic, over to the Republican Party.

Nixon "was strongly advised by his strategists ... to make a play for a Northern urban Catholic Democratic vote," says Greenhouse. "A kind of Northern strategy that mirrored the Southern strategy."

In fact, up until then, top Republicans tended to be more in favor of abortion rights than Democrats, including, for much of his first term, Nixon himself.

"It's upside-down," says Greenhouse. "It's like going through the looking glass into another world."

So, taking his aides' advice, Nixon switched sides on abortion, even reversing an earlier relaxation of an abortion ban in military facilities.

Meanwhile, his staff painted his 1972 Democratic opponent, George McGovern, as a radical, describing him as the candidate of "amnesty, abortion and acid," with amnesty referring to those who dodged the draft for the Vietnam War.

Although McGovern tried to deny the charges, the campaign worked. Nixon went on to trounce McGovern that November.

But it wasn't just the doctors and lawyers, or the politicians, who propelled the abortion debate before the Supreme Court got involved. The Catholic Church also played a role.

"During Vatican II, in the mid '60s, the pope instructed the U.S. bishops to make abortion a priority. And they did," says Jon O'Brien, president of the abortion-rights group Catholics for Choice.

Keeping abortion illegal, that is. But, O'Brien says, the church didn't necessarily want to be seen as the leader of that movement, because most of its flock didn't agree.

"A majority of Catholics, even back in the 1960s, believed that the abortion decision should be between a woman and her doctor," O'Brien says.

So the church created groups that were not overtly church sponsored.

"And what they wanted to do was give the appearance of having a grass-roots movement, when really this was the Catholic hierarchy at work to make abortion illegal in the United States of America and to keep it so," he says.

Taylor, of the Committee for a Human Life Amendment, is a living example of that move. As a graduate student then working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was asked by the church to help run the original National Right to Life Committee, which the church had set up.

"I was asked, would I temporarily shepherd this thing until it could get on its feet independently," Taylor says. "And I did that. I started that in '69; I went full time in '70."

The National Right to Life Committee was spun off into an independent organization in 1973. And both current Executive Director O'Steen -- who is not Catholic -- and Taylor insist that the anti-abortion movement is both nonsectarian and very grass-roots.

"Nobody runs a grass-roots movement," Taylor says. "I think the pro-life movement is one of the strongest grass-roots movements in the history of this country."

But the fact remains that the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is anything but the 40th anniversary of the nation's abortion debate.

And despite all the years of strife, it seems that not that many minds have been changed.

A poll by the Pew Research Center released last week found that over the past two decades, opinion on whether or not Roe should be overturned has barely changed. In 1992, 60 percent of those asked said the court should not overturn the ruling. Today that's up to 63 percent.

Perhaps more troubling for those on both sides of the debate, however, is that the older the ruling gets, the less young people appear to know about it. Among those younger than 30, only 44 percent polled knew the case was about abortion; 16 percent thought it had to do with school desegregation.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.