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Posted Oct. 1, 2010

Greenhouse Discusses Abortion Debate Prior to Roe v. Wade

Linda Greenhouse

The public debate on abortion was more nuanced in the years preceding Roe v. Wade than it is today, a journalist and legal scholar said at the Law School last week.

Linda Greenhouse, the longtime U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times and current Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence at Yale Law School, spoke in Caplin Pavilion about a new book she coauthored with Reva B. Siegel, “Before Roe V. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling.”

While researching the book, Greenhouse reviewed source documents to reconstruct public discussion of abortion between 1960 and the Roe decision in 1973.

“The quote ‘debate’ didn’t begin as a debate, or at least not as a two-sided debate, pro and anti,” she said. “People were beginning to examine the regime of criminal abortion laws that dated to the 19th century and beginning to question their continued utility or sensibility. But it wasn’t necessarily framed as an either-or thing.”

A variety of different organizations, including many religious groups, began to stake out official positions as the issue started to move through legislatures and the public sphere, but those positions were often multifaceted, Greenhouse said.

“What’s interesting is that some of the more conservative religious group didn’t take the categorical opposition position that they take today,” she said. “They were open to at least some modest reforms, some modest ability for women to obtain legal abortions at least under some circumstances.”

 The idea of abortion reform originated as a public health debate, rather than one over women’s rights, she found. Feminists came “surprisingly late” to the abortion debate, Greenhouse said, as they were largely occupied at the time with economic issues such as equal pay.

“What we have [in the book] is a reconstruction of a discussion that began first within the medical community and in medical journals,” then spread elsewhere, Greenhouse said.

The idea of abortion rights as a constitutional issue wasn’t something that just popped up, but was rather an extension of the public discussion of the issue, she said.  

“People weren’t at all thinking, ‘let’s go to court and make a constitutional claim,’” in the early 1960s, Greenhouse said. “That came gradually and it came late in this conversation.”

The evolution of the topic into a legal question may also underscore something about the American legal system, she said.

“I think the story of Roe is an example of how constitutional discourse in our system grows naturally out of other kinds of conversations, and is anchored in other kinds of conversations,” Greenhouse said. “But it didn’t start as a claim on the Constitution.”

The event was sponsored by the Feminist Legal Forum and moderated by Professor Risa Goluboff.