When American Debate About Abortion Was Sane and Why that Changed

PMan yellingeople would be surprised by how much less toxic gender politics were in the 1970s than they are now.

Mary Ziegler teaches law at Florida State University, where she holds the Stearns Weaver Miller chair in the College of Law. Her book, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, traces the evolution of American political dynamics surrounding abortion. In this conversation with Valerie Tarico she discusses how the debate became so polarized, why some abortion foes will not be satisfied until abortion is criminalized, and how advocates for women and healthy families might find common cause with others.

Tarico: I see abortion as a social good—like the guardrails right before someone’s life goes off a cliff. As a mom of two daughters, I sure want the rails there. But my dream is for my daughters and all young people to become parents when they feel ready so they can fulfill the promise of their lives and form families of their choosing and stack the odds in favor of their kids.

The intense emotional energy around abortion, both pro and con, makes it really hard to have this broader conversation about chosen lives and flourishing families—about young women and men pursuing their dreams or about healthy, cherished children raised by parents who aren’t stretched to the breaking point. So I desperately want to understand whether there is some way through this impasse. 

Ziegler: People would be surprised by how much less toxic gender politics were in the 1970s than they are now. Given how much abortion opponents seem to have fixated on the overruling of Roe, I expected the conflict in the decade after the decision to be particularly bitter, but it wasn’t that way. What it means to be “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice” isn’t as static as it seems. Some people on both sides were doing surprising and productive things back then to make abortion less necessary. Even today, when we talk about how polarized things are, we’re talking about the movement leadership. But there are people on both sides who can’t join either movement because neither fits what they believe. Many of those active in the 1970s would have been shocked at how dysfunctional things have become at this point.

Tarico: How did we get to this point—with inflammatory rhetoric inciting violence against abortion providers and a wholesale assault on services that empower women to manage their fertility? We have Congress trying to defund everything Planned Parenthood does except abortion, trying to defund the very services that make abortion less necessary. It’s to the point that I sometimes call Cruz, Huckabee and the others “champions of unplanned parenthood.

Ziegler: People blame the Roe v. Wade decision, but the broad cultural wars against women weren’t an inevitable result of what the Court decided in 1973. In fact, the polarization took a while to develop, and it had more to do with money and politics than the ideology of people in either movement.

For much of the 1970s, Pro-Life groups were trying to get politicians to adopt a platform that opposed abortion, but instead both parties tried to appeal to people on either side of the issue. In the 1970s, it was possible to be a conservative Republican and support abortion access. It was possible to be in support of robust anti-discrimination laws for women but oppose abortion. If you look at Biden or Gephardt, for example, there were lots of ways public figures tried to navigate this politically. Ronald Reagan signed an abortion access measure in California. George Bush was at least nominally Pro-Choice. But in 1976, the Republicans recognized the potential of abortion to mobilize swing votes. By the 1980s, positions crystalized. What happened was a political party realignment.

Tarico: Why a political realignment? How did opposition to abortion get bundled together with opposition to worker rights and opposition to government services and opposition to gun control? They don’t seem to go together very well. 

Ziegler: Abortion opponents wanted Roe v Wade overturned. For a long time, they had fought for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw all abortions, but that obviously hadn’t worked. By the 1980s, it was pretty clear that the only way they were going to get anywhere was to change the Court, which meant they needed to change presidential elections. Marriage of the Pro-Life Movement and Republican Party was not inevitable and has always been troubled, meaning that there are people in the movement who are naturally conservative and people who are not. Some hold their noses when they vote Republican, hoping for judges and laws that they like.

Tarico: An “Obamacare simulation” at Washington University dropped the abortion rate to 75% below the national average by making top tier contraceptives available free of charge. Why can’t we at least agree on reducing unwanted pregnancy and making abortion less necessary? 

Ziegler: We could have done things to make abortion less necessary. There was a moment in time when that was politically possible. In the 1970s there was a big fight – should we be for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, or better access to contraception? Some in the Pro-Life Movement made this argument: They were trying to ban abortion, but they recognized that women would still seek it out if they didn’t have alternatives. Politically, they can’t easily make that argument anymore because that would jeopardize the Republicans’ ability to stack the Supreme Court. But some people still feel that way. All Our Lives is one group that supports services and choices, except for abortion.

Tarico: OK, so instead of Obamacare, let’s just talk about improvements in contraceptive technologies. In Washington State, the annual number of abortions has dropped from around 30,000 to around 18,000 without any increase in restrictions or decrease in access. The primary factor seems to be increased use of IUDs and contraceptive implants–also, Plan B (a.k.a., “the morning after pill”). And science suggests that all of the long-acting contraceptives and emergency contraceptives operate by preventing conception itself, rather than by booting out an embryo. Why aren’t Pro-Lifers lobbying loudly on behalf of better birth control?

Zeigler: The idea of IUDs as abortifacient is like an article of faith—not something people are willing to re-think. Also, a meaningful group in the Pro-Life Movement is actually anti-contraception as well as anti-abortion. For the most part this is not overt, because it’s not politically expedient. Those in power in the movement today are more likely to be conservative on every issue. Some are anti-sex unless it’s procreative. This strand was there from the beginning, but it just wasn’t universal. Now, a lot of the power players are people who operate naturally within the worldview of the Republican Party.

But they don’t represent the whole movement.

Tarico: You keep saying that not everyone who opposes abortion is socially conservative to an extreme.  

Ziegler: The Pro-Life movement is big and messy and divided. That’s likely to be true of any social movement, and there is no exception here. Starting in the 1970s and running through 2010, sociologists have studied those who were active in the antiabortion movement. A few patterns emerge from these studies. The movement was disproportionately Catholic and female in its early years, but that’s much less true now. Still, Catholics are disproportionately represented, and movement members more likely to be white, married, and college-educated than the population as a whole.

Ziad Munson’s 2010 research found that antiabortion activists often identify as Republicans, but their world view maps pretty poorly onto the standard conservative platform. More of them were opposed to the death penalty than you would expect, for example.

As an historian, I try to get at what people thought was motivating them. Whether or not individual objections to abortion harken back to religious influences, activists believe they have secular moral reasons. Some express ethical objections. Some people see the fetus at any moment in time as a child. Some people are just grossed out by abortion—motivated by disgust. Often they are people who found images of abortion disturbing without thinking through how the images had been edited. Not all of them are driven by opposition to female equality or sex or birth control.

Tarico: So is there any room for common ground here? Right now we’re stuck with terrifying rhetoric from politicians and constant threats against abortion providers that erupt into unpredictable violence. In some places, the only providers are people like Willie Parker or Warren Hern, who are so committed to abortion care as a calling that they are willing to risk their lives.

As clinics close, poor women who can’t afford to travel are being forced to bear children they don’t want and can’t afford. Last summer I wrote a piece titled, “Why I’m Pro-Abortion not Just Pro-Choice” and it went viral. Amelia Bonow’s spontaneous hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion erupted into an international Twitter storm. In other words, as the Right ramps up, people on the Left are ramping up too. Based on the past, what would you say about how we might get beyond the current impasse? 

Ziegler: The common ground would lie in reducing the need for abortion, and in promoting the wellbeing of women and families. You would find some people in the movement that you can talk to and some that you can’t. In 2015, the Supreme Court decided a case about whether federal civil rights law ever requires employers to accommodate women who need work modifications during pregnancy. The case involved Peggy Young, a woman who worked at United Parcel Service and sought the same accommodations the company already provided for people injured on the job. We associate the fight against pregnancy discrimination with feminists, but below the radar Pro-Life groups submitted amicus briefs arguing for more accommodations when Young’s case went before the Supreme Court. The Republican Party is generally against anti-discrimination protections, so if you want to prevent or reduce abortion that way, but are aligned with the party, your political allies would say that’s inappropriate. Even so, there is still some willingness to push for those things.

The interest in women’s health, some of that is sincere. Some of the people using that argument would actually like to give women access to sex education or neonatal care. Also, there are antiabortion groups trying to lobby for equal pay because people recognize that sometimes a woman feels like she can’t afford another child. Paid family leave might be another issue. If you are Pro-Life, you don’t want people to feel coerced to have an abortion. Many in the movement recognize that poor women don’t really have a choice to raise a child and often feel financial pressure to have an abortion. There might be common ground there.

Tarico: It seems like our insanity about abortion is making it impossible even to have sane conversations about family planning regarding how well-timed childbearing helps families to flourish. Even that conversation has become toxic. Any advice here?

Ziegler: There are no easy answers because differences on the abortion issue are real, profound, and unchanging. I don’t think there was common ground on abortion even before Roe. But a good starting point is to remember that not everyone who identifies as antiabortion is the same. The polarization of abortion politics doesn’t capture what most Americans actually think, even those who oppose safe, legal abortion. When you start to recognize the diversity in the movement, fault lines appear, and you can at least begin a real conversation about how to make things better for parents and their kids.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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19 Responses to When American Debate About Abortion Was Sane and Why that Changed

  1. It’s really tragic when a health matter is hijacked and becomes a symbol for tribal politics/identity politics. But there is some hope. A number of countries have been able to basically end the abortion debate. For the most part in France you never hear anyone talk about it (except for the occasional crazy from the Front National.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think our only hope here is to make abortion obsolete.

      Liked by 2 people

      • How, if many of those same groups also oppose birth control or easy access to birth control?
        I think we need to take their power away by making them irrelevant. So any woman out there who needs abortion advice or assistance should know they can go to https://www.womenonweb.org/ and get help ;)

        Liked by 2 people

      • metalnun says:

        I agree with you and look forward to further improvements in contraception but, as libertarian Dr. Mary Ruwart has pointed out, we already have the technology: embryo transfer! This is being used very successfully in other large mammals, e.g. horses, and therefore it could likewise work for humans, but it’s just not being done for some reason. Imagine if the “abortion clinics” were turned into “embryo transfer clinics”! Instead of carrying signs and protesting outside, the “pro-life” folks could come into the clinic, lie down on the operating table, spread their legs and have the embryo removed from its unwilling host and transplanted into their own bodies to be gestated and delivered. Since the life of the “baby” is all-important and the “inconvenience” of pregnancy and childbirth is irrelevant, I am sure there will be no lack of pro-life volunteers lining up around the block to have the embryos implanted in their own bodies! Of course, the “pro-life” men will have to wait as we don’t yet have that technology figured out, but we will in time be able to hook the embryo up to the intestinal artery in an artificial womb. I will leave the method of delivery up to your imagination. Any volunteers?!

        Liked by 2 people

    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, Mr. Merveilleux,

      You’ve made an unfortunate point. Just about anywhere in the developed world, someone opposed to either abortion or national health care (much less both!) would be regarded as a fringe lunatic. Anywhere except the U.S., that is!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie

    I am on vacation but I will post this when I return

    Happy Holidays to you !


    Sent from my iPhone



  3. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    You’ve made an important point about the abortion issue that I’ve always thought is the “bottom line”. Abortion opponents can make abortion inconvenient, but they can’t prevent anyone from obtaining an abortion, EXCEPT poor women. To me, it’s much more than coincidence that abortion opponents seem hell bent on defunding the principal provider of health services for poor women, namely Planned Parenthood.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  5. allanmerry says:

    Wow, again. One must stay close, to respond early in the comment chain. I agree that making abortion obsolete is the best (last) hope. What stands in the way? All the BIG, BIG, BIG Money that accounts for the current “realignment” of the Republicans into a solid majority of voters. (Even the blessed few of the Ultra Rich Progressives prefer to decide themselves where to help.) Perhaps the most important public interest activists of all: Are those fighting Citizens United, and all the other portals for cash from our vast population of wealthy regressives, who’s only care is to keep everything. Including a wide share of the spectrum of merely “comfortables,” who are uninterested. All the way down into the “New” Middle Class even. “Too busy watching all those great new series on Netflix.” There also a hundred additional Sectors of Public Goods and Services crucial to our humane survival. None of it will happen unless figure out how take back our government. Regrettably.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, allanmerry,

      Actually, the solution here is astoundingly simple. Democracy is by definition, government by the people. Government by the people only works if “the people” participate! After the 2014 election, economics writer Ben Casselman wrote the following: “So voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and GOP representation. OK then.” A more accurate characterization would have been “voters wanted a higher minimum wage, legal pot, and abortion access, but didn’t get off their duffs and vote for them.”

      The Republican Party knows that it can call forth a “lunatic fringe” of “gun nuts”, religious crackpots, stupid white males, and old folks that are marginally senile, and that this “lunatic fringe” amounts to perhaps 20% of the population. In a year where voter turnout is 35%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the result!

      It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the solution!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. metalnun says:

    The “pro-life” movement to a large extent was the result of an unholy marriage between the GOP and evangelical religion in the 1970s, as Frank Schaeffer describes in his books including “Sex, Mom and God.” Prior to the deliberate political manipulations leading up to that, evangelicals weren’t necessarily anti-abortion, as discussed here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/10/29/revisionist-memory-white-evangelicals-have-always-been-at-war-with-abortion/

    Since then, I have observed a trend towards absolutism over my lifetime; i.e., where there used to be talk of “circumstances” including rape, incest, poverty, age, severe disability, etc., the argument now seems to have boiled down to: Life begins at conception, therefore the zygote from the moment of fertilization is a “person” with an absolute right to be born – period! No other considerations matter.

    I actually heard somebody explain recently, “Well, we didn’t have the scientific information back in the 1970s to understand that personhood begins at conception, but now we do.” ?! First of all, no we don’t, because “personhood” is not something that is scientifically verifiable (being a metaphysical idea). Secondly, yes we did know about DNA as well as fetal development back in the 1970s.

    Call me cynical, but it seems to me that the whole “personhood” movement is less about “saving babies” (the tiny persons) than it is about demoting women to non-persons, mere walking incubators without bodily autonomy or self volition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, Metalnun,

      I make it my business to be well informed, but I wasn’t aware of GHWB’s pre-1990’s political stances. Nonetheless his “revision” doesn’t surprise me.

      For example, one scientist characterized Ted Cruz’s knowledge of climate science as “less than that of a kindergartner”. I find it hard to believe that someone with a J.D. (essentially the equivalent of a Ph.D.) could be that out of touch with reality. Clearly, his position on climate change has far more to do with political opportunism!

      I also agree with you completely that one cannot claim that a fertilized egg has precedence over a woman without implying that a woman is lower on the tree of life than a fertilized egg. Of course, whenever anyone tries to elicit an answer regarding this issue from “pro-lifers”, they try to change the subject. :)

      Disregarding the obvious absurdity of someone who believes that the earth is 8000 years old and that humans existed alongside of dinosaurs making a claim of scientific validity, I do believe that one can make a scientifically valid conclusion regarding the abortion issue, using the following definitions: (Source: Oxford Dictionary)

      Life: (1) The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. (2) The existence of an individual human being or animal.

      Human being: A man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.

      Child: A young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority.

      Baby: a very young child, especially one newly or recently born.

      Person: A human being regarded as an individual.

      The scientific method (perhaps slightly oversimplified) consists of the following:
      1. Make observations.
      2. Formulate hypotheses in accordance with the observations.
      3. Test these hypotheses.
      4. Formulate possible conclusions in accordance with the above.

      An observer of a human embryo, with no knowledge of what it was, could only determine that it was an animal embryo of unknown species. This would also be true well into the fetus stage. A human fetus is indistinguishable from from the fetuses of many other animals until well into the pregnancy, and is indistinguishable from a chimpanzee fetus until 21 weeks. Thus, up to 21 weeks, a human fetus would fail to meet the human being requirement, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. Needless to say, a human fetus at this stage could not meet the baby requirement!

      It’s also true that, up to 26 weeks, the nervous system of a human fetus is not sufficiently developed to meet the “superior mental development” requirement, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. Note that this is 2 weeks past the point of viability!

      When I did my abortion presentation a couple of years ago, I showed pictures of human fetuses at 6 weeks and at 12 weeks. Neither was recognizably human. One (Humanist!) woman said “this doesn’t look anything like …” and then stopped herself mid-sentence.

      I also showed illustrations of human fetuses compared to those of other animals. This seemingly convinced someone who previously was aghast at my statement that, in the early stages of gestation, a human fetus is indistinguishable from a chicken fetus.

      The conclusion to be drawn from my evidence was obvious: The “pictures” of human fetuses shown by the “pro-life” movement are at best misleading, and at worst baldfaced lies!

      I suspect that a majority of people (not just humanists!) would strongly disagree with the spiel of the “right to lifers” if they knew the facts. Obviously, a little reality check is always nice. :)

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie I am posting this excellent interview of yours at IEET on January 4th —  I am sorry about the long delay — there is a big backup of articles at IEET right now — thanks for all your great articles in the past year sincerely Hank Pellissier


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