Abortion politics: Lessons from US History, 1980-2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights. This is the second of two posts about the “abortion wars” in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward.

The first article [here] was about how Roe v Wade was won in 1973. The Roe v Wade verdict gave women in the US the right to a legal abortion.

In this post we take up the story in the early 1980s. After 1973 anti-abortion campaigns sprang up in every city and state. In the beginning, at the heart of almost all of them was the Catholic Church. The Church as such did not organise the campaigns because of wider anti-Catholic feeling would have made the anti-abortion campaigns vulnerable and narrowed their support. But the Church as an institution, and bishops all over the country, did everything they could to start and then support broader anti-abortion campaigns.[1]

The Catholic Church was as opposed to contraception as it was to abortion. Both were aspects of the Church’s opposition to female desire in all its forms, and a deep conviction that women and men were unequal. This misogyny went along with a consistent policy of protecting male priests who had sex with children.

Where the Catholic Church led in the mid-1970s, by the late 1970s others followed. Evangelical protestants and the newly conservative Republican Party widened the campaign, condemning promiscuity, enjoining premarital abstinence and elaborating what they termed ‘traditional family values’. The spin was meant to counter both the economic pressure on households pushing women into the workforce and the speed with which sexual mores had changed with the pill.

In the years between 1960 and 2000, the American workforce was transformed, so that almost half of workers are now women. Equally, the sexual revolution and the pill transformed intimate lives. So those who were pushing the ‘traditional family’ of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker faced a contradiction. They were appealing to values that were quite contrary to the lives their congregations and likely constituents actually lived.

By 1975 women were joining the workforce in droves, some through necessity, many for choice. And in 1975 being against contraception and sex was a non-starter. But the conservative right and the Catholic Church identified abortion as the perfect place for a pitched battle between the traditional values they were pushing and the feminist advance. The subject of abortion was emotive, the arguments, pro and con, confusing and feelings ran very deep on both sides.

The debates over abortion in America in the 1980s centred on teenage sluts, as if they were the majority of women having abortions. And there was a constant racist undertone to these judgements. In the speeches of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, the enemy were black teenage girls having babies to get on welfare.

A quick look at the statistics reveals these prejudices for the lies they were. However, the racism worked well for the conservatives. It diverted attention to specifics and away from the ways abortion was being used to attack feminism across the board.

In 1987, at the height of the first backlash against abortion under Reagan, only a quarter of women having abortions were teenagers. Most of those were 18 or 19. Only about 8% of the total of women having abortions were under the age of 18.

And focusing on teenagers made other statistics disappear. For instance, 47% of women having abortions in 1987 – that is, almost half of them – already had a child. 30% of all the women having abortions in that year were married.[2]

The figures are even starker now. By 2012 only 16% of women having abortions were teenagers, most of them 18 or 19. Only 5% of the total were under the age of 18. This is a tiny proportion of women having an abortion.

And what people do not realise even now is that 60% of women who had an abortion in 2012 already had at least one child, so that number had gone up. There was another big change – only 15% of women having abortions were married, though another 25% were unmarried women living with a partner. So altogether in 2012, 40% of women having an abortion were living with a man.[3]

These statistics, both the ones from 1987 and those from 2012, mean that most of the women having abortions were not just starting their sex lives. And, as almost everywhere else in the world, the majority of these American women were having abortions because they did not want another child. These women, and their reasons, disappear in public discussions of abortion.

However, these figures help to explain why abortion has remained legal in America in spite of the conservative backlash. The corporate CEOs, mainstream Republican and Democratic politicians and the opinion makers did not want abortion to be illegal. They wanted women working because women’s waged labour was now essential to the American economy. And as the punitive economic policies of neoliberalism took hold, there were substantial changes in rates of marriage and divorce, and in family and household structures.

For example, welfare rules were comprehensively ‘reformed’ in the 1990s so that poor women with children were forced to work. As with abortion, welfare reform was justified by the ugly stereotype of ‘promiscuous, parasitic, black teenage girls’. In fact, the majority of American women and children on welfare were white, and the majority of human beings on welfare were children.

The important point was that the elite wanted women workers and were not about to make abortion impossible. But many of the elite were willing to make abortion difficult and traumatic for poor or vulnerable women – and those who depended on them.

Of the women who turned 13 in 1973, the year of Roe v Wade, a third would have an abortion before the age of 40. The great majority of Americans, men and women, now know at least one person close to them who has had an abortion. Some know about it, some don’t. But either way, legal abortion became a common experience.

This is true even for those women and men who are publicly opposed to abortion. Many such women have abortions. They may tell fewer people, but they usually tell someone, and they know themselves. This means the anti-abortion forces faced an uphill battle. In their most private feelings, a large majority of the population thought that abortion should be available and was either acceptable or a necessary evil.

But sometimes people felt abortion was all right only for people like themselves. This was where the white evangelical right came in – and the Republicans. They phrased the debate, sometimes openly and sometimes in code words, as a debate about whether young, unmarried, black women should be fucking around, and how they should be punished.

In our first post on abortion, Nancy described what it was like for her growing up in Webster Groves, Missouri. She graduated from high school in 1962 when the fear of getting pregnant was enormous and understood as a punishment for having sex. Getting pregnant then either locked women into marriage or public shame. Either way, it could leave women feeling that their lives were over. That fear and shame, and the fear and shame around divorce, were what held the ‘traditional family’ together. Take away the suffering, and the nuclear family celebrated in mid-20th century – whether on  the Ozzie and Harriet model, or farm families or the families of the working poor –would crumble. Which is what happened.

The pill changed everything. Women did use birth control before the pill, mainly the coil, the diaphragm and condoms. And many young women had illegal abortions. But the thing about the pill was that it was so much more reliable. A woman could make her own decisions. She could allow herself to experience sexual pleasure, and she could fuck around. And if things didn’t work out, and she was pregnant, abortion was now legal.[4]

That was what put the family values people in a panic. One of the striking things about the United States is the prudery of a kind unimaginable in the 1970s in France, Italy, Britain or Brazil. In America the prudery was extreme, and it persists today. It is made up of many small things, from how the penis is hidden in baggy trousers and even in R-rated movies, CHECK or how a woman who says ‘fuck’ in public is in danger of being outcaste.

Being against abortion was in part a defence of prudery. No one, on any side of the debate, thought you could stuff the sexual revolution back in the box. But you could silence people, make them ashamed and require them to sneak about. Fundamentally, opposition to abortion was about keeping women fearful of sex and suppressing female desire. and on the way, you could punish young black women as well.

The Anti-Abortion Backlash, 1973-1989

Through the 1970s and 1980s the abortion wars were fought on many fronts. Key to these struggles was that the United States was unique among rich countries in not having a national health care system that treated everyone. Most middle-income countries have comprehensive health care too. In those European countries where abortion was legal, a woman simply went to the hospital and had an abortion. In the UK, for instance, some senior doctors were reluctant to do the operation in the early years. So in 1981 half of all abortions were done in private clinics. By 2012, though, 98% of all abortions, in both public hospitals and private clinics, were funded by the National Health Service.[5]

By contrast, in the US almost everyone except the really affluent had to go to a specialist abortion clinic. The anti-abortion activists organised pickets outside those clinics, screaming at the women going in for operations and waving photographs of foetuses at them. The clinic workers walked the frightened, stone-faced women through those picket lines, day after day and week after week. These women were not having abortions because it was a hobby.

The anti-abortionists also mobilised, and still mobilise, in state legislatures for an endless drip drip drip of laws to chip away at aspects of abortion. But by the 1980s the key fights were over funding, and therefore about social class. By and large, group insurance plans through work covered the cost of an abortion. But most of the working poor did not have such insurance. Such people, and others who were not working, were mostly covered by the federal government program, Medicaid. However, from 1976 on, Congress refused to allow states to use federal funds for Medicaid abortions. So each state had to come up with the money to cover abortions themselves. By 2015, only 31% of women were living in states that made such financial provision. The statistics suggest that most of the other 69% of women were able to find the money, but many were not. Perhaps more important than the costs was the constant war of position over abortion that kept women vulnerable and ashamed.

The 1989 Abortion Ruling

In the end, in 1989 as in 1973, it came down to a Supreme Court ruling. Nine justices sit on the US Supreme Court, for life. They are appointed by the president but require the approval of the Senate. The vote on Roe v. Wade had been a 7 to 2 decision. President Reagan promised to appoint new justices as seats came up who would be committed to overturning the ruling. Each nomination was bitterly fought in the Senate. Feminists told each other, year after year, that they had to vote Democrat to protect legal abortion. But by 1989 the anti-abortionists finally had a majority on the Supreme Court. Abortion rights could be overturned, and state after state could outlaw abortion.

The test case was, by chance, a suit by the State of Missouri against the legal abortion clinic Judith Widdicombe had founded in St. Louis in 1973. (This was the history we told in our previous post.) As the Supreme Court retired to consider the case, the whole of the feminist movement came together to demonstrate on April 9 in Washington, DC.

By then Judith Widdecombe was living in Washington. She had never been on a big march before in her life. She tried to find her friends from RHS, her clinic back in St. Louis:

The noise was swelling. Already women had begun to chant and sing, Judy heard applause from up ahead … The singers bobbed closer and thicker overhead, she had to dodge and elbow and push her way through the people – older women and younger women together, Judy saw as she elbowed, were there mothers and daughters marching side by side. And men, really a remarkable number of men, and teenagers too young to remember life before Roe v. Wade, and exuberant lesbians in crew cuts and big shirts, and college students waving a WE WON’T GO BACK banner strung from a giant coat hanger . . . and women in wheelchairs and women in religious habits and women Judy realized must look very much like her, their startled, eager faces suggesting that until that day they had never thought of themselves as marchers. . .

 When she finally saw the banner it was stretched out wide, B.J. and three other clinic women holding it high amid a thicket of Missouri signs, and Judy was surprised to see how unexceptional it looked, how straightforward. . . What moved her, what filled Judy now with unspeakable relief, was the very ordinariness of the banner and the women who carried it. On this day, in this place, they were not big or special at all. They were tiny. They were barely visible stitches in a vast, amazing quilt. Already the rumors of crowd size had begun to pass from the front end back as the march moved up Constitution Avenue: it was two hundred thousand, no, it was three hundred thousand, no, somebody at the top said half a million, the march was packing Constitution for block after block, the chants rose and died away and rose again (“pro choice,” clap-clap, “pro choice,” clap-clap) – Judy worked her way over toward the base of a broad statue and climbed up for a look, steadying herself beside others who had scrambled up already, and as she straightened she could see for the first time the full breadth and length and she said aloud, “My God,” knowing no one would hear her because the shouting was too loud. She put one hand to her mouth, and she began to cry. She had never seen so many people in her life.[6]

The Supreme Court gave their verdict. The chief justice switched sides, and the vote was five to four. The written judgement was incoherent and contradictory, but it said one thing clearly: Roe v. Wade would stand. In the end, it was not about legal cases and courts. In the end it was resistance – the power of women – that won. An anti-abortion court had ruled in favour of abortion, because a mass movement forced them to do so.

Working out the Compromise

The 1989 verdict was a victory for abortion rights. But it was also a class compromise, as became clear in what followed.

The compromise was worked out over the next four years. To understand it, you have to remember that the ruling class and the employers wanted women working outside the home. They did not want to make abortion impossible, nor did they need to. Associating abortion with sexual shame was enough to sustain male privilege and keep women in their place.

What happened within the National Abortion Rights Action League, NARAL, the main national organisation defending abortion rights, during 1989 makes clear the lines of the compromise and the ways that women became increasingly divided along class lines.[7]

Experienced political consultants had been brought in to help NARAL develop ads and campaigns. The consultants and the ordinary staffers disagreed over how to run a national campaign. The consultants were people who worked for Democratic candidates in elections. Their polling, and more important their focus groups, were telling them that NARAL could not win a simple fight for legal universal abortion rights. 

But their polling was also telling the professional consultants something else. A lot of people, especially Southern white conservatives, hated the idea of the government interfering in people’s lives. They did not want the government coming to their towns and telling women what they could and could not do.  Neither did they like the idea of state governments arresting women or doctors. Those people were willing to support a woman’s right to choose, but not the government’s right to choose. In addition, the pollsters found that these same conservatives were often against the government paying for abortions.

The split within NARAL between theactivists who wanted to fight for federal money to pay for abortions for all, and the professional consultants who urged NARAL to give up such an ambition reflected a wider split across the feminist movement.

William Saletan, a radical journalist, describes the politics on both sides:

Tensions between the staff and the consultants had been brewing since February [1989]. The staffers worked for a cause. Their pay was poor. At work, they valued discussion, consensus, and kindness. They shared a broad feminist agenda and were loath to separate abortion rights from it. They believed they spoke chiefly for poor and young women. Having devoted their days entirely to abortion rights, they resisted concessions. When public opinion thwarted them, they resolved to change it.

The consultants worked for a campaign. They were handsomely paid from the windfall of donations that the Webster [supreme court case in 1989] shock had brought to NARAL. They valued what warriors valued: speed, decisiveness, and a clear chain of command. Busy with many clients, they lacked patience for consensus building. When obstacles or quarrels surfaced, they preferred to split the difference and get on with other business.

All the consultants were Democrats. They supported women’s rights, and though they dreaded the word, most were liberal. But in their business, compromise was routine. Often, to win an office from which he could affect the issues he cared about most, a candidate would mute or modify his unpopular positions on issues that concerned him less. Every consultant knew the fundamental equation of politics: By narrowing its agenda, a campaign could broaden its base of support.[8]

The consultants had their eyes firmly fixed on the Supreme Court decision. They were not in the business of changing long term attitudes. And they could see that the feminists had been trying to do that for the last fifteen years without much success. For the consultants, Saletan said,

There was not time to indulge illusions that society could be enlightened. Such illusions, and the inflexibility that accompanied them, struck the consultants as not just foolish, but irresponsible. What good were ideals if one shunned the means necessary to realize them? Like adults beside children, they never doubted the superior wisdom of their weather-beaten creed.[9]

The 1989 march in Washington would have been much smaller without the work of the regular staffers, and all of the women like them. Then the Supreme Court could have looked the other way. But the staffers and women like them did not win the argument against the consultants in the movement. What the consultants were saying about compromise was what Bill Clinton and Al Gore were saying in the Democratic Party, and it was the wisdom of a neoliberal age.

The decisive compromise was made in 1992. Public opinion was still opposed to the federal government paying for abortions. But not by much. In one poll 56% were against federal money being used ‘for abortions for low-income women’. In another poll 52% of people were against government funding for abortions for ‘indigent women.’

These were clear majorities, but they were small, the kind of majorities a sustained mass campaign can turn around. Only five or six people out a hundred have to change their minds for a majority to approve of public funding. Such a campaign, though, would have had to talk at the same time about welfare for poor mothers – and therefore for black mother. After all, the two issues were intimately linked in people’s minds. If the staffers and the activists had started their argument by insisting on funding for all women, they would have united all women and not found themselves divided by social class, they might have won.

The lesson is important. If the pro-abortion activists had seen the potential of focusing on class it would have enabled them to go on the offensive and make abortion much easier for many more women. But they did not. Rather, activists were more concerned with several specific issues on which the anti-abortion forces had much greater public support.

For example, about 80% of the public supported laws that required telling parents if a girl under 18 was having an abortion. Laws that required a wife to notify her husband had support of between 63% and 76% in different polls. 62% supported the idea that fathers should have the legal right to prevent an abortion. Moreover, ‘women favored husband notice laws and husband consent laws by clear majorities.’[10]

These issues mattered deeply to the activists. They thought in terms of a woman’s right to choose, and to control her own body without interference from men. The workers in clinics around the country cared about these issues too. They dealt with women who were afraid to tell violent husbands, women who had cheated on their husbands, and girls terrified of their parents’ anger or disappointment. But fighting for abortion on these terms alone meant losing sight of the race issue, the class divide and all the women who would be hurt unless there was federal funding for all.

The Political and Class Divide

One problem was that many of the activists and the clinic workers did not really understand where those women and men in the opinion polls were coming from.

By the early 1990s, there had developed an idea that there were ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’. The stereotype was that ‘red states’ were right wing on social issues, and ‘blue states’ were left, or ‘liberal’. This was not true. The differences between states were small, a matter of a few percentage points in opinion polls. But the liberals became convinced that people in red states were hidebound, that no one could change their minds, that they were ignorant and deplorable.[11]

Many of the activists assumed the people in the consultants’ focus groups were white, uneducated, racist, anti-feminist and anti-abortion. The consultants assumed so too. Some of the people in the focus groups undoubtedly were bigots. But the activists didn’t really know how the people in the focus groups were thinking. Most important, the focus group people were not against abortion. They had had an abortion, or someone they loved had had an abortion. But the economy was against them. So, they had the same difficulties everyone else did keeping a family together.  In this sense they really were trying to hold onto family values. This is what had their support.

These people thought parents ought to know, because they thought fathers and mothers would be caring. Parents were, and are, much more likely to want their teenage daughter to have an abortion than she is. This is why the Catholic Church objected to parental notification laws.

These were people whose lived experience was that parents, husbands and boyfriends would probably help them get through the abortion, and that we are all in this together. They favoured some restrictions on abortion, but they were not anti-abortion.

The striking thing is that the majorities who wanted to tell husbands and parents were very large. This meant that if a woman had an abortion, she probably told her husband. A large survey in 2008 found that 82% of women had told the man. In fact, only 62% of them had been in relationship for more than a year, so the number telling the man was much larger than the number in a steady relationship. 79% of the women who had told the man said he was being supportive.[12]

Finally, only a narrow majority of them opposed funding for poor people. This was probably because many of these people understood from experience what it was like to try to raise money to pay for an abortion.

The consultants were arguing that it was futile to try to change the minds of people opposed to abortion. And on the other side, the feminists, abortion activists and clinic workers who had stayed the course were exhausted by two decades of endless struggle – helping patients through picket lines of people who spat on them, day after day. Year after year, they fought new bills and amendments in all fifty state legislatures, over and over, seeing hundreds of cases through the court, each one worded differently. The consultants’ interpretation prevailed.

1992 was also the year of Bill Clinton. He was all those pro-abortion Democratic consultants personified. Clinton was the leader of the project to pull the Democratic Party to the right and win back the Reagan voters. 1992 was Clinton’s first presidential election, and he came up with a sound bite that was a promise to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ In 1996 he did just that.[13]

Clinton’s domestic policies were double-sided, favouring the wealthy while punishing vulnerable Americans. In office, his economic policy favoured the banks and the bond holders. Yet during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the number of Americans in prison or jail increased from 1.3 million to 2.1 million. Almost half of them were black. In this way he made sure the Republicans were not the only party tough on black people.[14]

As Clinton moved the Democrats decisively to the right, he justified this to the left of his party by saying that American voters were right wing and could not be persuaded to change their minds.

Many feminists accepted this, and seeing no alternative, went with him, in spite of what he did to welfare, and in spite of the harm imprisonment also did to black families and all poor women, men and children. Many feminists were even prepared to ignore the Paula Jones case. Jones sued Clinton for sexual harassment in 1994. She said he had intervened to make sure she lost her job because she refused to have sex with him. In 1999 Clinton paid her $850,000 in damages. We believe Paula Jones.[15]

In 1992, the anti-abortion forces had a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court. And another test case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, worked its way up to the court. This time there was no massive demonstration. But in 1992, four months before Clinton’s election, the justices again voted not to overturn Roe v. Wade. Abortion was legal. Not only that, but a new federal law curbed demonstrations outside abortion clinics. The ‘Operation Rescue’ activists who had been screaming at pregnant women for years evaporated. But it was nonetheless understood that the anti-abortion forces would keep working away, state by state, chipping at the edges.

Most of the elite accepted the compromise. Bill Clinton, running for president as the Democrat, accepted it and said that he agreed with parental notification. The incumbent Republican President George Bush (the father) accepted it too. Bush’s Vice-President, Dan Quayle, went on television and said that he was anti-abortion in principle, but if his daughter was pregnant, he would support her if she wanted one.

The women who had fought so long and so hard accepted the compromise. Abortion would be legal, but there would be restrictions, and working-class women in many states would find it hard to afford an abortion. This was a victory of historic importance. But it was a victory that put abortion rights campaigners on the defensive over the next 26 years.

On the Defensive

From 1992 until now there has been a long defensive struggle to protect abortion rights. The anti-abortion campaigns would get Republican state legislatures to pass more and more restrictive laws. The point of these laws, in practice, was not to make abortion illegal. It was to punish women having abortions, and make them more fearful, guilty and ashamed. These punishments bore heavily on women who were poor. And the racist stereotypes targeting black ‘welfare parasites’ did not go away. But the punishments perhaps bore most heavily the more conservative the woman herself was.

Think about the woman in Texas, forced to listen as an ultra-sound technician holds a wand over her stomach and describes the fetus to her. Many women having an abortion already have a child, and usually their first ultra-sound experience was a moment of joy.

Mainly by appealing to the courts, the pro-choice movement sought to ward off attempts to narrow state laws and impose such ugly punishments on women. That is why the Supreme Court has been so important.

But consider the wider context.

Roe v Wade was won as women’s liberation exploded, amidst civil rights, black power riots, the sexual revolution, gay liberation and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Perhaps because of the strength of leftist feeling at the time, the backlash against Roe v. Wade began immediately and has continued for decades and gained in ferocity all the while.

Then came the new punitive economic policies of Reagan’s neoliberalism. These moved the Republicans to the right. Clinton, in turn, moved the Democrats to the right. Bush and Obama continued the job. The temper of the times has been against us.

A second aspect of abortion rights activists defensiveness stems from the way they engaged with the opposition. Much of the leadership of the movement has been in the hands of Planned Parenthood and lawyers fighting court cases. Planned Parenthood is a big organisation that delivers many services and depends on public funding. Of necessity, the managers are always looking over their shoulders, and trying to avoid any misstep that might get their clinics closed. This is not a criticism of them. That’s their job, and it is a necessary job. But it makes for defensive leadership.[16]

Lawyers always argue in court in front of judges. This may be obvious, but it is important. It means that they are always thinking about how to win over judges. Their arguments, their entire style, is focussed on the person on the bench above them. Again, that’s their job, and think where we would be without them. But the arguments that will persuade judges are not the same as the ones that will resonate with ordinary people.

The effects of the 1992 compromise have also held us back in other ways. Anti-abortion activists have raised money to help poor women get abortions. That’s important. But there has been no political campaign to win public funding. We nearly had a majority for that demand in 1992. In 2018 there is much wider support for government funded healthcare for all, which would make a serious campaign easier now.  Instead, much campaigning has concentrated on issues like term limits, where winning over the courts becomes important because we cannot easily win over the people.

In Britain, by contrast, abortion is available to everyone, and 98% of abortions are free, paid for by the  National Health Service. It’s also illegal after 24 weeks. Jonathan helped roughly 7,000 women have an abortion over ten years, and he worked for a feminist cooperative clinic where the staff voted not to do the operation after 22 weeks.


Now, in the present, we are living in two worlds pitted against each other. On the one side is Trump and the mass movement that put him there. On the other is the beginning of a new movement of liberation.

Between twelve and fifteen million Americans have protested about something since Trump took office. That began with the women’s march, and has been strengthened by #metoo. The most important confrontation between Trump and the opposition so far has been over rape. Sexual politics is front and centre for both this new movement and the reaction they face.

So we are not living in the past. But the past still lives in us, and it has shaped the defence of abortion in many ways. One fact is striking. Opinion polls tell us that Americans under 30 hold more radical opinions than their elders on almost every social, gender and political issue. There is one exception – abortion. [17]

New laws in different states say that girls under eighteen must get their parents’ consent. Or women must wait through a cooling off period of 24 hours or a week. Married women must get their husbands’ consent. Or before the woman decides, a doctor must to show her a large photo of a foetus and deliver a set speech which gives all the reasons the woman should not have an abortion. A woman must be shown an ultrasound of her foetus and the details of the image must be pointed out to her, though the lower courts have ruled that the woman does have the right to close her eyes, put her hand over her face, or turn her head away.

Yet other new laws say that a clinic has to have so much equipment of a particular kind. Or they may be told that only doctors with particular qualifications may perform abortions. Such limits are imposed because everyone knows the local clinics will then be forced to close down because they can’t meet the increasingly egregious demands. The clinic Judith Widdicombe founded in St. Louis is still open. The only other abortion clinic in the state of Missouri, in the university town of Columbia, was closed  this month because of such legal restrictions.[18]

So what can we do?

What can we do? For one thing, we can look to the example of the American campaigns for same-sex marriage. They relied on referenda and believed they could win them by changing minds. The central activity of LGBT liberation has always been coming out, and that has kept the movement facing outwards. The referenda were won because so many had come out, and so many said to their family and friends, ‘Please vote for my right to love the one I choose.’ That worked.

We can also look to bringing different campaigns together. Here the key is getting abortion activists to work closely with campaigns defending abused women, and black lives and the planet. And let’s face it, that’s happening already. That will change the minds of millennials.

Protests, marches and elections are important. But more important is what happens in your actual life, between the people you know. That’s why we talked so much in our last post about a movement based on helping people have abortions. It’s all about talking with people. And not just women. It means having honest, hard conversations with women, men, teenagers, everyone.

It means putting your prejudices away and talking to the old white man. He might have voted for Trump. The again, maybe he didn’t. And whatever way he voted, he may have supported his daughter or granddaughter through her abortion. You may not know it, but you probably know such a person, and he probably hasn’t told you, but he knows what he’s done. The old guy may turn out to be an old hippy and a Sanders’ supporter and up for helping the campaign. Or he may wear a red ball cap and pray to Jesus, but you can change his mind, and his granddaughter’s mind, about abortion rights.

And then, when we think about lessons from struggle, let’s not just look to American history. It’s a big world, and people in lots of other countries have been doing better than Americans. Look, for example, to the way the Irish have built movements in recent years that voted for divorce, same sex marriage and free abortion.

If necessary, a mass movement could change the mind of a Supreme Court again. It will be harder now than in 1973 or 1989, or in 1992, because the justices are now more hardened ideologues. On the other hand, it may be easier than before because the justices are more compromised. At least half the population are convinced that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill and Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape Christine Blasey Ford. If these men hold the swing votes and make abortion again illegal in the United States, many, many people will be enraged. Justices will face protests and humiliation if they speak in public or on college campuses, and that alone will threaten the whole institution of the court in a way never seen before.

Let’s remember, we only need to change the vote of just one justice. But to do that, we will have to build a mass movement and a massive demonstration.


Related Posts

Our first post on abortion politics.

On the Kavanaugh hearings.

On sexual politics and Trump.


[1] The following account of abortion politics after 1973 relies particularly on Cynthia Gorney, 2000, Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, New York: Simon and Schuster; William Saletan, 2003, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, Berkeley: University of California Press; Faye Ginsberg, 1989, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community, Berkeley: University of California Press; Rickie Solinger, 2001, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States, New York: Hill and Wang; and Carol Sanger, 2017, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[2] CDC, MMWR, 1 January 1990, Abortion Surveillance 1986-1987.

[3] Karen Pazol, Andreea A. Creeanga and Denise J. Jamieson, 2015, Abortion Surveillance – United States 2012, MMWR, CDC.

[4] A common statistic is that the pill works 99% of the time. In one sense, yes. But in the real world people forget to take the pill. Some do this because they know they want a child. More do it because they unconsciously want a child. Even more miss pills because the effects of that medication are making them depressed or ill, and their body is telling them not to take that thing. And many women, because of these reactions, cannot actually use the pill, and have to turn to other methods. So bear all that in mind, but the basic point remains – the pill made very large numbers of women fell free in an entirely new way.

[5] Department of Health and Social Care, Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2017, 9-10.

[6] Gorney, 476-77.

[7] Here we are following the arguments in Saletan, 2003. That book is in some ways too one-sided. The compromise was a compromise, not a defeat, as he insists. But his insights about what happened in 1989-1992 are important. Solinger, 2001, is also very useful here.

[8] Saletan 2003, 73.

[9] Saletan 2003, 73.

[10] Saletan 2003, 139.

[11] In the rest of the world red meant left wing, the colour of socialism and communism. But in America red was the colour of the Republican Party and blue was the colour of Democrats. It is a reversal that plays to American exceptionalism and made it harder for Americans to look abroad for other ways to understand the political divide.

[12] Saletan.

[13] Start with Sharon Hays, 2003, Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, New York: Oxford University Press.

[14] Bob Woodward, 1994, The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, New York: Simon and Schuster; Michael Meerpool, 1998, Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Jonathan Neale, 2004, What’s Wrong with America, London: Fusion; Michelle Alexander, 2010, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press; Marie Gottschalk, 2014, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[15] Start with Caitlyn Flanagan, ‘Bill Clinton: A Reckoning’, Atlantic, 13 Nov 2017; Dylan Matthews, ‘The rape allegation against Bill Clinton, explained’, Vox, 14 November 2017; Michelle Goldberg, ‘I Believe Jaunita’, New York Times, 13 Nov 2017.


[16] The long-time President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards offers a compelling account this process in her autobiography, Make Trouble, Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead – My Life Story (Touchstone, 2018). Richards also emphasises, with many useful examples, the importance of grassroots resistance.

[17] Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox and Rachel Laser, 2011, Commitment to Availability, Conflicted about Morality, Washington DC: Public Religion Research Institute. This useful book was published eight years ago, and may be out of date now.

[18] Summer Balentine, ‘Missouri down to 1 abortion clinic amid legal battle’, St Louis Post-Dispatch, 3 Oct 2018.

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