Roe v. Wade Roots Explored

Former New York Times reporter Linda J. Greenhouse ’68 and Yale Law professor Reva Siegel narrated the story of abortion from the period before the landmark Supreme Court case, granting women the right to an abortion, to the present day yesterday evening in the Radcliffe Gymnasium.

The lecture, hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, was delivered before more than 150 people and explored the roots of the abortion reform movement and the origins of medical, legal, and feminist pressure that changed state laws and informed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Americans asked today to name any Supreme Court decision they can think of are eight times more likely to come up with Roe against Wade than Brown against Board of Education,” said Greenhouse, who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for the Times for 30 years. “Why? It comes to mind because over the past 37 years Roe versus Wade has become synonymous with political controversy and has generated profound social conflict.”

Greenhouse and Siegel invited the audience to consider institutional motivations for the polarization post-Roe v. Wade, aside from waving an accusatory finger at the courts.

“There is a different institutional motivation for conflict after Roe v. Wade that has nothing to do with courts on which polarization is typically blamed. The Catholic church, Republican party and women’s movement have much to do with our story,” Greenhouse said. ”We do not have all the answers, but we hope to inspire humanity, scholars, and social scientists to pursue avenues of research to give us greater understanding of American political life.”

Siegel noted that in August of 1972, the Gallup poll reported that 64 percent of all groups believed “a decision to have an abortion should solely be made between a woman and her physician.” More Republicans than Democrats held this view: 68 percent of republicans supported the statement, while only 59 percent of democrats did, Siegel added.

“Abortion became an issue of conflict and polarization, and it was said that Roe v. Wade ‘polarized our politics,’ adopting a court-centered understanding of the abortion conflict,” Siegel said. “However, there was a striking switch in party identification. How does court-centered narrative explain this?”

Sarah E. Esty ’11, who is now working with Siegel on her thesis to answer this question, said the discussion was unique in that the “historical narrative so ingrained in American political culture seems to be only a small part of a larger story.”

“This [lecture] was a superb effort to look before the Supreme Court decision which encourages us to step back from our assumptions about the Supreme Court role in abortion politics,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow. “These issues are tied in today, and I wish more young women would have come.”

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