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The Rhetoric That Shaped The Abortion Debate

Women take part in a 1977 demonstration in New York City demanding safe and legal abortions for all women.
Women take part in a 1977 demonstration in New York City demanding safe and legal abortions for all women.

Before the Supreme Court struck down many state laws restricting abortion in the 1973 landmark case Roe v. Wade, the Justices read briefs from both abortion-rights supporters and opponents.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse has collected the best of these briefs -- as well as important documents leading up to the decision -- in a new book, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court's Ruling.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Greenhouse explains the arguments in favor of decriminalizing abortion -- and the rhetoric used by both sides of the debate that continues to resonate more than 35 years after Roe.

After researching the book, Greenhouse says, she came away with a more nuanced understanding of how the abortion debate has affected so many other issues.

"What the research did indicate to me is how multifaceted the issue is and how the word [abortion] came over time to stand for so much more than the termination of a pregnancy," she says. "It really came to stand for a debate about the place of women in the world."

Interview Highlights

On why the medical community's lobbying groups shifted to support the decriminalization of abortion

"The medical impetus to start reforming the old abortion laws actually came, not from the American Medical Association but from the American Public Health Association -- from the public health profession. There is a public health doctor, Mary Calderon, who was medical director of Planned Parenthood and also very active in professional public health circles. She wrote some influential articles depicting abortion as a serious public health issue -- that is to say, illegal abortion, back-alley abortion, as a serious public health issue -- and basically started calling on the medical profession to take a new look at this old issue. Abortion could now be a very safe medical procedure when done properly and under the right conditions. And so the facts on the ground had changed: Women were having secret abortions in large numbers; there was a good deal of medical bad consequences and suffering because of this, and it was really the public health doctors who sounded the call."

On the use of the phrase 'the right to choose'

"Jimmye Kimmey was a young woman who was executive director of an organization called the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA), which was one of the early reform groups and was migrating in the early 1970s from a position of reforming the existing abortion laws to the outright repeal of existing abortion laws, and she wrote a memorandum framing the issue of how the pro-repeal position should be described: 'Right to life is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words -- an important consideration in English. We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And ... choice has to do with action, and it's action that we're concerned with.' "

On the significance of J.C. Willke, who wrote Handbook on Abortion

"He is a key figure in the right-to-life movement. He and his wife self-published this little book called Handbook on Abortion in 1971 in the form of questions and answers about abortions from the right-to-life point of view. And it got distributed like wildfire. It now exists in many, many editions. People can go on Google and Amazon and find it easily. It's been translated in many languages, and it really became a Bible of the right-to-life movement. And we were grateful to Dr. Willke for giving us permission to republish it. The reason we wanted to have a substantial excerpt from it is because people on the pro-choice side, I'm quite certain, have never seen it. And it's a very striking document and his voice was and continues to be an important voice on that side."

On feminism's role in shaping the abortion debate

"The feminist community at that time, in the mid-'60s, was much more interested in empowering women to take a full place in the economy, in the world-place. Things like child care. Things like equal pay. Things like getting rid of sex-specific help-wanted ads. Woman wanted, man wanted -- that type of thing. And there wasn't much talk about abortion reform in feminist circles until quite late in the '60s, when Betty Friedan, in a very influential speech, drew the connection between the ability of women to participate fully in the economy and the ability of women to control their reproductive lives. That began a reframing in feminist terms of the issue of abortion reform as part of women's empowerment and of women assuming a new role in society."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.