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Chicago-Kent Law review

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Chi.-Kent L. Rev.





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Did Roe v. Wade destroy the possibility for compromise in the abortion debate? Leading studies argue that Roe itself radicalized debate and marginalized antiabortion moderates, either by issuing a sweeping decision before adequate public support had developed or by framing the opinion in terms of moral absolutes. Others rely on this history in criticizing the sweeping privacy framework set out in Roe, attributing the radicalization of the general discussion and the antiabortion movement to the timing, reach, or framing of the abortion right in the opinion.

The polarization narrative on which leading studies rely obscures important actors and arguments that defined the antiabortion movement of the 1970s. First, contrary to what the polarization narrative suggests, self-identified antiabortion moderates played a significant role in the mainstream antiabortion movement. As we shall see, activists like Warren Schaller and Marjory Mecklenburg assumed positions of leadership in the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), then the largest national antiabortion organization and a clearinghouse for strategy for the wide variety of groups active at the state level. These activists shaped the mainstream movement's policies on issues like the treatment of unwed mothers or the Equal Rights Amendment. During testimony about a human life amendment to the Constitution, they helped to forge the movement’s public-relations strategy.

Second, because of the influence exercised by these activists, post-Roe compromise in the 1970s was more possible than is conventionally thought, especially on issues beyond abortion itself. Working in organizations like Feminists for Life (FFL) or American Citizens Concerned for Life (ACCL), antiabortion moderates campaigned for what they defined to be alternatives to abortion: for example, laws prohibiting pregnancy discrimination or funding contraception or sex education. Roe did not undo these important opportunities for compromise.

Ultimately, however, for several reasons, moderates lost influence. First, in the mid-1970s, as part of their campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), conservative women's groups like Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA took up the abortion issue. In order to persuade abortion opponents to condemn the Amendment, Schlafly and her allies began stressing that the Amendment would make Roe v. Wade a permanent constitutional fact. Similarly, Schlafly and her allies contended that feminism was and always would be pro-abortion. The involvement of antifeminist groups in the abortion debate helped to convince activists otherwise supportive of or indifferent to the ERA that no part of the feminist agenda was deserving of support. Moreover,

Schlafly and a newer group, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America (CWA), identified and mobilized a cohort of women opposed to both abortion and the ERA.

Similarly, in the late 1970s, for strategic reasons, both the women’s movement and the antiabortion movement began marginalizing activists opposed to abortion but supportive of the ERA or antipregnancy discrimination legislation. For the National Right to Life Committee or other mainstream antiabortion groups, the Religious Right and New Right, both of which were becoming politically powerful in the late 1970s and both of which had members strongly opposed to abortion, appeared to be attractive allies. In the same period, as abortion-rights groups increasingly stressed that the antiabortion movement was intent on oppressing women, antiabortion moderates also lost any place they might have had on the political left.

The history of antiabortion moderates complicates leading criticisms of Roe that rely on the polarization produced by the decision. Arguing that Roe sidelined moderates, scholars criticize the sweep of the opinion, the privacy rationale it offers, or the timing of its issuance in a period in which the abortion issue was very much alive in state legislatures. However, to the extent that the history of antiabortion moderates offers an example, Roe did not polarize discussion. If Roe did not sideline antiabortion moderates, could it be properly said to have created a clash of absolutes? If Roe did not polarize debate, then should criticisms of the opinion’s rationale, timing, or scope be reexamined? The history here makes more urgent a reconsideration of these questions.

The history considered here also offers new perspective on an increasingly rich scholarship on women of the Right. Scholars like Sarah Barringer Gordon and Donald Critchlow have studied the emergence, evolution, and strategies of organizations like Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America. Although strongly opposed to second-wave feminism, these groups argued that they were redeeming the essence of womanhood from feminists. These studies have not fully done justice to important “pro-woman” antiabortion activists in groups like the NRLC, ACCL, and FFL. Unlike the members of the CWA or STOP ERA, these activists identified with second-wave feminism or defined themselves partly by a willingness to form alliances with feminists. These moderate activists have largely been lost in the current history of both the abortion debate and of women of the Right.

This Article proceeds in four parts. Part I studies the influence of self-described antiabortion moderates on the mainstream antiabortion movement between 1973 and 1975. Part II examines the role played in the abortion debate of the 1970s by the freestanding organizations these activists formed. Part III shows that these groups were marginalized not simply because of Roe, but because of a wide variety of factors, including the rise of the New Right and the evolution of the ERA battle. The final part briefly concludes.


© 2012 Mary Ziegler


First published in Chicago-Kent Law Review.

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