Abortion politics in America: 1980-2018

March to defend abortion rights, Washington DC, 1989

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, and they are threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade. 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. Continue reading