Siegel, Greenhouse discuss abortion, politics
Yale law professors Reva Siegel and Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize winner, explored the polarization of America’s abortion debate on Thursday afternoon.
Siegel and Greenhouse challenged the popular belief that the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, led to polarization that could have been avoided if Americans had been allowed to come to a political conclusion on their own.
“What we are looking at when we are looking at the before-Roe period is the development of polarization before adjudication,” Greenhouse said. “You can see conflict escalating sharply in the period before the Court becomes a player.”
Greenhouse and Siegel’s work culminated in the book “Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling.” Their work illuminates how politics and religion played a more pivotal role than the Court and how the demographics of the participants in the abortion debate has changed over time. Evangelicals — who are now considered a strong pro-life force — did not enter the debate until the late 1970s, while Catholics played an instrumental role in the pre-Roe v. Wade anti-abortion movement, the panelists said.
Siegel and Greenhouse said that this development explains why southern states like Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and Virginia, which had small Catholic populations, were among the first to liberalize abortion laws in 1967. These states implemented the American Legal Institute’s model statute that allowed abortion to protect a woman’s life or physical or mental health, if she had been raped or if her child would otherwise be born with serious physical or mental defects.
“We assume that the political identity of the combatants in that debate was back then as it is now,” Greenhouse said. Yet until 1988, she said, more Democrats supported decriminalization of abortion than Republicans, with leaders changing their stance before the voters.
The conservative Republican stance regarding abortion began largely as a political ploy by the Nixon administration to attract Catholic voters, as revealed by a series of strategic suggestions made for the 1972 elections, according to Greenhouse.
Regarding the motive of their research, Siegel said that it was important for “the historian to continue probing a post-Roe period with some attention to the institutional dynamics other than [those that] judicial review may have played.”
“The claim is not that courts don’t matter or that they needn’t respect the political order,” Siegel said. “If we want to understand how they do matter then the study of history is pertinent, if not more so than ever.”
The discussion was followed by comments by University Provost Christopher Eisgruber, University of Washington politics professor Michael McCann, University of Connecticut law professor Gordon Silverstein and discussion moderator and Princeton sociology professor Kim Scheppele. Siegel and Greenhouse concluded the panel by fielding questions from the audience.
The discussion was held in Dodd Auditorium and was organized by the Program in Law and Public Affairs.
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