Gay Rights and Issues of Abortion: Analysis of Roe vs. Wade

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The period 1967-2000 saw a seismic shift in the rights of women and gay people in America. However, the gains which were made were accompanied by the development of a conservative counter-movement which tried to minimise what progress there was. This essay will define ‘conservative’ as an ideological position opposed to advances in women’s and gay rights, in favour of traditional values which may have a religious foundation, such as in the case of the Moral Majority. The impact of these groups will be determined according to their success in impeding or overturning progressive legislation intended to advance the afore mentioned rights, not just how the state of these rights in 2000 compared to 1967. This essay will show that in spite of women and gay people having better protection for their rights in 2000, conservative opposition led to uneven legal situations across the country, leading to the conclusion that women’s rights and gay rights were significantly hampered by the rise of a conservative culture over the period 1967-2000.

Although American women had much greater access to legal abortions in 2000 compared to the beginning of 1967, the rise of a conservative culture through the 1970s and 80s meant that there was not a linear trajectory of progress. Despite the sparse access to safe, legal abortion in America in 1967, it is reasonable to conclude that the period 1967-1973 was defined by progress in improving women’s reproductive rights. Thirteen states liberalised their laws regarding abortion, and four legalised abortion in at the first trimester. The mood of the time was noted in The New York Times[1], off the back of a 1970 referendum in Washington where 56.49% of those polled[2] voted in favour of legalising abortion in the first four months of the pregnancy. Although this may appear to indicate strong popular support for liberalising abortion laws, the legislation fell short of the ‘ad libitum’ access to abortion adopted at the 1969 NARAL conference by including stipulations that a woman seeking an abortion would need the consent of her husband or guardian.

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Stone proposes the view that religion was the key demographic factor influencing the opinions of Americans regarding abortion.. In 1972, 68% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats believed that abortion should be a decision made between a woman and her doctor, which supports Stone’s suggestion. In contrast, Catholics where overwhelmingly opposed to abortion, making the Catholic population a powerful political block making up 27% of the population [5].

The strength of their ability to mobilise can be seen best in New York state in 1972 , where abortion on demand had been legalised until the 24th week of a pregnancy since 1969. The “Right to Life Sunday” protests in New York on April 16 1972 were attended by an estimated 10,000 protesters, demanding the repeal of the new law. Although other religious leaders were present, the fact the march was organised by the Catholic Archbishop Cooke of New York clearly demonstrates the influence of the Catholic church. This can be further reinforced by the large scale grassroots anti-abortion activism which followed, with over fifty anti-abortion organisations encouraging supporters to make phone calls to lobby legislatures and distribute anti-abortion leaflets, threatening that the sizeable Catholic voting block would ensure they lost their seats. Although the repeal bill supported by the campaigners passed by two votes, the campaign cannot be said to have hampered the ability of women to access abortion since the repeal bill was veto by the state’s Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller. In a statement on this decision, Governor Rockefeller expressed concern that one group could “impose its vision of morality on an entire society” [6], which rebuked the campaigners as unrepresentative of the wishes of the New York public, implicitly recognised the power of conservative special-interest groups such as the Right to Life Committee to enact laws contrary to the mainstream view. Although the legislative battle in New York may appear to vindicate the argument that a conservative counter movement hampered the advances of women’s reproductive rights, that view appears premature considering how the activities of the New York Right to Life Committee and the failure of “Women versus Connecticut” to get reform of their state’s abortion law through the state’s staunchly Catholic legislature[7] energised the pro-abortion movement to turn to the courts to seek a legal basis for which would allow women to access abortion. The landmark Roe vs Wade ruling in 1973 legalised abortion within the first trimester across all states. Contemporary poles which show that 52% of Americans supported Roe vs Wade indicates that by 1973, a conservative culture may have caused the pro-abortion movement some initial setbacks but ultimately did not significantly impact women’s reproductive rights.

The 1970s and 80s saw a clear directing of the conservative movement into attacking the gains made by the pro-abortion movement, with consequences that lasted well beyond the year 2000. Although the decision on Roe vs. Wade despite opposition from powerful Catholic groups shows a clear upward trend in women’s reproductive rights in America from 1967-73, some scholars such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have argued that the passage of Roe vs. Wade – especially Justice Blackmun’s opinion – created an environment in which the more forthright anti-abortion activism of the 1970’s and 1980’s could flourish. Key to this was the expansion of religiously-motivated anti-abortion campaigning from the powerful but minority Catholic demographic, to the wider protestant movement who made up almost twice as much of the American population [7]. Whereas the United Methodist

Church and American Baptist Convention had made statements prior to Roe that abortion should be legislated as a medical procedure and a matter of personal conscience, the radical social divisions of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had caused views to shift. President Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972 was in part due to his appeal to the demographic he dubbed “The Silent Majority”, his victory was secured by weaponizing abortion to attract Catholic voters from the democrats [8] by praising those who stood up for “the right to life of the unborn”[9]. However, evangelical protestants were unable to form a cohesive political movement like the Catholics had until the establishment of the Moral Majority in 1979.

Abortion was a key controversy the Moral Majority exploited to gain political ground by changing the narrative around abortion from a question of privacy between a woman and her doctor, to that of the murder of children[10]. Although the Moral Majority was founded to influence American politics, that influence was only possible due to the strengthening of American conservative culture through the preceding decade. By the mid 1970s, Americans who described themselves as “born-again Christians” made up the nation’s largest religious demographic[11], the religious right able to target and influence their beliefs by way of over sixty nationally-syndicated broadcasters and television stations[12] by providing an alternative voice to the “liberalizing” trend of American social politics.

Reagan’s explicit alignment with the religious right during the 1980 Presidential Election and the Republican Party’s landslide victory[13] can be seen as a vindication of Pat Robertson’s claim that the evangelical movement “had enough votes to run the country”. Reagan had advocated a constitutional amendment which would overturn Roe vs Wade during the campaign, where he told 15,000 assembled church leaders that he endorsed their efforts[14]. This view is further supported by Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984[15], where 80% of evangelical voters voted for Republican candidates[16]. However, the immediate political consequences of this are somewhat limited by the failure of the Republicans to gain the two-thirds majority needed to overturn Roe vs Wade.

The 1980s not only saw the emergence of an executive branch which was openly opposed to abortion, but a surge in grassroots anti-abortion activity which sought to interfere with clinics and practitioners through a variety of tactics. While some groups, such as the Pro-Life Action League, picketed clinics and made fraudulent appointments at clinics or started fraudulent centres[17], others acted violently. In 1984, there were 161 violent acts targeting abortion clinics and staff, creating an environment in which fewer women were willing to seek an abortion and fewer medical professionals were willing to perform the procedure.

Although Roe vs Wade remained on the statute books by the year 2000, the efforts of conservative activists and lawmakers had significantly hampered the ability of a woman to get an abortion. With six-hundred fewer hospitals offering abortions in the mid-1990s compared to the mid-1970s, and 84% of all counties not having a single abortion clinic[18], the view that the rise of a conservative culture successfully made it harder for American women to access a legal abortion appears vindicated.

Beyond campaigning for improved access to abortion, the ‘Second Wave’ of feminism which emerged from the end of the 1960s fought against what Betty Friedan termed “the problem that has no name”[19] , which can be interpreted as an undetermined source of “dissatisfaction”. According to Spruill[20], the Second Wave movement “disturbed” many conservative Americans – and Conservative women – by threatening to overturn what they believed to be innate and divinely created differences between the genders. This argument appears to have a solid basis, due to the fierce and sustained backlash to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment[21](ERA), preventing its addition to the constitution.

Approved by Congress in 1972[22], the ERA sought to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex via a constitutional amendment. Passing with a majority of 84-8 votes and being ratified by its first state thirty-two minutes after its approval[23], it initially appeared as if

American culture was receptive to enshrining gender equality as a fundamental law. However, the New York Times article which reported on the ERA’s approval highlighted areas of contention, such as whether the draft would be extended to women, which would ultimately become key arguments wielded by the conservative counter movement Spruill referenced.

One of the most prominent and successful activist of the anti-ERA movement was the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the STOP ERA movement. With “STOP” standing for “Stop Taking our Privileges”[24], this lends credence to Spruill’s argument that the conservative backlash to the ERA was concerned with a perceived threat to what some Conservative women saw as their privileges in society – exemptions from the draft and priority in receiving the custody of children in divorce settlements.

Although anti-feminist movements such as STOP ERA were a key feature of the New Right and championed by key figures in the Moral Majority[25], Faludi notes that conservative women’s organizations modelled themselves closely after their feminist counterparts than the “male hierarchies” of the New Right[26]. Both feminist and anti-feminist activists attended hearings of state legislatures to lobby state senators, with Schlafly presenting legislators with freshly baked goods[27], portraying the anti-ERA movement as one which sought to preserve traditional femininity. By the time the June 30 deadline by which states had to ratify the ERA passed, the proposed amendment was three states short of the required 38 states required to approve a constitutional amendment[28]. This narrow defeat strongly supports the view that a conservative countermovement hampered the advance of the ERA, since five states rescinded their ratification of the ERA[29].

Historians such as Yarrow have argued that despite the advances made by women in the 1980s and 1990s, society responded to the increased prominence of women in society with increased hostility by reducing them to sexualised stereotypes[12].

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Gay Rights and Issues of Abortion: Analysis of Roe vs. Wade. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from
“Gay Rights and Issues of Abortion: Analysis of Roe vs. Wade.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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