Abortion remains a major issue in political propaganda in the United States today. “Abortions will not let you forget,” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks (1917— ) in her poem “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945). “You remember the children you got that you did not get.” The New Penguin English Dictionary (2000) defines abortion as “the induced expulsion of a foetus for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy.” As such, there is nothing new about terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and Gwendolyn Brooks intended to shock her white readers by reminding them that among poor blacks abortion was something all too familiar. Only in the nineteenth century was abortion criminalized thanks to the efforts of Anthony Comstock (1844— 1915). In 1873 the U.S. Congress passed an Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles for Immoral Use, which was intended to improve the morals of all Americans. Comstock persuaded Congress to include information about abortion as one of the items forbidden by legislation.

Margaret Sanger (1879—1966) dealt with the problem from another angle, namely, birth control. A progressive reformer, Sanger saw firsthand the death of a poor working woman who could not afford to have another child and whose husband refused to use a condom. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt with contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut (1973). Justice William O. Douglas (1898— 1980), writing for the majority, upheld a couple’s right to contraception (including information about contraception) in a piece of convoluted reasoning: “Specific guarantees have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” In other words, the right to privacy was now guaranteed by the Court, and contraception was one of those rights.

The Court turned to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), one of the most contested rulings it ever made. Jane Roe—actually Norma McCorvey (1947— )—got pregnant and had an abortion. This was illegal in Texas, where she was a resident. The divided Court made abortion legal, in effect guaranteeing abortion on demand for any woman in the United States, claiming that the right to privacy was guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Legal scholars debated whether the Court had reached a verdict based on flawed reasoning. The Court’s line of reasoning suggested that abortion was strictly gender-specific: it was women who got pregnant. The right to abortion should therefore be protected by the equal protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment, which makes it unconstitutional to treat some citizens differently than others. There is much to recommend this line of reasoning.

The Court’s decision was bitterly contested by many on religious grounds. The result was a substantial “right to life” movement, promoted by many religious faiths besides the Roman Catholic Church. “Right to life” zealots have defended the idea of murdering doctors who do abortions. Abortion clinics, once found in most large American cities, were picketed to prevent pregnant women from entering. An anti—Ku Klux Klan law from the 1870s was invoked to force such protestors to stay away from abortion clinics.

Freedom of/from Choice Planned Parenthood poster, depicting Supreme Court justices, by Robbie Conal.

Freedom of/from Choice Planned Parenthood poster, depicting Supreme Court justices, by Robbie Conal.

Critics of Roe v. Wade, and there are many, feel the Court moved too rapidly on a divisive topic; local government should first have discussed the issues, giving those with religious differences ample time to voice their views. Instead, the Court rushed into an area of public policy where there was much confusion, forcing a feminist decision that pleased some but infuriated others. The result is continuing conflict. In recent presidential campaigns, candidates have been careful to say as little about abortion rights as possible; promises to overturn Roe have had little result so far. Americans are deeply divided over abortion, and this division shows no sign of ending. Feminists continue to insist that abortion is part of the move to make America equal for male and female. Opponents insist that that life begins at the point of conception and that after that moment the termination of any pregnancy is murder. The Roman Catholic Church in particular insists that the trimester plan permitting abortions in the first three months of pregnancy but not later—the plan enunciated in Roe—is simply legalized murder. The result is a decision that mirrors the notorious statement of Andrew Jackson regarding Justice John Marshall’s ruling on behalf of the Cherokee Nation: “Mr. Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Abortion attracts propagandists on both sides of the issue—gruesome photographs of fetuses versus lurid accounts of botched illegal abortions. Abortion is heavily politicized; its connection with the emancipation of women is obscured; its religious opponents are ascendant. She who is without proper voice is the poor teenage girl who has just become pregnant and does not know what to do.

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