Last week two American states—Alabama and Georgia—voted in harsh new abortion laws. The law in Alabama will make abortion illegal in all cases—including rape—except for when necessary to save a mother’s life (at the discretion of her doctor). Georgia, meanwhile, passed a “heartbeat” bill, making abortion illegal after 6 weeks, and also includes no exception for rape victims.

Both laws are not yet in effect and are expected to be challenged, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court, where many are worried the current conservative majority may overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling from 1973 that gave women the legal right to choose abortion.

While the country (and the world) is hotly debating the topic, it is interesting to understand the history of the politics around abortion in the US—because given the current climate, it’s probably not what you would expect.

What Happened First

Until the 19th century, abortion was a procedure that had been widely practiced since at least 1500BC and was generally legal under common law, or considered a misdemeanour at worst.  It was accepted that abortions before “quickening”—the point where the mother could feel movement from the foetus, which normally happened at around 4 months—were up to the mother’s discretion.[1]

What changed? In the early 1800s, male physicians started to take over from women, particularly midwives, in regards to women’s medical care, including pregnancy and childbirth. This is essentially the beginning of the politicisation of abortion in America.

The push from male physicians and the American Medical Association to ban abortion had numerous reasons. The primary reason was that abortion practitioners were mainly women, and not physicians (women were not permitted to be physicians at this time). Physicians were pushing to standardise all areas of health care, and were focused on removing any kind of “natural” or “alternative” care or remedies, portraying them as a public health risk.[2]

Midwives, with their generationally passed-down knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth, had been the targets of male physicians for some time. Women who performed or facilitated abortions fell under the same category—not only because they performed a service the physicians didn’t, but because these unregulated practitioners were able to provide cheaper services and were generally well-trusted by women.[3]

Numerous laws started appearing in the early 1800s—In 1821, a Connecticut law targeted apothecaries that sold poisons to women for purposes of abortion. In 1829, New York passed the strictest laws to that date, making post-quickening abortions a felony.[4] Through the 1860s the law-making accelerated, mostly due to the efforts of the American Medical Association.[5]

In 1873 a set of federal laws called the Comstock Act were passed, which prohibited the circulation of “obscene literature”—including any information on abortion, contraceptive, and venereal disease, which could be punished by up to 5 years imprisonment. [6]

By 1910, almost every state had anti-abortion laws. This, of course, did not lead to the end of abortions, but rather forced desperate women to have dangerous “back-alley” procedures, which often resulted in serious injury, or death.

Social Upheaval

The 1910s saw a great deal of social upheaval involving women. As the long battle for women’s suffrage was finally starting to find some success, Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. They distributed birth control, along with birth control information. All three women were soon arrested under the Comstock Act for circulating obscene materials.[7] In particular, Sanger’s trial and appeal generated significant media coverage and controversy, encouraged by the changing social climate.

Sanger was convicted; the trial judge held that women did not have “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception”[8]. On appeal, however, the Republican judge Frederick E. Crane issued a ruling allowing doctors to prescribe contraception[9], which created a loophole for the birth control clinic and allowed them to keep running. Sanger eventually launched a more extensive group of birth control clinics: Planned Parenthood.

The trial judge held that women did not have “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception”.

In today’s political climate, this progressive ruling from a Republican might sound unexpected. But right up into the 1960s and early 70s, Republicans were at the forefront of progressive reproductive rights.

Republicans and Progressive Reproductive Rights

In 1965 a case was brought before the Supreme Court, Griswold v. Connecticut. The case was argued against Connecticut’s enforcement of the Comstock Act, stating that limiting access to contraception was unconstitutional. The court 7 – 2 invalidated the law on the grounds that it violated the “right to marital privacy”, establishing the basis for this right with respect to intimate practices. Notedly, the court was bipartisan on the issue, with both Republicans and Democrats in the majority.[10]

Griswold v Connecticut began a legal precedent which saw progressive changes to birth control and family planning across the country. In 1965, federal subsidies to help low income families with birth control were introduced as part of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty act[11], acknowledging, like Margaret Sanger did back in the 1910s, that lack of access to contraception primarily affected those on low income or in poverty.

In 1967, Republican governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, which at the time was the most liberal abortion law in the country[12]. In the same year, North Carolina and Colorado, both Republican states, relaxed abortion laws; and New York’s Republican governor Nelson Rockerfeller eliminated all restrictions on women seeking abortions up to twenty-four weeks into pregnancy.[13]

In 1967, Republican governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, which at the time was the most liberal abortion law in the country.

To top off this set of advances in women’s health, in 1970 President Richard Nixon signed into law the Title X Family Planning Program. Title X, still in law today, is a comprehensive federal grant program that provides individuals with comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services. It operates by providing funding to primarily community-based clinics that provide services like contraception and counselling, including Planned Parenthood.[14] Although Title X does not specifically fund abortion services, and funds can not be allocated to abortions, it does fund clinics that include abortion as one of many services.

Title X was passed unanimously in the Senate, and 298 – 32 in the House.[15] It had strong bipartisan support, and was enthusiastically signed into law by the Republican president.[16]

Why was there such strides made towards reproductive freedom by Republicans? Because at the time, abortion was essentially a non-issue in the party. In fact, in 1972 a Gallup poll showed 68% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats agreed that “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician”.[17] Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were all pro-choice, and they were not in the minority in their party.

In 1972 a Gallup poll showed 68% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats agreed that “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician”.

The Republicans famously stood on a platform of personal liberty and freedom, and usually erred on the side of less laws governing autonomous decision making. They also believed in the segregation of church and state, and abortion was largely seen as a religious issue amongst Catholics. So it stands to reason that the Republicans would be more open to abortion than the Democrats, who had a large Catholic contingent at the time.[18]

Nixon, Buchanan, and Roe

But in 1972 there was a spark of change in the party. Nixon, who had happily signed Title X into law, began to backtrack. He was up for re-election and heavily influenced by his speech writer Pat Buchanan, who advised him to take a harder stance on abortion. This, Buchanan said, would draw Catholics away from the Democrats and the Republican party, since the Pope had very recently denounced all forms of contraception and abortion[19]. Obsessed with re-election, Nixon complied—though in the infamous “Nixon Tapes”, he is privately recorded as having a more liberal view on abortion.[20]

1973 saw one of US history’s most famous Supreme Court cases—Roe v. Wade. The case was brought against the state of Texas (Henry Wade was the district attorney of Dallas County), on behalf of Jane Roe (an alias), a woman who sought an abortion in the state. The case argued that the ban on abortion in Texas was unconstitutional.

The court issued a decision of 7 – 2 against Texas, drawing on the precedent set by Griswold v. Connecticut—that the ban violated the “right to privacy” and was therefore unconstitutional. The decision was written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a staunch Republican. Roe v. Wade essentially brought into law a woman’s right to choose—and was backed by Republicans.[21]

Roe v. Wade essentially brought into law a woman’s right to choose—and was backed by Republicans.

Betty Ford, wife of future Republican president Gerald Ford, went on record with her views on Roe v. Wade, saying “I feel very strongly that it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalise abortion and, in my words, bring it out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belonged. I thought it was a great, great decision.”[22]

The Strategist

However, while Roe v. Wade helped women make strides in personal autonomy, at the same time Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly was actively working to reverse it. As Nixon was refusing to publicly support the Roe v. Wade decision Schlafly, who was highly conservative and vocally anti-feminism, was busy bringing Evangelical Protestants into the party.[23]

The Evangelicals had become more and more involved with politics during the 70s, after being outraged not by abortion, but by the withdrawal of tax-exempt status from segregated church schools. The Evangelicals ran several segregated schools, and were unwaveringly against accepting African American students, believing it to be a biblical mandate. The refusal of their tax exemptions was enough to mobilise them into the political sphere.[24]

Republican strategist Paul Weyrich saw this group as a powerful potential addition to the numbers of the Republican party and had tried for years to bring them into the fold with promises of hard stances on issues that he thought might matter to them, such as pornography and the Equal Rights Act. He also pitched an anti-abortion platform, though most of the Evangelicals were sympathetic or ambivalent to the topic and considered it a Catholic issue.[25]

In fact, the Protestant clergy had been very liberally pro-choice: “the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCSA), which was established in 1967, not only counselled pregnant women about their choices, it enlisted physicians to perform abortions.”[26] Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Baptist minister and gynaecologist, said “our role is to help [a woman] make a decision in the grace of God that she can live with”.[27]

In 1968 a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the Evangelical magazine, would not characterise abortion as sinful, stating “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” were justifiable reasons for ending a pregnancy.[28] The Evangelical response to Roe v. Wade was mostly indifferent, ranging to approval. What they really cared about was segregation and tax exemption.

The Evangelical response to Roe v. Wade was mostly indifferent, ranging to approval. What they really cared about was segregation and tax exemption.

Weyrich managed to convinced the Evangelicals that Democratic president Jimmy Carter had been responsible for the loss of tax exemption on segregated schools, even though this had actually been enacted by Republican president Nixon, a year before Carter took office.[29] This turned the Evangelical leaders against Carter (who was himself Evangelical).

The New Right

It was Weyrich who realised that segregation would not have much by the way of popular appeal, and would be hard to make palatable as a platform issue. Instead, he convinced the Evangelical leaders to rally around abortion as a topic that was much more easily pitched to the general public, and much easier to provoke emotional responses.[30] Since the party had already been working on bringing Catholics into the fold—who DID care about abortion—this seemed to Weyrich like an issue that could tie the whole party together.[31]

“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the 1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation… The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated. If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”[32]

Tanya Melich, author of the War on Women and former high-level Republican staffer, said “It was a movement that said we were going to win the presidency through bigotry, but we are not going to come right out and say it…. They set out to change the dynamic in the Republican Party…. And they succeeded.”[33]

“It was a movement that said we were going to win the presidency through bigotry, but we are not going to come right out and say it…. They set out to change the dynamic in the Republican Party…. And they succeeded.”

By 1976, the Republican party had added anti-abortion policies to its platform. Its policy stated that: “the question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time. It is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue but it also involves complex questions relating to medical science and criminal justice. There are those in our Party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand. There are others who share sincere convictions that the Supreme Court’s decision must be changed by a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions. Others have yet to take a position, or they have assumed a stance somewhere in between polar positions…The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”[34]

In contrast, the 1972 platform did not mention abortion at all.[35]

In 1978 Weyrich enlisted Francis A. Schaeffer, a theologian who believe abortion would lead inevitably to infanticide and euthanasia, to be the mouthpiece of the movement. Schaeffer teamed with a paediatric surgeon, C. Everett Koop, to produce a series of films called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which painted abortion in graphic and unscientific terms. They toured the films around the country in 1979 to Evangelical audiences, with the support of church leaders. These “propaganda films” started to turn the every day Evangelical on to the issue of abortion. [36]

Trickle Down Morality

In 1980, under presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (who only 13 years earlier had signed in the country’s most liberal abortion laws in California) this stance had been developed: “While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”[37]

Incumbent president Carter had refused to seek a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, and this was seen as unpardonable by the newly-rallied Evangelicals. Though he was of the same religion, and it was their help that had put him in the White House, the group now turned against him and threw their support behind the Republicans.

By 1984, and Reagan’s second term, the platform becomes closer to what we associate with the Republican party today: “The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life, which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human-life amendment to the Constitution. We oppose the use of public revenues for abortion and will eliminate funding for organizations which advocate or support abortion.’’[38]

During this time, anti-abortion organisation, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), was working to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Unable to challenge the decision head-on, they sought a loophole—to establish foetal personhood through a Human Life Amendment, which would grant foetuses the rights of citizenship from the moment of conception. By establishing this as an amendment to the constitution, they hoped to invalidate the Roe v. Wade ruling, as well as preventing congress and individual states from legalising abortion on a state level.[39]

The NRLC was started in 1968 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and had close ties with Nixon’s strategist Paul Weyrich, who promoted them to the Republican party as part of his strategy to make abortion “the” issue that would unite the party.[40]

Throughout the 80s and Reagan’s presidency, the NRLC spearheaded a boycott program against pharmaceutical companies that provided, or associated with anyone providing, abortion drugs.[41] They had a budget in the millions, and became a powerful lobbying force in Washington, where they are now based. Their efforts continued through the 90s[42], and to the present day. Though they have so far not managed to enact the Human Life Amendment, it is an outcome they continue to strive towards.

Although throughout the 1980s more Republicans than Democrats were still pro-choice, the continued hard stance of the party, coupled with anti-abortion voting by strategically elected  Republican congressmen, finally turned the tides late in the decade. From the 90s onwards, the Republicans were known as the pro-life party.[43]

The Modern Issue

As the NRLC progressed, their tactics became more brazen. They discovered that targeting health care providers, to try to scare them away from performing abortions. They have murdered doctors in New York, Florida, and Kansas; bombed abortion clinics in Florida and Atlanta, set fire to clinics, and harassed and intimidated health care providers and their families. Their strategy remains the same: to make the barriers to abortion so high that Roe v. Wade becomes obsolete. [44]

It is the NRLC that is responsible for the more modern procedures restricting abortion—mandatory wait times, counselling sessions containing incorrect information about foetal development, and a requirement to look at sonogram of the foetus before an abortion can take place.[45]

Republican president Donald Trump had, before his nomination, stated he was pro-choice. But during his campaign, he backtracked to state he was anti-abortion.

It is now essentially a requirement for Republicans to have a strict anti-abortion stance. Republican president Donald Trump had, before his nomination, stated he was pro-choice. But during his campaign, he backtracked to state he was anti-abortion.[46] This was to appeal to the Catholics and Evangelicals (now known as the Religious Right), who are still considered to be “one-issue” voters, and will put their support behind whichever candidate has the hardest stance on abortion.

The 2016 Republican stance on abortion read: “The Constitution’s guarantee that no one can “be deprived of life, liberty or property” deliberately echoes the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all” are “endowed by their Creator” with the inalienable right to life. Accordingly, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth.

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare… We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.”[47]

With the support of the religious right so vital in Republicans gaining the presidency, this stance seems unlikely to change in the near future.


[1] Potts, Malcolm; Martha Campbell (2009). “History of Contraception”. GLOWM: The Global Library Of Women’s Medicine

[2] Ehrenreich, Barbara & English, Deirdre (1973) “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses” Feminist Press, CUNY

[3] Mohr, James C. (1978). “Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy” Oxford University Press

[4] Alford, Suzanne M. (2003). “Is Self-Abortion a Fundamental Right?” Duke Law Journal.

[5] Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Abortion History: A History of Abortion in the United States”Women’s History section of About.com. About.com.

[6] Reagan, Leslie J. (1997). “When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973” University of California Press

[7]Margaret SangerBiography.com

[8] Lepore, Jill (November 14, 2011). “Birthright: What’s next for Planned Parenthood?”The New Yorker

[9] Engelman, Peter C, (2004) “Margaret Sanger”, article in Encyclopedia of Leadership, Volume 4, George R. Goethals, et al (Eds), SAGE

[10]Griswold v. Connecticut”, Cornell Law School

[11] The Great Society, History.com

[12] Schrag, Peter (2018) “A Massive New Biography of Ronald Reagan Forces Comparisons to President Trump”, LA Times

[13] Perez-Pena, Richard (April 9, 2000) “’70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation”, New York Times

[14] “Fact Sheet: Title X Family Planning Program.” Office of Population Affairs Clearinghouse

[15] Sarah L. Henderson (2014). “Family Planning and Government”. In Brent S. Steel (ed.). Science and Politics: An A-to-Z Guide to Issues and Controversies. CQ Press

[16] Nixon, Richard (December 26, 1970). “Statement on Signing the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970”. The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara

[17] Greenhouse, Linda; Siegel, Reva B. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions about Backlash”  The Yale Law Journal

[18] Rae,  Nicol (1989) “The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present”, Oxford University Press

[19] Greenhouse, Linda; Siegel, Reva B. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions about Backlash”  The Yale Law Journal

[20] Totenberg, Nina (June 23, 2009) “Tape Reveals Nixon’s Views on Abortion” npr.org

[21] Chemerinsky, Erwin (2015). “Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies (5th ed.).” New York: Wolters Kluwer

[22]The Ron Nessen Papers” Ford Library Museum

[23] Greenhouse, Linda; Siegel, Reva B. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions about Backlash”  The Yale Law Journal

[24] Balmer, Randall (May 27, 2014) “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” Politico Magazine

[25] Halpern, Sue (November 8, 2018) “How Republicans Became Anti-Choice” New York Review of Books

[26] Halpern, Sue (November 8, 2018) “How Republicans Became Anti-Choice” New York Review of Books

[27] Halpern, Sue (November 8, 2018) “How Republicans Became Anti-Choice” New York Review of Books

[28] Christian Medical Society (June 1970) “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation

[29] Reed, Roy (July 16, 1970) “Both Sides in South Mistrust Nixon Actions on School Integration” New York Times

[30] Balmer, Randall (May 27, 2014) “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” Politico Magazine

[31] Greenhouse, Linda; Siegel, Reva B. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions about Backlash”  The Yale Law Journal

[32] Parke, Cole (December 5, 2017) “Religious Freedom and the Christian Right’s Masterpiece of Manipulationpoliticalresearch.org

[33] Halpern, Sue (November 8, 2018) “How Republicans Became Anti-Choice” New York Review of Books

[34]1976 Republican Platform: Equal Rights and Ending Discrimination” Ford Library Museum

[35]Republican Platform of 1972” The American Presidency Project

[36] Miller, Matthew (March 2013) “How the Evangelical Church Awoke to the Abortion Issue” Reformation21

[37]Republican Party Platforms – Then and Now” New York Times

[38]Republican Party Platform of 1984” The American Presidency Project

[39] Staggenborg, Suzanne (1994). “The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict” Oxford University Press US

[40] Williams, Daniel K. (2010) ”God’s Own Party: The Making of the Religious Right” Oxford University Press

[41] Kolata, Gina (February 22, 1988) “Boycott Threat Blocking Sale of Abortion-Inducing Drug” New York Times

[42] Associated Press (July 8, 1994)  “Abortion Drug Draws Boycott” New York Times

[43] Greenhouse, Linda; Siegel, Reva B. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions about Backlash”  The Yale Law Journal

[44] Rohlinger, Deana A. (2014) “Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America” Florida State University Press

[45] Halpern, Sue (November 8, 2018) “How Republicans Became Anti-Choice” New York Review of Books

[46] Timmons, Heather (May 21, 2019) “Trump shifted from pro-choice to pro-life only as he planned a presidential run” Quartz Magazine

[47] Fuller, Matt (July 19, 2016) “Here’s the Full Text of the 2016 Republican Platform” Huffington Post

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