The Antiabortion Movement and the Rise of the New Right
Abortion derives its meanings, not from any theological text or abstract moral code, but from the particular historical conditions surrounding it. In the 1970s, those conditions—delayed marriage and increased college attendance and labor force participation, an active and vocal women’s liberation movement, and open dissemination of birth control—dramatically affected young unmarried women. Moreover, their impact on the socioeconomic position of such women and on their sexual ideas and practices form a related whole, as both feminists and antifeminists are aware. Thus abortion came to represent in the 1970s much more than either a "terminated pregnancy" or a "murdered fetus." To feminists and antifeminists alike, it came to represent the image of the "emancipated woman" in her contemporary identity, focused on her education and work more than on marriage or childbearing; sexually active outside marriage and outside the disciplinary boundaries of the parental family; independently supporting herself and her children; and consciously espousing feminist ideas. Insofar as the "typical" abortion patient was white, middle – class, young, and unmarried, the circumstances surrounding and defining her abortion presented an unquestionable threat, not only to traditional gender and sexual relations, but to traditional racial and class relations as well.
Given the powerful scope of this threat to a white capitalist patriarchy, it was to be expected that a movement to reverse legalized abortion and delegitimate its ideology would arm itself. The failure of feminists to anticipate and prepare for a counterattack was a reflection of a naive faith in liberal institutions more than the unexpected potency or origins of the attack. As early as 1970, the Catholic church began to organize "right-to-life" committees to stop the tide of legalization, and after Roe v. Wade in 1973 it launched a full-scale campaign to secure a "human life amendment" to the U. S. Constitution that would declare the fetus to be a "human person" and abortion (for the first time in American legal history) to be murder. In 1977, the first Hyde Amendment curtailing federal Medicaid funding for abortion was passed, and by 1979 no federal funds could be paid for abortion or abortion-related services except when the woman’s life was in danger. Meanwhile, local and state laws began to require parental and spousal consent or notification before allowing abortions to be performed on unmarried minors or on wives; and the drive in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment or statute that would recriminalize abortion, while making little headway in the early 1980s, nevertheless remained on the agenda.1
More than the attack on legal abortion, what needs to be explained is, first, why it succeeded in altering the public policy that had apparently prevailed only a few years earlier; and, second, why the campaign against abortion was taken up as the battering ram in a much broader offensive against nontraditional families, feminism, teenage sexuality, the welfare state, socialism, and every other target of the right. Finally, we need to understand the essentially cultural and ideological nature of this antiabortion counteroffensive, for its legislative form is only one measure, not necessarily the most powerful, of its political effectiveness.