Exhibition: The Age of Roe: The Past, Present, and Future of Abortion in America
For half a century, Roe v. Wade has resonated far beyond the confines of constitutional law. The Age of Roe rethinks what Roe has meant to American society, culture, and politics. It tells the story of abortion in the United States, from criminalization to constitutionalization and back again, through the eyes of those who created and defended Roe and those who mourned and unmade it, those at the center of politics and those at the margins. Battles over Roe upended party politics, changed medical practice, and divided faith communities. Roe offered lessons about what it meant to treat abortion as a right or to rely on the courts to achieve change. Conflicting visions of justice—for people of color, for women, for life in the womb—shaped what Roe meant.
The Age of Roe reevaluates the decision’s legacy through the work of those who defined the past five decades of debate about reproduction. Their stories suggest that even after the reversal of the 1973 decision, the age of Roe will continue to cast a long shadow over our ideas of reproduction and justice. By listening to those who experienced the age of Roe, we can see how the past shaped our present moment and begin to find a way beyond it.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study gratefully acknowledges the Helen Blumen and Jan Acton Fund for Schlesinger Library Exhibitions, which is supporting this exhibition.
Exhibition curated by Mary Ziegler, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law
Schlesinger Library Exhibition Committee Members:
- Jenny Gotwals, curator for gender and society
- Laura Peimer, archivist
With research support from Meg Weeks ’23 through a Harvard Library Pforzheimer Fellowship.
Find more about the collections of the Schlesinger Library related to this topic via these Research Guides:
How Do You Tell the Story of Roe v. Wade? (New York Times, 11/2/22)
Schlesinger Library Opens Exhibit on the History of Abortion in America (Harvard Crimson, 11/2/22)
Schlesinger Adjusts Plans for Roe v. Wade Commemoration to New Reality (Harvard Gazette, 10/20/22)
The World That Made Roe
Although abortions had always occurred in the United States, it was not until the late nineteenth century that states explicitly criminalized the procedure throughout pregnancy. A movement to change the status quo took shape in the 1960s, with physicians arguing that criminal laws had led to a public health crisis. The early reform movement coalesced around a compromise bill promoted by the American Law Institute, an expert body, that allowed abortion only in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, and threats to health. States began to pass versions of this model law, including those signed by Republicans such as Ronald Reagan.
But soon state-level reform bills angered people across the ideological spectrum. A newly formed right-to-life movement rejected compromise and argued that abortion itself was unconstitutional. Feminists and their allies rejected reform bills that did little to change access to abortion.
The world that made Roe is both familiar and unfamiliar. The abortion-access movement, which began consistently calling itself “pro-choice” by the late 1970s, included those concerned about population control as well as women’s rights. People opposed to abortion, who began to describe themselves as “pro-life” in the late 1960s, included those with progressive as well as conservative views on economic issues, and the movement was strongest in the Northeast and the Midwest. Roe both reflected and reshaped complicated questions about the intersection of abortion with questions of race, population growth, sex equality, bioethics, and human rights.
The View from the Clinic
Those familiar with debate about Roe v. Wade often begin with law and politics—Supreme Court decisions, judicial nominations, sloganeering, clinic blockades, and marches. Viewing Roe as a constitutional symbol or a political watershed can obscure our awareness of the spaces where people make decisions about pregnancy and can compromise our ability to listen to the people who are making those decisions.
The places where legal abortions occur have changed significantly over time. Reproductive-health clinics were rare in 1973 but soon mostly came to replace hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other providers. Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which dissuade people from choosing abortion and offer some services for pregnant women, began in the pre-Roe era and quickly multiplied thereafter. By the 2000s, CPCs were receiving considerable funding from the federal government.
An awareness of where abortions occur requires more attention to the experiences of those who have abortions and those who perform them. What changes when we focus on the view from inside the clinic rather than on the political wars raging outside?
Abortion Activism in Massachusetts
Massachusetts was one of the last states to decriminalize birth control—and it did so only in response to two major Supreme Court decisions, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972). Abortion was illegal in the state before 1973 unless a pregnant woman’s life was at risk. Even after Roe, the state’s Catholic population made Massachusetts a stronghold for the antiabortion movement—and home to the nation’s most famous post-Roe right-to-life activist, Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Before and after 1973, campuses across Boston, including Harvard’s, hosted protests in favor of a right to choose. Pro-life groups became active later, with Harvard Students for Life organizing its first major campaign in 1998.
Political party realignment and evolving campus politics have changed the abortion debate in Cambridge, in Boston, and in the state of Massachusetts. The more antiabortion politics have come to be associated with the Republican Party, the more Massachusetts state priorities have shifted toward protecting the right to abortion. In 2020, the state legislature passed the ROE (Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access.) Act, a sweeping protection for abortion rights, over Governor Baker’s veto. In July 2022, in response to the reversal of Roe and abortion bans pursued by more than half the states, Baker signed a new law that extends abortion rights later in a pregnancy, expands access to contraceptives, requires insurers to cover reproductive services, and shields abortion providers from interstate litigation.
Faiths, Lives, Choices
That religion has played a crucial role in the law and politics of abortion is no surprise, but the history of faith and abortion is complex. In the 1960s, interdenominational faith-based groups, including the Clergy Consultation Service, which provided referrals for safe abortion, were among the most vocal champions of repealing laws that criminalized abortion. The Catholic Church, which fielded most of the supporters of the early right-to-life movement, largely downplayed questions of faith around abortion. White evangelical Protestants were initially ambivalent about the issue, with fractures between northern and southern denominations; until 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention opposed both abortion on demand and absolute bans on abortion. By the 1980s, white evangelicals numbered among the most vocal supporters of the antiabortion movement, and that movement often defined itself as a Christian cause.
Today, faith traditions in the United States take a variety of positions on abortion. For example, Jewish law, which does not conclude that life begins at conception, permits abortion and, if the life of a pregnant person is at risk, requires it. Within Islam, there are significant variations between Sunni and Shi’ite traditions and within various Sunni madhhabs, or schools of thought, while the current teachings of Catholicism oppose abortion and conclude that life begins when an egg is fertilized. But the perspective on abortion taken by various faith traditions has often been fluid, and lay believers sometimes break with their faith leaders and draw their own conclusions. The history of conversations about faith and abortion suggests that the future may be as unpredictable as the past.
The Party Politics of Abortion
For decades, neither political party had a clear position on abortion. In the 1960s and 1970s, pro-choice Republicans who disagreed with others in their party saw abortion regulations as government overreach, while pro-life Democrats described unborn children, like the poor, as a vulnerable minority deserving protection. By 1980, Ronald Reagan had recognized that the abortion issue could win over some blue-collar voters and made the GOP “the party of life.” As feminists and people of color gained more influence, the Democratic Party of the 1980s and 1990s affirmed the importance of a right to choose. By the turn of the millennium, both pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans found themselves at odds with their own parties. The gradual realignment of politics in the states, culminating in Republicans’ success in state legislatures across the South and the Midwest in 2010, led to the passage of increasingly strict abortion bans. As the nation’s partisan divide widened, popular opinion on abortion remained strikingly stable, with most Americans supportive of a right to abortion with some restrictions on the procedure. Party politics have narrowed and hardened what it means to be pro-life or pro-choice. Will new possibilities open in the decades to come, or will polarization in a post-Roe America only increase?
Race and Abortion
Questions of race have long shaped the practice and politics of abortion, and of reproduction more broadly. In the nineteenth century, when physicians lobbied to criminalize abortion, they stressed that the procedure led to the birth of too many “undesirable” babies and too few “Anglo-Saxon” children. As states began to reform abortion laws in the 1960s, people of color became more likely to experience complications from illegal abortions. Since 1973, the abortion rate has consistently been higher for patients of color than for white patients.
These racial disparities have shaped arguments about abortion on all sides. In the 1960s, some Black Power activists argued that abortion constituted “Black genocide”—designed to disempower Black Americans. Other activists suggested that the government was using abortion to shirk its responsibility to protect people of color from discrimination and poverty. Antiabortion activists in later years stressed what they described as the racist history of the family-planning and population-control movements. Abortion-rights supporters argued that access to reproductive care was a necessary step in the campaign for racial justice. People of color organized a movement for reproductive justice that fused concerns about social justice and racial subordination with demands for access to reproductive health care. Underlying this dialogue was an awareness that abortion laws disproportionately affect people of color—and a deep uncertainty about what this meant.
Abortion is considered a question of social justice and ethical conviction, but it is also a medical procedure. The tools used in abortions most likely seem foreign to many, including those with strong views about the issue. Dilators, probes, specula—the tools displayed here—are a kind of Rorschach test. Some see a history of medicine: As abortion became legal and patient-focused, the procedure became safer, less time-consuming, and less invasive. Others see evidence of a crime or instruments of violence. Still others may imagine themselves as patients visiting a doctor who is using these implements to perform a procedure. Whatever your view, does it make a difference to encounter tools actually used in abortion?
Abortion and Justice
For nearly fifty years, Roe stood as a bitterly contested symbol of what social justice in the United States truly requires. Antiabortion leaders argued that Roe denigrated prenatal human beings and set the nation on a slippery slope toward legalizing discrimination against the elderly or disabled. Some antiabortion groups saw their cause as a defense not only of unborn lives but also of the traditional family. Abortion-rights supporters responded that laws criminalizing abortion were part of a broader agenda to oppress women and undermine the steps toward equal treatment made by women and other pregnant people. People of color who supported abortion access developed a movement for what they labeled reproductive justice, positioning the issue as not only a matter of liberty —the right to have or not have a child—but also a means to improve maternal mortality and morbidity, especially in communities of color, and raise children in safe and healthful environments.
With the overruling of Roe v. Wade, debates about abortion and justice will intensify. What are your hopes for the future? What does it mean to you to discuss abortion as a question of justice?
Harvard Radcliffe Institute will hold a major public conference January 26–27, 2023, to probe the complex and unpredictable ways that Roe v. Wade and its aftermath shaped the United States and the world beyond it for nearly half a century. The existential issue of abortion—and the galvanizing impact of Roe in particular—transformed the nation’s politics and public policy and its social movement energies, as well as the operations of the courtroom and the clinic. See "The Age of Roe: Voices from the Front Lines" and "Conference: The Age of Roe" for additional information and to register.
For those interested in additional programming related to this topic, the Boston University School of Law and School of Public Health are cosponsoring a conference, timed to coordinate with the Radcliffe programs, “After Roe and Dobbs: Seeking Reproductive Justice in the Next Fifty Years,” on Thursday, January 26, 2023, at BU.