MY, HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED—Origins of Abortion Legislation
One important thing most people don’t realize, says Greenhouse, is that the move to relax state abortion laws came not from women’s rights groups but from the medical profession and a prominent apolitical group of judges and lawyers called the American Law Institute.
“These were heavily, heavily male-dominated professional organizations that looked at the regime of criminal abortion laws that were driving women to back alleys and were putting doctors in legal jeopardy if they acted in what they considered to be the best interests of their patients,” Greenhouse says. “And that’s where the impetus really began.”
Even those on the other side of the abortion debate don’t dispute that the debate began well before the Supreme Court entered the fray. David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, notes that the American Law Institute’s model law called for allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality, and to preserve the physical health of the pregnant woman.
“And that law was passed in a number of states,” he says. “Between 1967 and 1970, a total of 19 states had legalized abortion for reasons other than to save the life of the mother.”
It’s the next part of Greenhouse’s and Siegel’s argument that’s more controversial. They say one of the things that really politicized the abortion issue was the efforts of those working to re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972. His aides, including future Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, wanted to lure Northern Catholic voters, who had traditionally voted Democratic, over to the Republican Party.
Nixon “was strongly advised by his strategists … to make a play for a Northern urban Catholic Democratic vote,” says Greenhouse. “A kind of Northern strategy that mirrored the Southern strategy.”
In fact, up until then, top Republicans tended to be more in favor of abortion rights than Democrats, including, for much of his first term, Nixon himself.
“It’s upside-down,” says Greenhouse. “It’s like going through the looking glass into another world.”