Thirty Years of Empty Promises

Article excerpt

In the long and arduous fight leading up to Roe v. Wade, the one thing feminists were most passionate about was their belief that unrestricted access to abortion was indispensable to achieving gender equality. Betty Friedan in 1972 promised that legalizing abortion would make women whole. Advocacy groups, including the National Organization for Women, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), and the President's Advisory Council on the Status of Women, stood adamantly opposed to any limits, claiming regulation would violate a woman's right to control her body.

When one looks at the data today, noting that half of all women undergoing abortion in 2002 will be having at least their second, and that one of every five will be having at least her third, a number of highly descriptive thoughts come to mind. "In control" isn't one of them.

The successful push for unrestricted abortion on demand, nationwide, rested on two factors. The first was fortuitous timing. In the 1960s, the nation was caught up in the turmoil of three great social movements: civil rights, with its emphasis on effecting sweeping political change via the courts; feminism, with its promise to empower the victims of very real social and economic injustice; and environmentalism, which had fostered nationwide hysteria with claims of an imminent population disaster. The point at which the tenets of these three movements converged was abortion.

The second and more important factor was packaging. Abortion, from the onset, was not a health issue; it was politics. And politics is personal. In 1968, public opinion polls revealed scant support for legalizing abortion. Few Americans anticipated any personal benefit and many had serious moral concerns. But over the next five years, abortion rights advocates overcame Americans' qualms with repeated assurances that when every child was a "wanted" child, broad social benefits would ensue.

According to this argument, illegitimacy would become a thing of the past. Women who found themselves inconveniently pregnant could obtain an abortion and remain in school or in the workforce. Couples would no longer be trapped into miserable, forced marriages. Children would no longer be battered by parents resentful that they were "unplanned."

With an implied reduction in welfare and social services, abortion was transformed in the early 1970s from a moral question into a pocketbook issue. Senator Jacob Javits, for example, described New York's decision to legalize abortion as "a significant step forward in dealing with the human problems of our state."

Members of the Commission on Population Growth, established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, thought so too. In the second of three reports, issued in March 1972, they called for Medicaid-funded abortions as necessary weapons in the war on poverty, noting that "unwanted fertility is highest among those whose levels of education and income are lowest."

This line of thinking already had powerful support from The Population Bomb, the 1968 bestselling book by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich, who co-founded the group Zero Population Growth, warned that humans were rapidly populating themselves out of existence. Within slightly more than a decade, he wrote, all ocean life would die of DDT poisoning. Thousands would perish in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles. Life expectancy in the United States would plunge to just forty-two years, as pollution-induced cancer epidemics decimated the population.

To much of the public, these forecasts seemed frighteningly plausible. Press reports told of earnest young college girls having themselves surgically sterilized rather than risk bringing any more children into an already overcrowded world. In a controversial two-part episode of the popular CBS sitcom Maude, broadcast in 1972, the title character chooses to have an abortion. …