The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict

The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict

The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict

The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict


In this highly-praised analysis of the controversial pro-choice movement, Suzanne Staggenborg traces the development of the movement from its origins through the 1980s. She shows how a small group of activists were able to build on the momentum created by other social movements of the 1960s to win their cause--the legalization of abortion in 1973--and argues that professional leadership and formal organizational structures, together with threats from the anti-abortion movement and grass-roots support, enabled the pro-choice movement to remain an active force even after their primary goal had been achieved.


The conflict over abortion has a long history in American political life. The states were originally guided on the matter of abortion by British common law, which permitted abortion until "quickening," the point about midway through pregnancy when the woman first perceives fetal movement. Although abortion before quickening was socially acceptable and there was no grass-roots anti-abortion movement before the twentieth century, there was a successful campaign to outlaw abortion in the nineteenth century that was initiated not by religious leadersas might be expected--but by physicians. The physicians who led this campaign were "regular" doctors motivated in large part by their desire to regulate medicine and to drive out the "irregular" doctors who were most likely to perform abortions. The power of these regular physicians grew with the formation of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 and later from a political alliance with the anti-obscenity movement led by Anthony Comstock in the 1870s. But because there was no popular movement to resist the pressure exerted by the AMA and its members, by 1900 abortion had been outlawed by every state in the nation (see Mohr, 1978).

On January 22, 1973, the abortion conflict came full circle when the U.S. Supreme Court, with its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, legalized abortion throughout the United States. The Court ruling was the result of another organized effort to alter the legal status of abortion, but this time the goal was legalization, and the cast of characters had changed. Although many physicians became involved in efforts to reform the anti-abortion laws for which their predecessors had lobbied, they were not the main leaders of the campaign for legalization. Rather, it was feminists and family-planning activists who led the twentieth-century movement to legalize abortion.

The social movement that became known as the "pro-choice" movement originated in the 1960s as a loose coalition of women's movement, single-issue "abortion" movement, and population movement activists and organizations. Paradoxically, the movement achieved its most spectacular victory--the legalization of abortion in 1973--before pro-choice forces became very well organized or powerful.

This book recounts the sociological history of the movement's transformation from a small band of entrepreneurs to a strong social movement consisting of . . .

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