ABORTION liberals like to think that history supports loyalty to
Roe v. Wade. History, they say, reveals that laws restricting
abortion stem from 19th-century conceptions of gender inequality,
religious extremism, indifference to poverty, and archaic
Abortion conservatives, however, insist that they are in league
with history. Conservatives trace the impulse to restrict abortions
to advances in scientific understanding both of the origins of
human life and of the potentially adverse effects of abortion on
Which version of history is correct? For most people, the
problem with assessing the historical claims made by "pro choice"
and "pro life" advocates is the scarcity of usable histories. For
too long, the history of abortion regulation has remained buried in
inaccessible archives and academic books.
A recent journalistic history by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author
is subtly and credibly on the side of choice. Without partisanship,
sensationalism, or overt value judgments, David J. Garrow's
"Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe
v. Wade" details the people, places, and politics behind the legal
struggle for reproductive rights in the United States.
Garrow concentrates on 20th-century efforts to undo 19th-century
anti-birth-control legislation. His history chronicles how reforms
designed to bring family-planning options to poor women broadened
into reforms designed to promote sexual liberty and gender equality
for all women. Reading Garrow's book, one can see the truth in the
liberals' argument that American law originally opposed neither
birth control nor abortion. Roe v. Wade has origins much deeper
than the judicial activism and feminism of its own decade.
Although Roe v. Wade, the centerpiece of this book, hails from
Texas, Garrow begins with a detailed account of birth-control-law
reform movements in Connecticut. Some of the earliest and most
restrictive abortion laws were enacted in Connecticut in 1879. The
1879 statute criminalized the use or prescription of all birth
The stringency of Connecticut law moved Yankee activists,
physicians, and lawyers to forge the "right to privacy" doctrine
eventually adopted by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut.
In a 1965 decision, Griswold established that a right to privacy
residing in the "penumbra" of the Bill of Rights and the 14th
Amendment invalidates state laws making it a crime for physicians
to prescribe birth control methods or married couples to use them.
A later Supreme Court case extended the right to unmarried persons.
A young Texas lawyer named Sarah Weddington subsequently
incorporated the "right to privacy" doctrine into arguments
presented to the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, the case that ended,
perhaps forever in the US, blanket criminal bans on abortions.
The story Garrow tells is well worth the 900 plus pages he gives