U.S. groups campaign to legalize abortion, 1969-1973

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Timing
Time Period:  
May
1969
to
January
1973
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location Description: 
Across the United States
Goals: 
The campaign aimed to raise awareness of the abortion issue and of women’s reproductive rights. Campaigners aimed to create an environment where legalization of abortion was possible, in order to achieve their ultimate goal—the repeal of abortion laws. Also, the campaign aimed to provide safe and easily accessible reproductive health services to women.
 

Many women were put in great danger by abortions in the 1960s. Abortions were illegal, forcing many women to turn to back-alley abortionists, many of whom utilized unsafe techniques. A small group of determined activists had been campaigning for abortion law reform for decades, but to even mouth the word was controversial. The 1960s, though, saw the emergence of several revolutionary social movements, among them the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. This period of change and political involvement fostered the environment necessary for an abortion movement to develop. In addition, a series of well-publicized tragic events brought the issue of abortion to wider attention. First, in 1962, a woman who ingested thalidomide—a drug that causes serious birth defects—was denied abortion in the United States and eventually had to travel to Sweden to get an abortion. Later, an epidemic of the rubella measles, which cause birth defects in pregnant women, also raised concern regarding abortion laws. The attention abortion received in the media and the support it garnered from other social movement veterans helped the campaign recruit supporters and push for change.

The movement’s first registered organization was created in 1964, with the founding of the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA). The association consisted mainly of doctors and other professionals that advocated for the reform of abortion laws to allow women to access medically necessary abortions. ASA was also joined in their cause by Planned Parenthood, which advocated for women’s reproductive rights. These two organizations gave the movement prestige and legitimacy, which aided the movement in the eventual court case that legalized abortion. There were, however, many members of the movement who were dissatisfied with ASA’s and Planned Parenthood’s somewhat conservative approach. Both organizations advocated only for reform of abortion laws to include medically necessary cases, but not a repeal that would legalize abortion for all women. The group of ‘radical’ activists that advocated for abortion law repeal finally joined forces in 1969, at the First National Conference on Abortion Laws. Out of that conference was founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL)—the first national organization created solely to campaign for the legalization of abortions. This marked the beginning of the direct action campaign to fight specifically for the repeal of abortion laws. From then on, NARAL led the campaign to make abortion legal for all women.

From its inception, NARAL deliberately chose to engage in controversial direct actions and distance itself from the lobbying approach that most pro-abortion groups had taken. Their first national action was on Mother’s Day, 1969; NARAL called it a “Children by Choice” day and organized rallies and press conferences in eleven cities across the United States. Though it was the only national organization acting specifically for the abortion cause, NARAL was not alone in its fight. By 1969, the women’s liberation movement was huge nationwide. Abortion was a central feminist issue, and NARAL gained much support from women’s movement groups. The National Organization for Women (NOW) provided NARAL with resources and protesters to be a part of the campaign. There were also several smaller pro-abortion groups, such as the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) and Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Abortion Counseling Service (known as Jane). These groups, and others, were an important part of the campaign and organized many demonstrations. For example, in New York in 1969, a feminist group called the Redstockings held “counter-hearings” to protest state legislative hearings on abortion reform, which they viewed as biased. Also, in Detroit in 1970, campaigners organized a ‘funeral march’ to publicize the deaths of women who had been killed by back-alley abortionists.

After its first action in 1969, NARAL organized regular demonstrations and events. Women’s groups across the U.S. organized “speak-outs” in partnership with NARAL. These events were public forums where women who had undergone abortions could share their experiences with others. NARAL also publicly advocated referral services in which women were provided with resources and referrals to abortionists. Many NARAL members either made referrals or performed abortions, and the NARAL leadership widely publicized this involvement. Additionally, many NARAL members and other women’s groups were involved in grass-roots education initiatives to raise awareness of issues relating to sexuality, women’s reproductive rights, and women’s health. Many groups put together books on these issues that they distributed to the public and at health centers. They also made classes on these issues available to the public. Through their education and outreach projects, NARAL and women’s groups were very successful in raising awareness of the abortion issue and in gaining supporters.

All NARAL actions were aimed at garnering the most attention and publicity possible from the media. NARAL leaders were dissatisfied with the lobbying approach, and decided to base their campaign not on bargaining for rights, but on demanding them. NARAL leaders organized several debates with pro-life leaders on television and radio. Often, pro-life activists would use pictures of fetuses to sway public opinion. After trying to counter these pictures with reasoned arguments, but failing, NARAL decided to use pictures of their own. In debates where pro-lifers chose to post pictures of fetuses, NARAL countered by posting horrific pictures of women who had been killed by abortions. Though this tactic was extremely controversial, it worked—pictures of fetuses were no longer shown. It was tactics like these that ensured continued media attention on the campaign for several years. During these years, the campaign was also slowly able to make headway through legal means, winning abortion law repeal in a few states at a time.

While some few states were reforming their abortion laws and the campaign continued to achieve a high level of publicity, the case of Roe v. Wade began to make its way through the courts. In 1970, the case was filed in the U.S. District Court of Texas on behalf of a woman under the alias Jane Roe. When the Texas courts did not rule in Roe’s favor, her lawyers decided to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. On January 22, 1973, the abortion repeal movement was victorious: the court case Roe v. Wade finally legalized abortion. Although abortion rights were won through legal means, the abortion law repeal campaign was an important part of that process. Abortion law cases had passed through the courts many times before, and abortion laws had never been repealed. The NARAL campaign created the environment necessary for Roe v. Wade to be ruled in favor of repeal of anti-abortion laws. The campaign aimed to raise awareness and publicity of the issue, and gain supporters of the cause. In addition, campaigners aimed to provide safe and easily accessible reproductive health services to women. The campaign succeeded in all of its goals, and inspired many women to assert their reproductive rights. The fight to protect abortion rights was, however, not over after the court decision. The pro-life movement has worked tirelessly since then to restrict women’s access to abortion services, and the pro-choice movement has remained strong in countering pro-life actions. NARAL has become NARAL Pro-Choice America, and continues to fight for women’s reproductive rights to this day.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The movement was heavily influenced and inspired by other social movements of the 1960s, especially the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement (1).

Sources: 
Berkeley, Kathleen C. The Women’s Liberation Movement in America. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.

Burrell, Barbara. Women and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2004. Print.

Luker, Kristin. "World Views of Pro- and Anti-Abortion Activists." The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts. 2nd. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

Powers, Meghan. The Abortion Rights Movement. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006. Print.

Solinger, Rickie. Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Staggenborg, Suzanne. The Pro-choice movement: organization and activism in the abortion conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.

“Women March—and Dance—for Abortion Law Repeal”. Off our Backs. 2:4. Dec 12th, 1971. Pg. 17

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Arielle Bernhardt, 17/04/2010