Roe v. Wade is 40 years old. There are new polls showing that more Americans than ever support Roe v. Wade and think abortion should be legal all or most of the time. One suspects recent wingnut overreach has opened a few eyes.
Although originally a right-wing argument, in recent years I have heard noise from the left about how Roe v. Wade just woke up a backlash, and it would have been better in the long run to let the states come around to making abortion legal, one by one. I say that’s hooey, for reasons well articulated by Mistermix. But I want to articulate some of my own reasons, also.
I am old enough to remember the years just before Roe v. Wade. The notion that people were reasonably and rationally coming around to an enlightened view of abortion before Roe v. Wade stirred the pot is utter nonsense. I was a senior at the Journalism School at the University of Missouri when Roe was decided, and I well remember that long before Roe the Missouri legislature was consumed by the abortion fight. (And, I assure you, liberals were not winning.) For a time after Roe, one could feel the relief coming from Jefferson City that the issue had been taken out of their hands. The legislature could turn to more important issues, like bans on Woodstock-style outdoor rock concerts (seriously).
There’s a video of Andrew Sullivan saying, in effect, women should have just stuck with their coat hangers, because Roe was terrible for politics —
I think it was a horrible decision. I think it ruined a lot of our politics in a lot of areas subsequently, and it’s been a bane of the culture wars. And insofar as it tempted evangelicals to come flooding into political life, I think it’s the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court.
— as if politics had been perfectly sane before Roe; as if the nation hadn’t already torn itself up over Brown v. Board of Education — we’re still feeling the effects of Little Rock, 1957, I tell you — and as if evangelicals already weren’t up in arms over the “school prayer” decisions and the Equal Rights Amendment.
What happened, as I see it, is that by 1973 the Right knew it had lost on desegregation and school prayer, but the double whammy of the ERA and Roe gave the same old crew new purpose. And yes, Roe drew in some evangelicals who may have been less active before, but abortion was just a culmination of old grievances — many challenges to white supremacy; the sexual revolution and the Pill; the 1960s counterculture; the “Is God Dead?” cover of Time magazine (1966); the school prayer issue; women’s liberation.
It was basically the same crew fighting all those fights — some additions and subtractions along the way, of course, but the organization supporting each backlash grew from the previous one. You can draw a straight line tracking right-wing backlashes from Brown to Roe to today.
How? For one thing, after Brown, conservative white parents — mostly in the South, but not exclusively — pulled their kids out of school and established new private “Christian” schools, which in the South were nearly all evangelical. Before Brown (1954), most conservatives had no issues with public education. After Brown, suddenly public education was substandard, so kids needed to be in private schools. Or, better yet, home schooled. The school prayer decisions followed shortly after Brown and fired up the Christian Right even more.
So, largely because of Brown and other Supreme Court decisions, evangelicals had organized against public education long before they organized against Roe. Perhaps the impact of that wasn’t felt as much outside of the Bible Belt as it was within, but I assure you, within the Bible Belt the evangelicals were armed for a political fight long before Roe.
Is Andy going to argue that we should have allowed the states to desegregate whenever they felt like it? A lot of them would still be segregated, I bet.
This “we should do this gradually” argument could be made at many points of American history. People still argue that the Civil War didn’t need to be fought because slavery would have ended eventually, anyway. Perhaps, but not for a couple more generations, at least. And, anyway, the South started the war, which to me makes that argument rather moot.
What about the American Revolution? Britain probably would have given the 13 colonies more autonomy eventually. Look what happened with Canada! That seemed to work out OK. Andy’s argument could apply to the Revolution as well.
Sometimes ignorance needs an intervention. You can’t force people to stop being ignorant, but you can step in and rescue the victims of ignorance, and usually that’s the right thing to do. Don’t penalize the victims because ignorant people organize and fight back and are nastier than a nest of drunken rabid wolverines. Keep fighting.