How abortion became the single most important litmus test in American politics

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Stacie Taranto is an associate professor of history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and author of a book about the dissolution of the Rockefeller Republicans in New York state, "Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York."

... Forty-five years ago today, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion across America with its historic Roe v. Wade (and companion Doe v. Bolton) decisions.

Americans regard abortion in myriad, often contradictory, ways. Is abortion a woman’s fundamental right or something that the government should regulate? Is it a potentially lifesaving medical intervention or murder? The partisan divide on these questions has helped turn abortion into one of the biggest political litmus tests of our day.

The stark party lines were drawn in 1976, the first presidential election year after the court’s decisions helped transform abortion into a national issue, with the Democratic Party affirming its support for legal abortion and the Republican Party vowing to outlaw it. But this was not always the case.

When states began to outlaw abortion in the 19th century, it was not a political — let alone a partisan — issue. Even as state after state criminalized the procedure, it did not engender much political attention or debate, largely because doing so meshed with goals shared by both parties in an era when politics was the province of white men. Criminalizing abortion was, in part, a way for the rising (male) professional medical field to consolidate women’s reproductive care under their purview and away from unlicensed (female) midwives.

These legal changes were also interwoven with nativist concerns that inferior new immigrant groups, many of them Catholic, were reproducing far more offspring than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. Outlawing abortion was seen as a way to increase the births of more desirable children.

By 1900, the only way to get an abortion on American soil was to somehow prove the expectant mother’s life was at risk. The only legal way, that is. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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