What the 1960s Tell Us about the Path to Secure Reproductive Freedom

tags: abortion, reproductive rights

Felicia Kornbluh is professor of history at the University of Vermont and author of A Woman's Life is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice (Grove Atlantic), which is available for pre-order.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization revokes the constitutional right to an abortion and thrusts the issue back to state legislatures, which controlled abortion policy for over a century before the court nationalized abortion rights in Roe v. Wade in 1973. What comes next may be shaped by our understanding of that history.

Despite periodic campaigns, draconian abortion laws seemed nearly immune to change from the 19th century to the 1960s. But in the second half of that decade, activists succeeded at decriminalizing abortion or loosening restrictions in 17 states and Washington, D.C. This history shows how effective a diverse political coalition can be when it throws everything it has at a problem — from disruptive civil disobedience, to demonstrations of commitment by people of faith, to tireless lobbying. Most importantly, these past victories teach that grass-roots organizing and political mobilization work.

As activism to change abortion laws gained steam, the movement began winning what had earlier seemed like impossible victories. In 1965, a state legislator named Percy Sutton introduced the first bill in New York’s modern history to liberalize the state’s 1828 abortion law. Judged by later standards, its provisions were moderate — it would have expanded the grounds on which a physician could grant an abortion. The bill reflected the position of the elite American Law Institute and a few doctors. Even so, the legislature never seriously considered it.

Just five years later, however, on July 1, 1970, New York began to implement a far more ambitious piece of legislation — the most liberal abortion reform law in the United States and, according to the then head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the most liberal in the world.

What drove this seismic change? In a word: activism.

Some of the organizing and mobilizing was deeply anti-establishment. It came from the socialist wing of the feminist movement and from radicals who cut their teeth on in-the-streets battles for Black civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. In February 1969, these feminists protested inside and outside of legislative hearings on abortion. They were dissatisfied with another bill that would merely have liberalized the abortion laws (introduced by White Democrat Al Blumenthal). They demanded that legislators support a far more ambitious proposed law, one that would have removed abortion entirely from the state legal code.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post

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