Monday, December 05, 2016

How Did We Get to Roe v. Wade Anyway?

Glanville Williams

How did we start down the road to Roe v. Wade anyway?

In the 1940's and 1950's, abortion was generally opposed, and there wasn't a lot of outspoken support for it. There were abortions being done in hospitals for medical reasons, but not the abortion on demand that we know today. Women sought abortions for social reasons, but there was a a lot of social stigma for doing so, and you had to know someone to be able to find an abortionist. Opposition to abortion was based on affirming human life but also on not enabling loose sexual mores. 

And on top of that, the only regimes that legalized abortion were communist regimes (and Japan). That stigmatized abortion, too.

The man who broke the ice on abortion in the United States was an eminent legal scholar by the name of Glanville Williams who taught at Cambridge University in English . He was a Welsh-born humanist who had written a famous book called The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law.  In it, he criticized Catholic opposition to sterilization, contraception, euthanasia and-- of course-- abortion. It was seen as the basis for the criminalization of all these procedures.  In 1956, Glanville Williams gave a  presentation during Carpenter lecture at Columbia University, in which he called for the reform of abortion law. He said, among other things, that the unborn were not persons until the 28th week of pregnancy, because they had no EEG activity. He would, of course, be proven wrong. But this lecture got the ball rolling in legal circles in the United States. It led to the American Law Institute's adoption of a resolution to call for abortion law reform in the United States in 1959.

This resolution called for an easing of restrictions of abortion laws, to allow them for medical reasons or rape. This was not a call for abortion on demand. In effect, they wanted to legalize what was already happening in American hospitals behind the scenes. 

Throughout the 1960's, a number of attempts were made in State legislatures to remove restrictions to abortion, notably in Minnesota and California.  In the early 1960's, the pro-life response was spearheaded by Catholic bishops and pro-life doctors and lawyers (who were mostly Catholic). The doctors and lawyers would make presentations in legislative committees, while bishops would raise the spectre of the Catholics voting out the legislators.

This method worked for the first half of the 1960's. Then Vatican II happened.

In the wake of Vatican II, the media created the sense that Catholics were no longer obliged to pay heed to Catholic teaching, and in fact a number of Catholic clergy reinforced that impression. Concurrently to all this, abortion activists were pushing for legalization in the media and among the medical profession. Catholics softened their opposition while mainstream opinion-- Protestant or secular-- developed a certain support for lifting restrictions.

California, Colorado and South Carolina became among the first states to pass abortion law reform in the 1960's. 

Pro-lifers saw that their old approach based on bishops, lawyers and doctors, could not hold up, so they launch a new approach, based on grassroots efforts. The National Right to Life Committee was founded to co-ordinate state-level efforts in 1968. Pro-life groups were founded across the country to begin a pushback.

Pro-lifers were somewhat successful in turning the tide. They won an abortion referenda in Michigan and North Dakota in 1972. Nevertheless, thirteen states had lifted some or most restrictions on abortion by 1973.

The United States Supreme Court legalized abortion in January 22, 1973. And one of the major reason why this happened is that Glanville Williams had galvanized the legal community into doing this. Yes, there was a lot of a cultural support for legalized abortion; the belief that human life begins at conception was fairly soft at the time, and the appreciation for human equality in the womb was not solidified.  Abortion was legalized because lawyers were convinced that it was the right thing to do; fetal rights will be established when lawyers are convinced it's the right thing to do. While educating the general public is important to prevent abortions in the immediate, to establish human rights, it is important to reach out to those in the legal community. We have to touch the consciences of those whose job it is to defend human rights if we ever hope to establish legal recognition for the unborn.