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On January 22, 1973, the movement to legalize abortion achieved its greatest
victory with the Roe v. Wade ruling. This paper will analyze the rise and continuation of
this movement over the course of the past forty years. Unlike other social movements, the
Pro-Choice movement as maintained it’s power even after apparent victory was achieved.
Due to this, the abortion argument continues today and will probably continue into this
century and beyond.
The emergence of the Pro-Choice movement did not occur via the usual social
movement routes. Most social movements emerge from within established institutions,
with support from elites, or with origins that involved professional movement organizers.
The early Pro-Choice movement, however, emerged as a collection of concerned
physicians and professionals who wanted to help legalize abortion and keep it safe. In the
1950s and 1960s several published articles appeared that suggested needed reforms to the
abortion laws and this began public attention on this issue.
Two events occurred during the 1960s that also brought media attention to this
emerging movement. The first was the highly publicized case of Sherri Finkbine, a woman
who attempted to get a legal abortion in the United States after learning that a drug she
had taken, thalidomide, could cause fetal defects. This incident caused nationwide
concern about the drug as well as sparking a nationwide debate over abortion. The
second event was the epidemic of rubella measles that occurred in the United States. This
disease can cause fetal defects when contracted by a pregnant woman. Both of these
events gave a rise to the movement by influencing public opinion toward the reform of
abortion law. These events forced doctors to confront the differences within their
profession over abortion. This caused some liberal doctors to support the reform of the
The Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA) was formed as a result of the
professional interest in this issue. This association was formed in 1964 by Dr. Alan
Guttmacher of Planned Parenthood as an educational association. Only twenty active
members, consisting of doctors, lawyers and other professionals, were actively involved in
this group. However; the ASA was important in lending credibility and authority to the
abortion movement in the early years when this support was badly needed. It should be
noted that in the early years the ASA was not in the forefront of the movement as it
refused to support aggressive measures to change the abortion laws.
The ASA was crucial in bringing together activists who disagreed with the ASAs
cautious approach. These activists later worked together to found the National
Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Lawrence Lader, NARAL founder,
had become a ASA boardmember as a result of his research on abortion. Ruth Smith,
another NARAL founder, had served as executive director of the ASA. Also, Dr. Lonny
Myers was crucial to the founding of NARAL and Lader contacted her through his ASA
contacts. Early organizers used their connections to recruit professionals who would lend
this movement prestige and influential power.
The early Pro-Choice movement also benefited from other social movements of the
era. Women, college students and other young people who were activated by earlier
movements of the 1960s became the grass-roots constituents of the movement to legalize
abortion. These constituents were available and also felt very strongly about the issues at
The population organizations of the time also aided the early Pro-Choice
movement. The Association for Voluntary Sterilization (AVS) and Zero Population
Growth(ZPG) shared members with NARAL. ZPG, especially, had local chapters that
were heavily student influenced. These local chapters became deeply involved in the
mobilization of the movement.
The women’s movement was emerging as the abortion movement was getting off
the ground. The National Organization for Women (NOW) endorsed abortion appeal,
although narrowly, at the second national convention in 1967. NOW participation in the
abortion movement was minimal in the early years, but was there nonetheless. NOW was
loosely organized in the beginning and was unable to promote grass-roots participation on
the issue. The organization did form a national committee to deal with abortion but
lacked an ample supply of resources. Other women’s groups were also emerging at this
time. The ones that had memberships almost solely comprised of younger women,
especially those in college, had the most to offer the abortion movement. Many of these
young women became key players in the mobilization in these early years.
Not only did the emerging abortion reform movement have the advantage of the
preexisting organizational bases and concerned constituents, this emerging movement had
a tactic. This tactic was abortion referral and it aided the movement in getting publicity,
mobilizing activists, and helped to build a constituent base. Many women who had
undergone illegal abortions stepped forward to help other women.
Also, religious groups stepped in to aid the early reform movement. The national
Jewish and Protestant religious denominations did not become heavily involved in the
movement but a number of these religious institutions did step forward to support reform
of the abortion laws.
Prior to 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision, the abortion movement’s principal source
of political opportunity was the expanded social movement sector. Activists who fought
for civil rights, women’s rights, and the like were also joining this emerging movement.
Immediately felt grievances also aided the movement’s mobilization due to the volunteers
who had strong feelings about abortion rights. The movement was off the ground.
1973 was the year of the Supreme Court decision that made sweeping changes in
the abortion laws. Few abortion law repeal supporters had anticipated the changes that
would occur as a result of that decision. After such a major success, activists in the
pro-choice movement might have been expected to glow in their victory and then close
down shop. Some reconstructors of the history of this movement have claimed just that.
However; it is now believed that in light of the victory achieved, via Roe v. Wade, another
movement emerged that should be considered separate from the original abortion reform
After the decision there was some decline in the movement, although this did not
occur immediately after legalization and the movement never disappeared entirely. There
were battles that needed to be fought due to the surge in membership and power of the
counter-movements that were rising up. These countermovement activities created
immediate threats to the newly won right to abortion and this helped keep the pro-choice
movement mobilized. The continuing multi-issue population and women’s movements
assisted the single-issue pro choice groups in surviving the victory. The re-organization
of the national Pro-Choice movement also allowed the group to stay mobilized for a
continued battle over this issue.
A large difference between the pre-1973 movement and the one that emerged out
of the decision was the rise of organizational group and interest group support. Prior to
the decision these groups had not been heavily involved. These groups provided resources
and stability for the pro-choice movement that was not there so readily before. Among
the established groups joining forces with the pro-choice movement were professional
associations such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Most
critical to the movement were the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and
The feeling of victory after the 1973 decision was short lived for the pro-choice
movement. It soon became apparent that the war was continuing on new fronts. The
legalization of abortion brought out the anti-abortion activists who were able to create a
real threat to the newly won right to abortion. These anti-abortion activists pressed
Congress for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion and were pressing for
legislation that would cut off federal funding of abortions.
In response to the anti-abortion threats, single-issue abortion movements did not
disband but regrouped. The National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws changed
its name to the National Abortion Rights Action League after it became apparent that this
fight over abortion rights would continue for some time. Local groups also took to
renaming their organizations and continuing on with the fight to protect their victory.
Even legislators who had supported the movement prior to the victory were preparing for
the next wave of fighting.
Tactics that were used following the Roe v. Wade decision were much like the
tactics leading up to that decision. It had become apparent that litigation was a successful
tool for social change and legalization offered the movement the opportunity to use tactics
that had been used successfully in the past. It was not just the victory but the past
experience of the movement’s leaders that allowed the movement to take advantage of the
Supreme Court decision.
Pro choice groups used litigation to carry out Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice groups
teamed up with the ACLU and filed lawsuits that would force hospitals to provide
abortions. After several successes with this litigation, pro-choice groups began mailings
to hospitals showing the successful results of these lawsuits. These groups urged the
hospitals to provide abortions so that they could avoid litigation.
Also, pro-choice groups supported the creation of independent abortion clinics and
made efforts to ensure that the services offered at these clinics were of high quality and
accessible. Seminars were held nationally to teach how to effectively set up one of these
clinics with the support of Planned Parenthood.
Prior to the Supreme Court decision there was no organized pro-choice lobby
inside Washington. However; the movement did not lack insiders who were in touch with
legislators. NARAL had leaders who had “inside” connections and established
organizations, like Planned Parenthood, had lobbyists who reported on legislative
developments and reactions to elected officials. Through these sources, pro-choice
leaders learned that the anti-abortion movement was flooding Congress with mail
supporting an amendment banning abortion.
The pro-choice movement responded to the counter-movement threat with tactics
of its own. They urged their supporters to write their own letters to congress when it
became clear that the pro-choice side was making a poor showing in this area. It became
very important to counter the large number of letters being sent from anti-abortionists and
to make it known that the pro-choice movement was still in the arena.
Also, a pro-choice lobbying coalition was established that utilized both movement
organizations and established organizations. In late 1973, NARAL opened a lobbying
office in Washington to create an ongoing NARAL presence on Capital Hill and to
participate more fully in the newly emerging lobbying coalition. When NARAL moved its
headquarters to Washington in 1975 it had become clear that institutionalized tactics in
defense of legal abortion had become very important to the movement.
The years following the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision show a change in
the organization of the pro-choice movement. The political opportunity structure had
changed for the group as more formalized organizations stepped forward to support the
Supreme Court decision. Also, the political environment of the movement had changed
with the victory as the group was now on the defensive rather than the offensive.
Movement victories help mobilize counter-movements and they provide opportunities for
the opposition to constrain the movement activities by putting the group on the defensive.
However; in the case of the pro-choice movement the challenge was risen to. The
pro-choice movement responded to the countermovement and began to create an
organizational structure that allowed them to play in institutionalized arenas like Congress.
The years following the Roe v. Wade decision can be seen as a transitional period
for the movement. The leaders established themselves as political insiders and lobbyist
organizations were created. Pro-choice groups were implementing organizational tactics
that would prepare them for the long term battle ahead of them. The fight was really just
The anti-abortion countermovement scored its first victory in 1976 with
Congressional passage of the Hyde Amendment which banned the federal funding of
abortions. The countermovement also gained publicity during the 1976 election year
which helped to reinvigorate it. New anti-abortion organizations were formed and
fundamentalist Christians and political conservatives were attracted. Other anti-abortion
successes occurred with anti-abortion victories in the courts that permitted state abortion
funding bans. The majority of states responded to these ruling by refusing to fund most
abortions and many states continued to consider additional restrictive legislation including
parental consent requirements. The pro-choice movement had been successfully
threatened and its prior victories were being challenged.
By 1982 the period of threat to the pro-choice movement was showing signs of
decline. Pro-choice candidates won out over many anti-abortion candidates that year. In
1983 anti-abortion legislation was defeated in Congress and the Supreme Court struck
down most of the restrictions that had been passed by state and local governments.
Obviously, the countermovements victories produced an overwhelming mobilization of
In response to the countermovement’s successes, new pro-choice organizations
were formed to attract a greater assortment of constituents. Also, existing organizations
took advantage of the concerns raised among pro-choice supporters to increase their
resources and expand their operations. Because the movement had not demobilized
following the 1973 decision, it was in a position to respond to the countermovement’s
The National Abortion Federation was formed in this post-Hyde period. This
organization was comprised of clinics and other service providers. Also formed during
this time was the Friends of Family Planning and Voters for Choice. These two groups
were political action committees specifically formed to counter anti-abortion PAC
The threat imposed by the countermovement reinforced both national and local
pro-choice organizations. With the exception of the reproductive rights organizations,
pro-choice organizations became more professionalized in their leadership and formalized
in their structures. These new changes put the movement in a better position to obtain the
resources necessary to act in institutionalized arenas.
NARAL needed to counter anti-abortion activities and in order to do that they
needed to greatly increase their resources, which included money and participants. The
professionalization of leadership along with the threatened political environment enabled
the organization to greatly increase these resources. The increase in resources lead to the
hiring of more professional leaders and the creating of a bureaucratic organization. Staff
members now took responsibility for more differentiated functions such as public relations,
lobbying and political campaign work.
Another key tactic of this time was the development of an advanced direct mail
technique to raise money and membership. This new technique included the hiring of
professionals who could get the message out and deliver the desired results. NARAL’s
direct-mail drive was a success that greatly increased the membership and financial
resources. Constituents mailed their checks in record numbers in response to visible
threats to abortion rights.
The influx of resources allowed NARAL to expand and formalize its ties to local
activists. NARAL recruited affiliates by offering training for local leaders, low-cost
professionally produced NARAL literature, ‘how to’ manuals, and audiovisual aids. The
national organization was eventually able to offer financial aid as well which allowed the
national organization to have more control in implementing state and local strategies. This
emphasis on grass-roots organizing resulted in activists pushing to increase the
involvement of the board of directors. Board members began attending at least four
meeting a year and terms were shortened so that more activists could be brought into the
decision-making process. Changes were occurring within this organization.
By 1983 the pro-choice groups were no longer acting in the defensive to the
countermovements. There was a fear that the victories that had been achieved in
over-ruling many of the anti-abortion decisions may lead to complacency among their
constituents. The director of NARAL demanded that his activists continue to take the
anti-abortion threat seriously and that the pro-choice lobby continue in Washington. It
was also essential that work continued to prohibit the reelection of the President Reagan
and the possible opportunity of appointment of Supreme Court Justices by a conservative
leader. NARAL and other pro-choice organizations began lobbying Congress for a
Reproductive Health Equity Act that would restore Medicaid funding and federal
employee insurance coverage for abortions.
As feared, the pro-choice constituent support began to decline as the movement
shifted into the offensive. Local and national informants reported a drop in financial
resources and active participation as threats to abortion rights began to subside. People
felt that the issue had been settled so they backed away. Luckily, for the movement,
national organizations like NARAL had professional leaders who helped sustain the
momentum and continue movement activities despite the changes in the political
Informally organized groups, such as the Reproductive Rights National Network,
began to dissolve as they were running out of funding. The severe financial problems that
these small groups faced began after the 1983 Supreme Court ruling. Even though there
was activity and support for the regaining of Medicaid funding and the providing of
abortion services to teenagers, momentum was being lost because the new issues at hand
held less appeal than the original legality issues.
The survival of the movement during this time, when no victories were being won
and when the constituents felt nothing more could be done, was due largely to the
Reagan-Bush Administrations continued attack on abortion rights and the continued
threats to the victories that had been won.
The countermovement responded to its losses by changing the arena. The new
arena was public relations. The centerpiece of the new anti-abortion strategy was the film
The Silent Scream, which was produced by the former NARAL activist turned
anti-abortionist, Dr. Nathanson. This film was released in late 1984 and used sonography
in an attempt to make its case that the fetus suffers pain in an abortion. The idea was to
shift the debate on abortion to “scientific” issues. The film was issued to members of
Congress and received a great deal of media attention, including network news coverage
around the time of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 1985.
Pro-choice movements were forced to respond to this public relations threat. The
countermovement tactic was beneficial to the pro-choice movement in that it aroused
supporters and created opportunities for local and national pro-choice movements to
mobilize. Some organizations used their own experts to refute the “scientific” arguments
while other groups attempted to reframe the debate.
NARAL formed its own tactic through “Abortion Rights: Silent No More”. This
strategy involved asking women around the nation to write letters about their experiences
with abortion. The letters were addressed to President Reagan and other elected officials.
The letters were read at an open forum on a scheduled day and it aroused much media
attention. The NARAL message: “We are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters,
your friends, and abortion is a choice we have made” became a battle cry.
NARAL was effective in the reframing of the debate. Emphasis had been taken off
the fetus and placed on the role of the woman. Also, feminist groups used this time to
develop responses, including some feminist films, to the anti-abortion strategy. Although
the outrage and activism produced by the countermovement’s tactics could not sustain the
pro-choice movement indefinitely, it came along at a critical time. It provided
opportunities which utilized the energies of activists and helped revive the sense of
immediately felt grievances that had rallied the activists prior to the legalization of
abortion in 1973.
Following the Silent Scream strategy, the countermovement continued to use
tactics that helped to keep the pro-choice movement on the alert. Direct action techniques
were developed by the countermovement during this time. These tactics were often aimed
at abortion services, their workers, and their clients. They often employed the use of
bombs and other forms of harassment. The countermovement, by engaging in direct
action and bringing the abortion conflict back to the level of women’s experiences, helped
the pro-choice movement revitalize it’s grass-roots movement.
In July of 1989 the Supreme Court, now including Reagan appointees, upheld
provisions of a Missouri anti-abortion statue in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.
The court did not overturn Roe v. Wade but it allowed states leeway in limiting abortion
rights and appeared to invite challenges that might dismantle the 1973 ruling. The
Webster ruling was a critical event in marking the beginning of a new round of intense
conflict over abortion. The changes that took place in the pro-choice movement as a
result of this decision resemble those that occurred during the post-Hyde period.
Prior to the July 1989 ruling the pro-choice movement organized a massive
abortion rights march in Washington on April 09, 1989. The march was intended to send
a signal to media reports and received a great deal of publicity. This march provided the
generations of activists to unite and gain a sense of solidarity and commitment to the
pro-choice cause. This march was an important mobilizing event for the movement.
Although the ruling was in favor of the countermovement, the pro-choice
movement gained much from the anticipation leading up to the decision. NARAL had
built up its resources and membership increased by one hundred percent. NOW
membership also rose considerably as did Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. In the light
of the defeat, the pro-choice movement was now opened up to new tactical opportunities.
Politics began to play an important part of the movement’s tactics. Pro-choice
candidates began to win sweeping elections. New Jersey elected a pro-choice governor as
did Virginia. Framing of the argument shifted into private choice versus government
involvement. The perception among many politician following the Webster decision was
that the pro-choice position had become politically advantageous. The pro-choice
movement had influenced politics despite the defeat at the Supreme Court.
The pro-choice movement is unique in it’s development and continued force
throughout the decades. It succeeded in overturning abortion laws in 1973 and remained
mobilized in order to continue to influence politics and prevent the destruction of the Roe
v. Wade decision. The cycle of protest that occurred in the sixties and seventies was the
most significant source of political opportunity for the pro-choice movement. The ability
to motivate constituents from other ‘fights’ into the pro-choice movement was key to it’s
early success. After the initial Roe v. Wade decision the political opportunities changed
and more organized constituents were to become involved. Formalization of the
movement occurred and the structure of the movement changed. Resources from the
established organizations provided an opportunity to lobby the legislature and created a
trend of mainly reactive, institutionalized actions.
The framing argument that took place all throughout the history of the pro-choice
movement has also been important. In the beginning the frame was about safety and
keeping women out of illegal abortion clinics where their life would be in danger. As the
countermovement emerged and began to win some victories the framing changed.
Pro-choice activists fought to keep attention on the woman and off of the fetus. They
fought to make it an issue of individual rights versus government rights. As the movement
changed and the tactics changed, so did these framing arguments.
The history of the Pro-choice movement as a social movement is unique to itself.
The movement has not behaved in a traditional sense in that it did not have its origins in
the traditional sources. The movement did not fall away after achieving its victories. In
fact it was at its strongest when in a defensive, not offensive, stance. The fight continues
today between the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements. It will probably continue
well into this century and beyond.
Solinger, Ricke (ed). Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000. University
of California Press. Berkeley. 1998.
Staggenborg, Suzanne. The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the
Abortion Conflict. Oxford University Press. New York. 1991
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