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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

abortion laws.

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

Planned Parenthood.

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

pro-choice forces.

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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