We spoke to an expert about the future of abortion in the US
‘With so much up in the air, this is a time when young people can do something that really matters’
It was a blistering 98 degrees outside while I waited for my class to start, so I thought it would be a great idea to stroll through my campus bookstore and relish in the air conditioning. While there I stumbled upon ‘After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate’ whose author happened to be a faculty member at the Florida State University College of Law.
Mary Ziegler is a professor who teaches torts, family law, employment law, reproduction, sexuality, and the law to aspiring attorneys. As a second-year law student at Harvard studying how law can create social change, she became interested in the history and current politics of abortion.
“Much of the semester was spent on the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, the Court’s desegregation decision. I kept wondering when we would read about the aftermath of Roe [v. Wade], but we never did. I learned later that no one had written that book, and I thought I would try to do related research myself.”
Although Ziegler is heavily involved in the history and politics regarding abortion, she doesn’t believe she is involved in the abortion debate.
“As a historian I study what has happened (as is happening now), trying to understand how and why abortion politics operate the way they do.”
Her book delves deep into why abortion politics became polarized, eventually establishing a “pro-life” and “pro-choice” movement. The “pro-life” movement deemed Roe v. Wade extremist, while the “pro-choice” movement made it about women’s rights. The original Supreme Court decision defined abortion as a medical procedure equally assigned to both physicians and patients.
Despite what we know now about each side of the debate, initially both entities wanted a common ground in regards to fetal research and pregnancy discrimination. Eventually, heavy political agendas would sever these ties.
“In the early 1980s, both the Republican and Democratic Parties took a stand on abortion for the first time. The Religious Right became powerful too. All of this made it very appealing for a diverse pro-life movement to align with conservatives. With this new alliance in place, it was very hard for pro-lifers to endorse things like welfare rights or employment-discrimination legislation that the Republican Party opposed.
“At the same time, as abortion became a big election issue, neither side wanted to seem willing to compromise. A willingness to work with the other side seemed politically risky. When these political shifts happened, people who had been willing to compromise often lost power in the respective movements.”
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, abolished Texas’s HB2 law. It was deemed unconstitutional that physicians needed to have admitting priveledges at nearby hospitals in order to perform an abortion and that abortion clinics need to have facilities comparable to an ambulatory surgical center.
Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt has been characterized as the most important abortion decision in the past 25 years, but Ziegler admits that you can’t easily compare it to Roe as many have been doing.
The Court’s ruling for Roe v. Wade, established a brand new constitutional right as they abolished a majority of what was current abortion law. Whole Women’s Health didn’t accomplish as much as Roe, but you shouldn’t belittle its significance.
“In 1992, the Court changed the test used to evaluate every abortion regulation: laws would be unconstitutional only if they had the purpose or effect of creating a substantial obstacle for women seeking abortion. Whole Women’s Health told us for the first time what this test meant. The Court made clear that the test protected abortion rights far more than many commentators believed. Whole Women’s Health also struck down Texas’s HB2 and cast doubt on the constitutionality of many laws like it, including one in Florida. So it really set the stage for the next decade or more of conflict about abortion.”
With Whole Women’s Health establishing the next decade in regards to reproductive health, Ziegler believes that it is an important time for women and men alike to get involved in the abortion debate and other reproductive issues, regardless of your stance.
“Whole Women’s Health started a new era in the conflict, but the Court’s decision is not the only thing worth paying attention to. Fights about the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, religious exemptions and consciences clauses, access to reproductive technologies for infertile couples–all of these issues will matter in Florida and nationwide. With so much up in the air, this is a time when young people can do something that really matters.”