Despite periodic campaigns, draconian abortion laws seemed almost immune to changes from the 19th century to the 1960s. But in the second half of that decade, activists succeeded in decriminalizing abortion or easing restrictions in 17 states and in Washington, D.C. This story shows how effective a diverse political coalition can be when it throws everything it has at an issue – from disruptive civil disobedience, to demonstrations of believer commitment, to the tireless lobbying. More importantly, these past victories teach that grassroots organizing and political mobilization works.
As activism to change abortion laws gained momentum, the movement began to achieve what previously seemed like impossible victories. In 1965, a state legislator named Percy Sutton introduced the first bill in modern New York history to liberalize the state’s abortion law of 1828. Judging by later standards, its provisions were moderate – they would have expanded the grounds on which a doctor could grant an abortion. The bill reflected the position of the elite American Law Institute and some doctors. Even so, the legislator never seriously considered it.
However, just five years later, on July 1, 1970, New York began to implement much more ambitious legislation – the most liberal abortion reform law in the United States and, according to the head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. , the most liberal in the world.
What prompted this seismic shift? In a word: activism.
Some of the organizing and mobilizing was deeply anti-establishment. He came from the socialist wing of the feminist movement and from radicals who cut their teeth in street battles for black civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. In February 1969, these feminists demonstrated inside and outside legislative hearings on abortion. They were unhappy with another bill that would have simply liberalized abortion laws (introduced by white Democrat Al Blumenthal). They demanded that lawmakers back a much more ambitious bill that would have removed abortion entirely from the state’s legal code.
Activists, mostly from two New York-based groups, Redstockings and New York Radical Women, called out an “expert” witness at the hearing, which included 15 guest speakers, 14 men and one woman – a celibate nun. “OK, folks,” one protester said. “Now it’s time to hear from the real experts…people who really know women.” She explained “the psychological and sociological effect” of the law on her: “It made me angry! It got me thinking about things like forcing doctors to operate at gunpoint. A state senator chided the protesters: “What have you accomplished? There are people here who want to do something for you! Redstockings founder Ellen Willis recorded one protester’s response, in an unsigned article she published in The New Yorker: “We’re tired of being made for us! We want to do, to change!
A month later, in March 1969, Redstockings members responded to that hearing with a “speech” at a Manhattan church where women shared their own abortion experiences. This embodied the feminist movement’s credo that the personal was political. Sharing what was considered strictly private, even shameful, allowed women to see that many had had similar experiences.
This realization led to another epiphany: many of the worst obstacles to seeking an abortion were not one’s own faults or bad luck, but were structural – the products of a system which, in their view, advantaged men and disadvantaged women. As journalist and activist Susan Brownmiller wrote of this very first speech on abortion: “For three hours, women “reported on their own experiences of unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion”. A woman named Judy Gabree testified that she had been to “eleven hospitals looking for a therapeutic” or legal abortion. At number 10, they offered Gabree a deal: “They would if I agreed to be sterilized. I was twenty years old.
These divisive and innovative tactics helped change attitudes and attract press that forced lawmakers to take a stand on abortion for the first time. But much of the grassroots work that changed abortion policy came from feminists who worked within the system of law and governance – working in parallel with radical feminists who were trying to force change from the outside. Members of the National Organization for Women (NOW), like my mother, Beatrice Kornbluh Braun, had a more traditional strategy and arguably just as much impact. My mother was the sole attorney on the New York NOW chapter abortion committee and drafted the first bill that the state legislature eventually passed. In fact, she described the bill that became a radical favorite: It would have removed abortion entirely from state regulation — a standard that, even today, only four states and DC have met.
NOW members and proponents of abortion decriminalization in both parties with whom they worked closely protested peacefully, held information nights at local political clubs, published abortion dispatches in as a fundamental element of the civic equality of women with men and threatened their representatives with sanctions at the polls if they did not change their position. They lobbied in the state capital and local political offices. They were just as intransigent in their efforts as the Radicals, although their tactics were more commonplace.
Constance Cook, an upstate New York congresswoman, Republican and vice president of the state chapter of NOW, was the biggest champion of the abortion bill in Albany. Cook described putting colleagues who didn’t want to take a stand on abortion “on the shelf,” where they would inevitably feel the heat from voters who disagreed with them. She saved this tactic for crucial moments, Cook recalls, but when she really needed the votes, like in the final weeks before the final vote on the abortion bill in 1970, she didn’t hesitate. .
Both schools of activists won because they were relentless and worked both in parallel and together towards the same goal. When radical feminists organized events that made headlines, such as a speech on abortion, for example, they helped make a previously private issue public. Lawmakers, in turn, began to receive questions about their positions on legal abortion for the first time, and many spoke out for liberalization because they had received countless letters (organized by feminist groups liberals like NOW) of pro-legalization voters. Together, liberal and radical feminists organized new local and statewide networks, including an effective organization called the New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal that lobbied for my mother’s uncompromising version of the law. . This group included feminists from across the tactical and ideological spectrum, liberal Democrats and Republicans, local activists, and leaders of the clergy and congregation of the faith-based abortion referral operation, the Clergy Counseling Service. on abortion.
What happened in New York was extraordinary but far from unique. By the early 1970s, legal reform campaigns had won victories across the country. Seventeen states and DC have changed their restrictive abortion laws, often more than a century old, while three states, in addition to New York, have significantly decriminalized abortion. New York’s law went the furthest by not including a residency requirement, which gave access to legal abortion to anyone who could get there. In many places, these law reform campaigns almost coincided with a burgeoning feminist movement. They have made abortion an urgent subject of activism at the same time as it has become an object of state legislation.
When the state’s legislative efforts encountered major obstacles, activist lawyers began to bring cases to federal courts that eventually laid the groundwork for Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in deer. These court cases are what we remember, not the broad and sustained grassroots feminist activism that preceded these challenges. But when seven justices of the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion in most circumstances during the first two trimesters of a pregnancy, they did so in response to a massive and diverse movement that had passed from years of organizing and demanding recognition.
This activism has forced everyone from doctors to governors to state legislators and judges to consider the impact of banning abortion on people’s lives. Feminists have combined new tactics with proven tactics to change abortion laws. As the issue now returns to the United States, this story of activism offers a blueprint for the future – and a reminder that none of us have to accept limits on access to safe and effective abortion. legal.