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Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling

Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling
By Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel
Kaplan Publishing, 2010

In their new book, former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent and current YLS Lecturer in Law Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law Reva Siegel ’86 explore the developments leading to Roe v. Wade and to controversy surrounding the abortion right. They have collected dozens of primary documents—including letters, pamphlets, legal briefs, affidavits, and amici curiae briefs—to reconstruct for readers a decade-long public conversation that preceded the Court’s decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion.

“We found ourselves on a journey of discovery that took us to public and private archives and that placed in our hands crumbling and long-forgotten legal documents retrieved from participants’ attics and basements. We heard the voices of women and men—well-known, little-known, and completely unknown—calling from across the years. It is a privilege to enable them to speak again in their own words,” the authors write in the book’s introduction.

In presenting the briefs and other documents together, Siegel and Greenhouse offer their readers a chance to explore the types of arguments that were made for and against a right to abortion as the issue made its way to the Supreme Court. The book, though, is not intended as a work of advocacy.

“Our purpose in presenting original texts reflecting many points of view is to permit readers to come to their own informed conclusions about a consequential, but widely misunderstood, chapter in American social, political, and legal history,” they write. The book is divided into four parts: Part I is devoted to the roots of abortion reform in the mid-20th century. Among the documents reprinted are: instructions circulated to thousands of women by The Society for Humane Abortion about how to get an abortion in Japan; letters from women seeking abortions; statements from a doctor who was tried and convicted for performing an illegal abortion; a sex counseling pamphlet distributed to Yale College students; speeches and pamphlets of the women’s movement; statements of churches and religious leaders, including the National Association of Evangelicals and Pope Paul VI; essays by Americans United for Life; and “Handbook on Abortion,” a best-selling self-published book by a leader of the emerging right to life movement.

Part II examines documents from the conflict over liberalization of abortion laws in the years just before Roe and features case studies from Connecticut and New York. Included is a 1970 organizing pamphlet for Women vs. Connecticut, an activist group that mounted a lawsuit to challenge Connecticut’s abortion law. The pamphlet’s signatories included Yale Law School students. The group’s lawyers included Catherine Roraback ’48 who had worked with Professor Thomas Emerson in challenging the state’s ban on birth control in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. Documents in Part II also demonstrate abortion’s growing entanglement in national politics in the period just before the Court’s decision. In Part III, the authors present excerpts from briefs written by the attorneys for both Jane Roe and Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. An appendix with amicus briefs makes up Part IV.

In their afterword, Greenhouse and Siegel discuss the aftermath and paradox of Roe v. Wade: Given the widespread public support for decriminalizing abortion, as indicated by opinion polls at the time of the ruling, why did conflict over abortion build over the course of the 1970s and after? Was Roe the cause of that conflict or, instead, a symbol that emerged from it?
Before Roe v. Wade