cover image Roe: The History of a National Obsession

Roe: The History of a National Obsession

Mary Ziegler. Yale Univ, $27 (248p) ISBN 978-0-300-26610-8

UC Davis law professor Ziegler (Dollars for Life) analyzes in this expert study how the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion captured the nation’s imagination as “a meta-symbol of our many political and cultural disagreements and a shorthand for their inherent contradictions.” In the 1960s, a series of legal cases carved out exceptions to abortion bans for rape, incest, and fetal defects; Ziegler notes opposition from both anti-abortion activists (who believed in fetal personhood) and the women’s liberation movement (which believed abortion should be a constitutional right). In the 1970s, the Hyde Amendment, which blocked Medicaid funding for abortion, led abortion rights activists to elevate the message that Roe was about women’s freedom of choice, while right-to-lifers increasingly sought to upend the Republican establishment. Among other themes, the decades after Roe saw the intertwining of anti-abortion groups and evangelical Christianity; the politicization of science and expertise, especially around the concept of “partial birth abortion”; and the foregrounding of racial issues, with anti-abortion activists highlighting Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s belief in eugenics and abortion rights organizations shifting from a white-centered choice message to a reproductive justice framework. Ziegler sets a brisk pace but delivers substantial depth as she reveals just how much the terms of this debate have shifted in the 50 years between Roe and its recent overturning. It’s a must-read for those seeking to understand what comes next. (Jan.)