In keeping with the revisionist ambitions of President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, National Public Radio has taken the opportunity of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade to rewrite the history of that decision. According to NPR’s Julie Rovner, the Roe decision was not to blame for triggering enduring national divisions over abortion: rather, it was the Nixon campaign of 1972, and the Astroturf activism of the Catholic Church.
Rovner’s sources are two Yale law school professors, Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel: “They say one of the things that really politicized the abortion issue was the efforts of those working to re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972. His aides, including future Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, wanted to lure Northern Catholic voters, who had traditionally voted Democratic, over to the Republican Party.”
The obvious problem with that argument is that the Roe decision was handed down in 1973, after Nixon’s re-election campaign. Another is that Greenhouse suggests Nixon’s position on abortion was a “Northern strategy that mirrored the Southern strategy.” The intent is to taint the pro-life movement by associating it with an appeal to racism–when, in fact, the pro-choice side of the argument had real links to racist eugenic doctrines.
Rovner, citing an anti-abortion activist, also argues that the Catholic church defied the views of most of its members, and that the Catholic hierarchy created “groups that were not overtly church sponsored” in order to create the false appearance of grass roots support for the church’s views. Curiously, she ignores the enormous role played by the evangelical Protestant church in mobilizing opposition to abortion since Roe v. Wade.
In fact, there is much that Rovner leaves out. She notes correctly that reform to state abortion laws began before Roe v. Wade–but fails to note that religious activism also began before Roe, responding to a decade of decisio, from Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) on school prayer and Bible reading, respectively; through Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), barring public funds for religious schools.
Roe v. Wade was the climax, and the fact that it was handed down after many states had already legalized abortion made it clear that the judiciary was not content to let citizens themselves decide the issue through ordinary legislation and political debate. That judicial usurpation, combined with the tortuous reasoning through which the Court essentially invented a right, provoked the cultural and political fight that continues today.
It is impossible to discuss the enduring controversy over Roe without mentioning the substance of the decision, which is as problematic to social conservatives as Chief Justice John Roberts’s re-writing of Obamacare is to fiscal and Tea Party conservatives. The poor reasoning of Roe is one of the reasons many conservatives–even pro-choice conservatives–see it as a problematic decision as best, and an illegitimate one at worst.
Rovner’s revisionist narrative, in which a small group of powerful men contrived to inflame debate and divide our politics forever, may satisfy NPR’s political prejudices. In fact, that caricature more closely resembles the way in which the liberal juristocracy imposed its views. There has been less of a backlash on gay marriage because the issue still remains with the states. We will see what happens when the Court intervenes.