Friday, December 14, 2012

Roe, Women's Rights, and Population Control


As abortion opponents held different goals for movement incrementalism, before and after Roe, abortion-rights supporters had strikingly different identities and priorities. One issue, particularly explosive in contemporary historiography, involves the role of population-control politics in the pre- and post-Roe movement. As I have shown, population-control arguments played an important part in the pre-Roe rhetorical strategy of the movement (see Mary Ziegler, The Framing of a Right to Choose: Roe v. Wade and The Changing Debate on Abortion Law, 27 Law and History Review 272 (2009)). Abortion-rights pamphlets from the 1970s often highlight the benefits of legalizing abortion: the reduction of welfare costs, illegitimacy rates, and overall population growth. Movement leaders like Larry Lader and Richard Bowers worked within the population control movement. Others, like Judy Senderowitz, the feminist leader of Zero Population Growth, combined commitments to curbing population growth and legalizing abortion.

The meaning of the abortion-movement’s relationship to demands for population control was anything but straightforward, however. In the 1970s, population controllers themselves were diverse. Reva Siegel and Linda Greenhouse describe the commitment to sexual freedom evident in the work of organizations like Zero Population Growth, Inc. Donald Critchlow and Matthew Connelly have traced the movement’s ties to past demands for eugenic legal reform and government control of reproduction. Throughout the 1970s, different constituencies contested the identity and values of their movement. Some rifts tended to be generational. Older leaders more often had ties to earlier eugenic organizations or shared concerns about the relationship between population growth in the Third World and cold war politics. College students, by contrast, viewed the population control movement as a rallying cry for environmental stewardship, sexual freedom, and responsible childbearing within the white middle class.

Struggle about the meaning of the population control cause bled into battles within the abortion-rights movement. Were arguments for abortion based on population control merely politically expedient, or did these claims instead reflect the substantive beliefs of members of the abortion-rights movement? Were population arguments inherently incompatible with claims that abortion was a fundamental right for women? Gradually, feminists took positions of leadership and downplayed claims based on population control, at times, denying that related arguments had ever played a part in abortion rights advocacy. Significantly, the abortion-rights movement began rewriting its own history and the history of the population-control movement. Population control, in this account, involved government control over reproduction, something that a feminist abortion-rights movement had never endorsed. Perhaps the most controversial issue in this new narrative involved race and abortion, a subject I will take up next.

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