Linda K. Kerber: The 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: A Teachable Moment

Linda K. Kerber is the May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and professor of history emerita, and lecturer in law at the University of Iowa. She is the author or editor of several books, including No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. She was president of the AHA for 2006.

Nearly 40 years ago, on January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that turned out to be one of the most contentious in its history. Two plaintiffs whose names were changed to protect their privacy—"Roe" from Texas and "Doe" from Georgia—claimed that laws making abortion illegal undermined their own right to make medical choices for themselves and their physicians' right to practice medicine according to their best judgment. Less than a decade before, abortion had been illegal in every state, with very narrow exceptions—to save the life of the mother; or, occasionally, in cases of rape or incest. At the time of the decision, a small handful of states had reformed abortion law by widening the exemptions to include saving the mother's physical and mental health. The court's opinion, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, with two dissents by Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist (who characterized the desire for abortion by a healthy woman as a matter of her "convenience") recognized that the long-established right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

In the years since 1973, scholars have written fresh histories of reproductive rights in the United States, placing Roe v. Wade in deep political and social context. These histories recognize its link to the history of birth control and to the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird 405 U.S. 438 (1972), which treated as private decisions the use of birth control, first by married couples and, a full seven years later, by unmarried couples. Many of these books are already understood to be classics: James C. Mohr, Abortion in America : The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800–1900 ( New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984); Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), and the revised and expanded version, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2002); Andrea Tone, Devices and Desires: A History of Contraception in America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001).

Chapter 4 of Linda Greenhouse, Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey (New York: Times Books, 2005) traces Justice Blackmun's thinking as he wrote the Supreme Court opinion. Faye Ginsburg's Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998) follows the impact of Roe into Fargo, North Dakota. Johanna Schoen's Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005) places abortion in the general history of reproduction. Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), Sandra Morgen, Into Our Own Hands: The Women's Health Movement in the United States, 1969–1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002), and Elaine Tyler May's America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, published on its 50th anniversary (New York: Basic Books, 2010), place the subject of abortion in the context of women's recent medical history....

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