“For Those on Both Sides”: An Interview with Mary Ziegler about Abortion and the Law in AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: abortion, womens history, reproductive rights
Recently, Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler sat down with Nursing Clio to talk about her new book, Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present. The book illustrates how the question of “abortion rights” is only one piece of the puzzle – rather both antiabortion and pro-choice advocates have spent decades in a tug-of-war over policy, funding issues, and larger questions about public health. As Ziegler carefully demonstrates, these battles actually deepened political polarization on abortion and have shaped the debate in increasingly intractable ways. Her interview with Nursing Clio editor Lauren MacIvor Thompson has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Lauren: Your book does such a wonderful job laying out the legal landscape of the complex history of abortion. What drove your narrative and organization of the book?
Mary: At the beginning, I tried to get as broad a range of sources as possible, which meant visiting harder-to-find archives and asking activists if they’d be willing to let me look at their material. When it comes to the history of reproductive health, some organizations and points of view are much better represented in university collections than others. I also made sure that my story included actors who played a major role in the history but who, for a variety of reasons, found themselves underrepresented.
In terms of organization, I found that the story of a shift in the terms of debate was pretty clear in the sources, especially on the anti-abortion side. I wanted to show how and why that movement overhauled its arguments, legal strategies, and political response—and how abortion-rights supporters responded to that tactical plan (and at times, tried to advance an agenda of their own). The challenge was to weave other major events into this narrative—Supreme Court decisions, presidential elections, changes to abortion care and the like. I also grappled with how much to discuss the courts. My book is very much a story of how actors beyond the Court drive our law and politics, but judicial decisions still had a potentially transformative effect. Capturing that nuance was hard.
Lauren: Recently Norma McCorvey – the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade – made a “deathbed confession,” in which she claimed that she essentially was a prop of the anti-abortion movement. What does this means for today’s abortion debate? How is McCorvey a symbol (then and now), and for what?
Mary: McCorvey’s most immediate significance has to do with arguments that abortion hurts women. She not only worked with Operation Rescue, the leading organization in the clinic-blockade movement, but also became the most visible symbol of legal arguments that abortion damaged women’s bodies, psyches, and souls. She was “patient zero” in the narrative, supposedly exploited by abortion doctors, DC lobbyists, and lawyers who had never cared about women in the first place. The revelation of her “deathbed confession” jeopardizes this story at a time when the Supreme Court is considering using it to erode abortion rights.
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