How Republicans Became Anti-Choice

Reversing Roe

a documentary film directed and produced by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
Elliott Landy/Magnum Photos
Abortion rights demonstrators, New York City, 1968

It is impossible to understand American politics of the past half-century without taking abortion into account. The Brett Kavanaugh charade most recently, the machinations of the Republican Party more generally, and the infectious fundamentalism creeping into everyday life: all begin with abortion. Other issues may have been as divisive—civil rights comes to mind—but none has been as definitional. These days, the litmus test for Republicans running for political office or nominated to the judiciary is opposition to abortion. On the Democratic side, it is almost equally crucial to be pro-choice. Yet as the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe ably shows, this was not always the case.

Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy for any reason in the first two trimesters, and in the third trimester under certain circumstances, was issued in 1973. Seven justices affirmed the decision, with Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee, writing for the majority. If that seems strange to us now—a conservative justice on a conservative court invoking a right to privacy on behalf of women—it is because the alliance between the Right to Life movement and the right wing appears to us to be so close as to be preordained. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Republicans were behind efforts to liberalize and even decriminalize abortion; theirs was the party of reproductive choice, while Democrats, with their large Catholic constituency, were the opposition.

Republican governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, in 1967, legalizing abortion for women whose mental or physical health would be impaired by pregnancy, or whose pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. The same year, the Republican strongholds of North Carolina and Colorado made it easier for women to obtain abortions. New York, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, eliminated all restrictions on women seeking to terminate pregnancies up to twenty-four weeks gestation. (Reversing Roe shows young women in Dallas boarding airplanes headed to these states.) Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were all pro-choice, and they were not party outliers. In 1972, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans believed abortion to be a private matter between a woman and her doctor. The government, they said, should not be involved.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the right to abortion was forcefully supported and advanced by the Protestant clergy. The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCSA), which was established in 1967, not only counseled pregnant women about their choices, it enlisted physicians to perform abortions. One of these, who is featured in the film, was Dr. Curtis Boyd, a gynecologist and Baptist minister now in his eighties. He began his practice in Texas at the behest of the CCSA in…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.