In This Episode
The anti-abortion movement notched a terrible win six weeks ago. But reasserting the right to a safe, legal abortion nationwide forces us to go back in time and understand the opposition. Abdul sits down with Prof. Karissa Haugeberg, a historian of the anti-abortion movement, to understand how it formed–and what it will take to fight back.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: Dissectors! I’m on a much needed vacation with my family this week. So our show is going to look a little different today. No headlines, no breakdown at the end. Just a really important conversation with a really great guest. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] If you’re listening to this podcast, chances are you’ve never known a world where abortion wasn’t a protected right under the Constitution. That is until the summer. And when the Supreme Court took a sledgehammer to that right. And all the case law that had come before it, it felt like it happened all at once. First, the right was there and then boom, it was gone. But that’s not really how policy changes and what might feel like it’s happening all at once. It’s the result of a whole lot that came before it. Like water boiling, you heat and heat and heat it until all of a sudden, once it reaches a specific point, it boils. Every bit of heat went into boiling that water, even if it didn’t boil before. And like that boiling water, though Roe fell six weeks ago, the effort to topple the right to an abortion, that had been going on for decades. The fall of Roe was just the culmination of a whole set of efforts to realign the courts, to turn antiabortion dogma into an inviolable stake of the Republican platform, to architect an ideological framework ad mixing religion, anti-elite populism and an alternative narrative about women’s quote, “empowerment”. The painful, grotesque and downright malevolent manifestations of the fall of Roe are only beginning to play out in communities and courthouses around the country. Already, they’ve proven worse than what many of us would have imagined:
[clip of unspecificed interviewer] Indiana’s attorney general, Todd Rokita, described you as an abortion activist, acting as a doctor. How do you respond to that?
[clip of Dr. Caitlin Bernard] I’m a physician. I spent my entire life working to have this position to be able to take care of patients every single day.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: That’s Dr. Caitlin Bernard. She performed a completely legal abortion in Indiana for a ten year old girl from neighboring Ohio, where a trigger law made abortion illegal after Roe fell. But for doing it, she was hounded by her state’s attorney general, Todd Rokita. Indiana became the first state to pass an abortion ban a few weeks ago. The ban, which forces pregnant women to carry a fetus to term, tries to hide behind a fig leaf of exceptions in cases of rape or incest. But those aren’t abstract things. Those are things that really happen. And the abortion that Dr. Bernard performed in the case of the rape of a child was exactly that. She was targeted and trolled by her state’s leading law enforcement official for it anyway. Beyond the law, the attitude and the way of thinking that would justify Indiana’s attorney general to hound a physician for performing a legal health care procedure rests on a set of ideas that go back far further than six weeks. They have their origins, like so many of America’s worst cultural mores in the insidious intersection between puritanical extremism and business profits. Today, I wanted to explore the ideological firmament that drove the movement to end Roe. I want to share that because I think that the fight to reinstate abortion as a right in this country will require us to sharpen the ideas, the narrative that will drive the activists, organizers and politicians who will fight to get it back. And while there’s a lot to be hopeful for in the fight for abortion rights right now, make no mistake, this will likely be a long road. And understanding how the opposition to abortion rights came to be, the arguments and ideologies that drove it will be critical to defeating it. Professor Karissa Haugeberg is a historian and professor at Tulane University who studies the anti-abortion movement. She joined me to talk about the history, origins and advances of the anti-abortion movement in America. Here’s my conversation with Professor Karissa Haugeberg.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Let’s go. All right. Can you introduce yourself for the tape?
Karissa Haugeberg: I’m Karissa Haugeberg. I’m an associate professor of history at Tulane University.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I really appreciate you taking the time uh to join us. I know um understanding where we are, considering our history is a primary concern that makes you um extremely busy. And so thank you for taking the time. Can you take us way back? Right. First recorded um abortions. When and where were they? Um and do we understand how people thought about them back then?
Karissa Haugeberg: So historians are pretty confident that people have been having abortions since people have been able to have children. Um so we have evidence from ancient Greece and Rome of people having abortions and people talking about having abortions. And the way that people have thought about these procedures has changed dramatically over time. For most of human history, people didn’t have reliable forms of birth control. That’s a very modern phenomenon, something that most people didn’t have access to until the 1960s. So as a consequence, people and this is a global phenomenon, often regarded abortion as a form of birth control.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: Rather than something distinctive. So it was like in the family of birth control, just as one might, you know, insert an IUD or um try douching as a method after sex to avoid pregnancy. Um this is just a fertilization that took and the desire is to get rid of it before giving birth. So again, it’s it’s probably more accurate to, you know, for thinking back to the way people regarded abortion, they conceptualized it as birth control.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And when does a practice like that start to take on the kind of stigma that has led to you know this current moment in American jurisprudence? When does that that stigma around, you know, the moment of fertilization, when does that take hold and where?
Karissa Haugeberg: Yeah. So um it’s interesting because you’d be really hard pressed outside of the Catholic Church to find an example of a religious person or a minister or a rabbi, really even talking about abortion whatsoever. Um before the late 19th century, it would have just been strange. Uh It would have been like talking about like genital warts or something.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm.
Karissa Haugeberg: Like it was just considered to be like this personal, private issue and it just kind of like unsavory to talk about it in public or inappropriate to talk about it in public. And so um people advertised um abortifacients really pretty openly, um often under this guise of like restoring one’s menses or bringing them back. So there was this lucrative trade in um all sorts of herbal remedies. Um so that really comes of age with the advent of the printing press. So we start to see the shift that you’ve identified this like it becoming this moral issue, um really um after about the 1850s and 1860s. And the way that that began actually wasn’t with religious figures. Um it was with physicians in the United States [indistinct] organizing.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh, of course it was.
Karissa Haugeberg: Exactly. [laugh]
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So.
Karissa Haugeberg: So.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Walk me through that sordid history.
Karissa Haugeberg: Okay. Yeah. So like this won’t this won’t be a shock to people who you know have studied the history of the professionalization of any field. One of the hallmarks of establishing a profession is figuring out who’s in and who’s out. Because in order to become, you know, the well-respected attorney uh or the well-respected journalist or physician, you have to stake a claim saying that you’re uniquely qualified and educated and intelligent, so you should be the one entrusted with those decisions. So in the 19th century, American medicine was the Wild West, like anyone could, like hang up a shingle and say that they perform root canals or um will set a bone. Um so you have like the town butcher in the in the American West helping with this because they understood anatomy really well and maybe the barber was pulling teeth. So in this crowded marketplace where lots of people are performing a variety of medical services, these university educated physicians are trying to jockey for position and jockey for this market. And they’re having a hard time because this is before penicillin. This is before there’s widespread anesthesia available. So if the town barber is offering to perform surgery on you for a fraction of the price, and it’s just as effective, that’s where you’ll go. So in their quest, in physicians quest to stake out a claim, they formed the American Medical Association in the early 1840s, and one of the groups that they went after immediately were midwives.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: And that was very lucrative because like midwives, they delivered babies. But then they’re the ones families would return to in those early months for almost like early pediatric care. They provided obstetric care. Um and so they knew if they could get a str– a stranglehold on that market, you know they would have, like an entire family to care for if they could be the trusted advisor to that family. So physicians began depicting those midwives who performed both delivery of you know regular children and wanted you know full term babies and those who performed abortions. They depicted those midwives as being untrained, dangerous, unsanitary. And simultaneously, they went after the women who were seeking out these um midwives and depicted those women as being immoral, as falling in their duty or failing in their duty to be good mothers. And this is, I know that this this answer seems sprawling, but one additional shadow cast over this is growing anxiety about the changing composition of the United States. So we have a rise in immigration. And so there’s this fear that there are all of these people from Ireland and Italy who are Catholics who are coming in and having nine and ten children. Whereas US born white, middle class Protestant women, their birth rate was declining significantly over the 19th century, much of which was due to their use of abortion. So these physicians really tapped into this xenophobic fear that the appropriate types of women were falling down in their duty and not having enough children.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So there’s this brutal combination here that you’re describing of physician gatekeeping. By way of misogyny, targeting both women who are receiving abortion care and the women providing it midwives. And racism targeting this, you know what unfortunately, fear that has been present as a subtext or a pretext for American political agitation for a long time that these other people are replacing us by way of the services of these women who um are going to these other immoral women who, by the way, are less qualified to do this service than the physician community. So it’s like this trifecta of classism, misogyny and racism all at the same time. Can you tell us about uh Horatio Storer and and who he is and his role in all of this?
Karissa Haugeberg: Yes. So Horatio Storer was um a leading physician of his time. He lecturered at the University of Pennsylvania. And he was one of the real the bandleaders of this effort to try to get individual states to criminalize abortion. So he is the one who, like, basically went on this this circuit and convinced state legislators that there was a public health crisis in abortion and that they needed to pass laws to protect the safety of people. But he also was part and parcel of this effort. I mean, he was a deeply religious person and he w– excoriated these middle class women. And so he basically went state by state and offered basically pro forma legislation to convince state legislators to enact criminal abortion bans. And so it’s interesting, when you look at these state level bans, they’re they’re remarkably similar. Like, the language is pretty uniform throughout. The only real variation is that some um permitted exceptions in the case of the health of the mother being at risk. But many of them it was only if the life of the mother was at risk.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What’s ironic to me is that you’re talking about an America where Protestant Christianity is by far dominant, and a lot of the groups that are being fearmongered about tend to be Catholic. Right? So you’re talking about Irish folk. You’re talking about Italian folk. And so this seems to me to be counterintuitive, given the way these things have melded now. You know, if you read history, you come to appreciate that a lot of these groups became white within one or two generations. But what you’re describing is really an economic form of gatekeeping with somewhat dubious moral grounds. Right? You can shame and blame folks, but it’s not that necessarily that this is founded in the sort of canonical exclusion to abortion. Can you walk us through how that was received at the time and then the moment at which particular religious ideals came to get ad mixed into the attempted shaming and blaming?
Karissa Haugeberg: You raise an interesting point, like, isn’t it interesting that the people who are largely, you know, driving this nascent anti-abortion movement in the 19th century are largely Protestant. When we think of the history of opposition to abortion as being rooted in the Catholic Church, and they’re the ones being pointed to as the problem. Right? And so I think a couple of things are worth pointing out. So one is that the Catholic Church is the only major religion that’s been pretty consistently opposed to abortion throughout its history for for much of its history. But simultaneously, women of all denominations have generally had abortions at roughly comparable rates throughout U.S. history. So it stands to reason that um these newly arriving immigrant women probably had comparable attitudes toward abortion as those um white, middle class Protestant women. But it’s an issue of access to other forms of birth control. And so simultaneously, while evangelicals were pointing to these over productive Catholic women, you start to increasingly, by the late 19th into the early 20th century, see priests take more of an interest in the issue of abortion and birth control. And it’s really by the 1930s and 1940s that you start to see more clergy get involved and begin um it begins with the opposition to Margaret Sanger and birth control and then later begins to extend to abortion. And so but but again, it wouldn’t be comparable to today where like you can imagine being zoomed in or uh parachuted into rural Missouri. And it wouldn’t shock you to enter an evangelical Christian church and hear a minister um talking about the evils of abortion. That would not have been likely in the 1930s and 1940s. Like maybe a handful of them. But it was not a mass movement. The only real consistent place that you would have heard that messaging is in the Catholic Church.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm. What’s also, I think, important uh to to appreciate here is the subtext of power. You have powerful men from powerful institutions, whether you’re talking about the medical establishment. And at that time, there were not women doctors. It was extremely, extremely rare to have any women trained in scientific medicine. You have clergy people who are men in the Catholic Church and as you described, increasingly so Protestant denominations. And all of them are vilifying women, whether it’s women who are practicing uh abortions as a function of the comprehensive practice of midwifery, or you’re talking about women who are receiving abortions. What was the response of women at the time? Was there a concentrated, organized effort to push back to reclaim any of that narrative? Were there women who you know rose to the front to validate some of these arguments? How did women engage uh in this conversation at the time?
Karissa Haugeberg: So one like point of clarification that I’ll make is that in the 19th century, there actually was an uptick in the number of women physicians for a while, especially like the middle 19th century.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: Through about like the late 19th century, there were there were dedicated medical schools just for women. And as part of this push to really expand the power of the AMA. And this happened in law, too. We start to see medical schools become more elite and more exclusive and begin to push out uh women, people of color.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh wow.
Karissa Haugeberg: And again something similar happened with law. When you see the the rec– the requirement that people pass a bar exam. Suddenly you know you could have, like African-Americans or Latinos who could go to a law school or go to college. But once the state bar shuts them out, that actually creates a decline. So by like the late 19th century, we see women, people of color also getting shoved out of medicine and we see a decline in that number.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I didn’t appreciate that as a factor feature. I didn’t realize that there had started to be this influx of women into the practice of medicine, and then they were pushed out by these advocacy organizations and the AMA.
Karissa Haugeberg: And part of it was good. Part of it is a good thing in the sense that there were so many for profit medical schools. Like, again.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah.
Karissa Haugeberg: The whole Wild West thing and like basically if you paid your tuition, you could get a medical degree. So there were like these like people who really should not have had a medical degree who did. And but but at the same time, like, it’s like they threw the baby out with the bathwater and got rid of, like, all of these types of schools, even like the legitimate ones.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You had this moment in medicine where there’s this famous report called The Flexner Report. And, you know, for listeners, that was the moment at which there was some effort to actually regulate when what medical schools were truly evidence driven and scientifically based. So it’s interesting to sort of think about the evolution of medical practice, the evolution of medical certification, the rise of organizations like the AMA and the systematic exclusion of marginalized folks and women as that starts to happen. That is that is a nexus I hadn’t really appreciated and I really appreciate you clarifying that.
Karissa Haugeberg: And I think it’s also interesting to think about the ways in which the position of leaders of the AMA don’t always reflect rank and file physician’s beliefs, because historically a relat– you know, the majority of physicians have not been members of the AMA. And so that helps us to understand why throughout the period of abortion’s criminality from the 1860s until 1973, for the most part, you have a lot of physicians who feel like it’s their professional duty to perform abortions, even though it’s criminal to do so. They believe they have an ethical obligation to protect women’s health. And so that stands in contrast with some of these key AMA leaders who are excoriating abortion as dangerous and unnecessary.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It almost sounds like uh the AMA has expressed position against universal health coverage for everybody. While many physicians believe that we actually ought to have something like Medicare for All. It’s amazing how history sighs and then repeats itself.
Karissa Haugeberg: It’s so complicated because on one hand, you could look at professionalization as this boogeyman, and there are some that’s it’s very easy to find these ways in which it promotes elitism. It excludes women, it excludes people of color. It excludes Jews and Muslims. It’s by its nature, elitist. But on the other hand, if we want to have trust in our institutions. We, as the ordinary consumer, want to. We want the trust that we’re getting the best our dollar can can buy. Right? Um so it’s it’s really we see how we’d like to think that there’s this objective metric. But I think what history reveals is how subjective it is and how much it just reflects the prejudices of the context in which it lives.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Where were um the voices of women leaders, whether in medicine or outside the medicine, uh across the spectrum on this issue?
Karissa Haugeberg: So most key feminists of the 19th century supported the birth control movement. And again, the rationale there is different from what we may think of as like a more contemporary support for birth control and abortion. The rationale there, we have to remember that the death rate during pregnancy and in the year after giving birth was sky high. When you look at the average age of men and women, um for women, it was often stunted because so many women died in their early twenties from childbirth. Um so, I mean, it’s it’s not hyperbolic at all to say that it was like public health crisis, number one, um was how dangerous childbirth was. Simultaneously in the 19th century, in many states, it was becoming more difficult um to get a divorce. And so you can imagine if you can’t control your pregnancy or the ability to get pregnant, well, there’s no such thing as marital rape. That is not a crime. Basically like the ability to to procure whatever birth control methods you possibly can, when those fail, having the right to abortion is just crucial for women who want to do a whole number of things, like especially in the late 19th, early 20th century, there was so much excitement around the possibility of women becoming involved in politics, getting the right to vote, cleaning up their cities, um becoming active, going to college. And all of those hopes and dreams kind of hinged on women being able to control their pregnancy because it was like if they if that, that was like just the root of all of it. If you can’t control your pregnancy, you can’t control your marriage, you’d have no time or money to go to college. So everything kind of. All all circle are all roads kind of led back to that.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think for a lot of us we recognize um that line of reasoning in the conversations in the fifties and sixties, but don’t really appreciate that it went all the way back to the early 20th century and this sort of progressive era in um in American history. I want to ask you, who are the who were the key uh speakers in that?
Karissa Haugeberg: So one thing that’s commonly, I think, taken out of context are a handful of feminists from the 19th century who said things that couldn’t, when taken out of context, could be characterized as opposing abortion and most famously, Susan B. Anthony. Um there’s an there’s an entire anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony Group. Um so it’s like women who claim to be like the original feminists and that the original feminists were opposed to abortion. So historians have done a lot of work on this question. There’s a lot of the primary source evidence that links people like Susan B. Anthony to these anti-abortion statements are drawn from um pretty cryptic letters to the editor that are signed with initials SBA, which is not how Susan B. Anthony signed her letters. So they’re extrapolating [laugh] this uh cryptic, you know, use of acronyms and and attaching that to Susan B. Anthony. And another thing that historians have pointed out is that many feminists worried about abortion, rightfully so. Um because, remember, like, this is a lot of this is before the era of antisepsis, before um blood transfusion. And so their argument was we need to have better forms of birth control and more ubiquitous birth control, affordable birth control, so that women don’t have to turn to this possibly more dangerous option. But what everyone knew is that abortion, even though it was definitely riskier um in the 19th century than it would be after, you know, the 1960s, even still, the risk of childbirth, the risk of death and being harmed, physically harmed in childbirth was still greater than the risk posed by abortion in the 19th century. Um and so that was just well understood. Um and so overwhelmingly, you see these feminists, when they do talk about abortion, birth control, they are talking about it favorably as something that women need and women demand. And so, um again, Margaret Sanger being um famous for this, but also you can find evidence of even Susan B. Anthony voicing support for birth control.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And then you had, of course, the opposition. Um one of those people was Anthony Comstock. Can you can you tell us about who he was and um his role in this conversation?
Karissa Haugeberg: Yeah. So Anthony Comstock, was this 19th century smut crusader is [laugh] basically, in a nutshell what you could call him. He he was opposed to pornography. He was opposed to people just like talking about reading about anything related to sex. So that included birth control and abortion. And he and other you know, he he was from New York. He considered himself to be like the policeman of vice. And so he would get together with other men who are also deeply concerned about vice. And in a nutshell, they looked at pornography together. [laugh] Um so it was all under the guise of figuring out what people shouldn’t be looking at. Um but one of the really–
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: [indisctinct]
Karissa Haugeberg: Yeah, one of the really chilling things that he did is that he helped to enact a series of laws that made it legally permissible for these vice patrolmen to go through people’s mail. And so if there was evidence of somebody sending someone a pornographic um photograph, they could be arrested for violating the Comstock Act. But one of the primary things that they went after was the dissemination of information about birth control and abortion.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: So and as as I mentioned earlier, there was this like lively, lucrative trade in selling abortifacients and selling um herbal remedies or devices that would trigger an abortion. So rather than those markets disappearing, they just changed shape. So, again, instead of being kind of blunt about what they were selling, they would say things like, women like to be clean. You should take Lysol after sex to be really clean. And it was like a wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Everyone knew what was really being sold, but it was a way to kind of um circumvent these laws. Um and one thing that’s interesting that I think given the current abortion debate that’s interesting about federalism in the United States is that there was like this National Comstock laws, but many individual states passed what were called Mini Comstock Laws. So they empowered their state level vice crusaders to go through people’s mail.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. I want to fast forward a little bit. That is really helpful context to understand the civic discourse and this the pact dependency for the more modern uh debate that we’ve had over really the past, say, 75 years on abortion. Can you can you walk us to where this becomes a new political issue, the rise of both the pro-choice movement, but then also the anti-abortion movement, and that moment in the in the forties, fifties and sixties, when both of these movements start to gain traction.
Karissa Haugeberg: Sure. So I’ll start with the pro-choice side. And again, that’s a history that that takes many different forms that look different from today’s pro-choice movement. So beginning in the 1930s, obstetrics increasingly moved into hospitals. So rather than giving birth at home, women started to go to hospitals. And depending upon where you lived, this may not have been the most typical thing to do until the 1940s or 1950s. But this movement picks up steam and then beginning in the 1930s as more hospitals are constructed across the United States. And so simultaneously with childbirth moving into hospitals, the provision of abortion begins to move because those same physicians who had historically been performing childbirth services were also performing abortion, and they were able to do so with very little oversight or fanfare um because they were often performing these procedures in their private practice clinics. So often it was like an office attached to their house. So there wasn’t a lot of surveillance. But as these physicians moved into hospitals, suddenly they had a lot of people looking out over what they were doing to make sure that they were complying with state laws. And as you might imagine, hospital administrators did not want physicians who were practicing in there within their walls to be doing illegal things, right? That could jeopardize the entire hospital. And so they started to place a lot of scrutiny on these physicians, making sure that they were only performing abortions if indeed like depending upon the state, if a woman’s health or life were at risk. And so we see the number of physician performed abortions plummet as hospitals start to take a keen interest in making sure that only legal ones are performed. And rather than abortion disappearing, women instead turn to the unregulated illegal marketplace outside of hospitals. Um and there they ran into a range of people. So sometimes they found, like physicians who moonlit and like were really worried about what was happening. And so they made sure that women continued to get safe procedures. But then there were also, like this criminal market um rose that you know would blindfold women. Um so like when you talk to women who were college students in the 1950s and sixties, these are the kinds of stories you hear. Like, I went with my girlfriend, we were told to meet someone on this street. They blindfolded us, put us into a car and drove us to a warehouse. And, you know, and then like a range of things could happen. Either the abortion was successful or it was a complete joke, or they were given a dangerous procedure and got very, very sick or maybe even died. So we see like that kind of scary marketplace emerges and like in the 1950s and 1960s and we see the number of women who die in, not surprisingly, increase when you no longer have physicians performing this procedure um or it done in sanitary you know regulated conditions. And so some of the most powerful advocates for reform were public health physicians who were seeing what was going on. And they were like, this is ridiculous. You have these, like, healthy 20 year old women who should be able to get a procedure under, you know, supervised conditions. And they would be just fine, like they have lower complication rates than getting your tonsils removed. Like it’s it’s a safe procedure. So they were really effective at like going to state legislators and saying, look, I’m sick and tired of going to work and having an entire ward of women who are suffering from septic shock, who are all in their twenties and may lose the ability to ever have children in their lives, like they’re being, many of them are rendered sterile. So like, why are we doing this to these young women? A second group that mobilized it really effectively were clergy, um and the most famous of these groups was called the Clergy Consultation Service, um and most of the members were Protestant ministers, but there were some rabbis and there were even a few priests. And the priests often didn’t identify themselves publicly, but were looped into this group. Why clergy? Because they were um presiding over funerals of women who were um dying.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow.
Karissa Haugeberg: So they had a vested interest. And also, this is an era in American history when more people go to church, went to church more regularly. So a lot of young pregnant people in crisis turned to their clergy member for help in those moments, especially if they couldn’t turn to their parents. And so these clergy were inspired to organize, and they figured out who which physicians performed them safely. They um set rates so that women couldn’t be price gouged. They sent decoy patients just to ensure that these physicians did treat people respectfully. They became this powerful coalition to let give, like, moral weight to the pro-choice side.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow.
Karissa Haugeberg: And the third group. So, again, we have physicians, especially public health physicians and psychiatrists. Um we have the clergy. And then the third coalition that mobilized were these was were these early feminists, you know, there was a resurgent feminist movement um as more and more women were going to college and wanting to pursue careers. They knew that they needed a reliable way to delay pregnancy in order to get through law school or medical school. And one thing that your listeners may recall is that when the first birth control pills came out in the 1960s, they had way too much estrogen. And a lot of women were developing strokes.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: Being rendered blind and having heart attacks. And so birth control wasn’t this, you know, easy fix for this desire to delay pregnancy. So um pregnant people still really or young women still really dependent on abortion as this backup method when um birth control failed.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what about on the other side? I mean, we go from this world where uh you have clergy, even even Catholic priests who are organizing to guarantee access to choice. What about the other side? Uh and what what prompted that organizing and who was a part of that coalition?
Karissa Haugeberg: Yeah. So the Catholic Church officially has been pretty consistently opposed to abortion um for a long time. And in the United States, the American Council of Bishop of Catholic Bishops has been pretty notoriously conservative. Um and so you had many parishes where, like in the 1950s and 1960s, as there’s a clamoring to loosen criminal abortion laws, priests began to become more aggressive in opposing abortion and um giving sermons and telling their clergy are telling their parishioners that abortion is a sin. And this has almost no effect on the actual use of birth control and abortion among Catholic women. It remains again, it remains pretty consistent with the use among Protestant and Jewish women. But one thing is that evangelicals in the United States, since about you know, since people historians have been able to track their opinion on abortion, there’s been a cohort of them that have been pretty conservative on social issues. So opposed to gay rights, uh opposed to sex education in the schools, opposed to the teaching of evolution. So we can even, like go to the Scopes trial, that sort of evangelical Christian or conservative Protestant likely also opposed birth control and abortion. So we don’t see like a major sea change in that. The big changes like how did that coalition get plugged in to mainstream politics? And there’s like this sleepiness almost between the time of the Scopes trial until like the late 1960s, where these conservative, socially conservative Protestants, don’t have a lot of political sway, but simultaneously don’t think of either the Republican or Democratic Party as being that interested in them. And they’re kind of right. They’re not considered to be this like, key demographic to like turn out the vote with.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: And this kind of sea change. And again, this is almost like my response to um the criminalization of abortion in the 19th century. So many factors are like that coalesce in this way that that causes like the reemergence of conservative Protestants into American politics. And one of them is um the politics of desegregation. Um so like in the wake of Brown v Board of Education, a lot of white Southerners who had pretty who’d been voting Democratic for a long time, were furious with President Johnson, were furious at the prospect of their children having to go to school with children of other races. And Nixon and his strategists were very savvy in tapping in to this fury. And among the things that they promised to do. Um. So it seems like these things are unrelated to issues of race, but they’re actually kind of all intertwined. You know they promise to give states more rights when it came to schooling and education. They promised to um oppose abortion. They promise to protect school prayer. So it was like they started to speak the language of evangelicals to try to court them out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party. So, again, it isn’t that they created a new generation of people who opposed abortion, but they convinced these people that they could might have a home in the Republican Party.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So we see the weaponization of race, both at the origin of the anti-choice, anti-abortion movement with Horatio Storer. We see it again with the weaponization of um the evangelical movement for Republicans in the seventies. And also you know the other actor that comes up again is the AMA. So when, for listeners, when Medicare passed the big anti Medicare push was that it would forcibly desegregate the hospitals and uh the AMA who had a lot to at least in their mind, a lot to lose financially through this uh actually ran attack ads against Medicare in the South on this very issue. And so you see the institution of organized medicine and the weaponization of racism popping up at multiple occasions when it comes to uh the anti-choice movement in this country. I want to take us sort of fast forward. Um. There’s been a lot talked about and written about the Roe opinion and what it did to, of course, make uh choice and all of the downstream consequences of that choice possible um in the lives of women and uh other pregnant people. But I want I want to think a little bit now about where we stand. We watched as Roe fell uh not not a month ago now, just a bit more than a month ago. And we just watched as the state of Kansas when given a referendum. This is a by the way, a state where uh in 1991, an extremist anti-choice group barricaded three abortion clinics, where just in 2009 um there was an abortion provider who was murdered, uh while he was ushering at his church in Wichita. Kansas overwhelmingly voted uh in what was a really lopsided and terribly written referendum against taking the right to abortion out of their constitution. And I think to me, that indicates a sort of disintegration of a lot of the movement that folks on the right thought they’d had. Uh I want to ask you, right, what where do we go from here? You know, as being a student of the history of the anti-abortion movement in America and the response to that, where do we go from here? Where do you see things going? And what is the possible pathway back to a true um pro-choice America?
Karissa Haugeberg: Um so big questions. So in true historian fashion, I’m going to take us back in time. And it’s going to be kind of a strange place to take us. Um but I think it’s helpful. So one thing, you know, I described how Nixon started to try to court these evangelicals into the Republican Party. That was a really strange maneuver. Um and it was strange for a number of reasons. And one is that the Republican Party in the 1970s was dominated by like big business interests. And these are the kinds of people who would donate a lot of money to their um maybe their local museum of Art, of modern art. These are people who went to galas, um who dressed up in pearls and fancy outfits. And many of them, you know, they had, you know, maybe not always totally uncynical, but they had a love of, like, the environment. Um, remember that the EPA was created during the Nixon administration and they saw the influx of these evangelical Christians, many of whom did not have a college education. Many of them were of a lower socioeconomic class as being very an uncouth move. It was very uncomfortable. And you had um remember there was that resurgent ERA push in the 1970s, that was just as likely to have been um offered on the state level by Republican legislators as it was by Democratic legislature legislators initially.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You mean ERA’s equal rights amendment?
Karissa Haugeberg: The Equal Rights Amendment. That’s right. And so you had a lot of um Republican women who identified as feminists, and they just didn’t believe in big government. Like that’s the thing that’s similar between the way that Republicans talked then and the way that they talk today. And they thought it was, you know, that the abortion issue was so bizarre because they were like, well, we oppose big government. We don’t want the government in our bedroom. Like, that’s inappropriate. And so there was this real tussle within the Republican Party that took a good two decades to wrangle out. And eventually it was those social conservatives who won control of, like, you know, determining the platform, determining which candidate would make it through a primary. Um and so one could look back at the Republican Party and, you know, the question that animates politics today is we seem to be in this position where we have almost extreme minority rule that like whichever candidate can get through the primaries exerts inordinate um influence. And the one who gets through primaries, either the Democratic or Republican candidate, often doesn’t represent the mainstream opinion of either party. And so I think historians will look back at the 1970s and maybe reexamine it. Was this ascent of these pretty extreme um social conservatives, an example of kind of the hijacking of the Republican Party, whereby this extreme social conservative anti-abortion view really took over? And not only did that opinion not represent mainstream America, but is it possible that it didn’t necessarily represent mainstream Republicans? And looking at what just happened in Kansas, I think adds fuel to that theory, um because so many Republicans in Kansas, who themselves may be anti-abortion, nevertheless saw that maneuver as just too much government in the in the private lives of Americans.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm.
Karissa Haugeberg: So I see that as being very interesting. Another thing that I find very interesting is that among people who support abortion rights, there’s been long standing criticism of the decision in Roe v Wade for being rooted in privacy. You know, and the criticism being the word privacy doesn’t appear in the Constitution. It’s it’s always been difficult to defend because, you know, it’s not like pointing to due process or some other phrase that’s in the Constitution. But I wonder if that criticism has been wrongheaded, because it really seems like the voters in Kansas were deeply uncomfortable with this invasion of privacy, um that the state was entering people’s private homes and their relationships with doctors and seeking to dictate how that would look. And so I also am just curious to know if this will cause a reckoning of historians and legal scholars to really rethink the logic of Roe. Like, was Justice Blackmun on to something by attaching that right to abortion, to the idea of privacy, which actually might have pretty widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, your frame here is is the notion that one of the single agreed upon features of American society is this idea of a right to privacy. And it’s also that faultline, the wedge on which the Republican coalition might break, right where you’re now putting the social and explicitly religious beliefs of a certain wing of the party up against the consensus or previous consensus of a belief in small government. And folks are being forced to choose. And, you know, what we’re seeing in Kansas is that they seem to be choosing their right to privacy and the state uh staying out of their business over the reading of a particular set of religious based social values into the law. And that’s you know, this is the piece of this that folks have to appreciate. It has been we’ve been taught that this debate has been about abortion. It’s actually not about abortion. It’s about whether or not the state can keep you from getting an abortion. Right? Because you don’t like an abortion, don’t get one, right? But you have that right under, uh under, under Roe. Um. It’s more about whether or not the state can can enforce uh its particular choice on you. And I think that that question is starting to break a lot of the coalition in some um some really interesting ways. Our guest today was Professor Karissa Haugeberg. She is a professor at Tulane University. Um, she’s also uh the author of a really important book. I hope folks will check out, it’s called Women Against Abortion: Inside the largest moral reform movement of the 20th century. We really, really appreciate you uh joining us to offer us some of the political uh history of um the conversation about abortion and abortion rights in this country. And uh and we’re really grateful to you for your insight.
Karissa Haugeberg: Thank you for your smart questions. This was a lot of fun.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: That’s it for today. On your way out. Don’t forget to rate and review. It goes a long way. Also, if you love the show, make sure to rep us. Drop by the Crooked store for some America Dissected merch. We’ve got our logo mugs and T-shirts. Our science always wins sweatshirts and dad caps are available on sale. [music break] America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producer is Tara Terpstra. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters the show. Production support from Ari Schwartz, Inez Maza, and Ella Price, our fantastic summer intern who we’re sad to see leave us. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard, Michael Martinez and me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.