The history of abortion in America and how it became a partisan issue.

In 1999 Donald Trump declared that while he personally “hated the concept of abortion” he “just believed in choice”. Yet, when he stood for election Trump like many Republican candidates before him committed an ideological u – turn, becoming staunchly pro – life and suggesting women who had abortions should be “punished”. Trump’s volte – face is hardly exceptional and conforms to a wider trend in presidential campaigning tactics. Today, to run as a Republican candidate one must be pro- life. While to be a Democrat is to be pro- choice. Rather than a medical issue, abortion has become a dangerously partisan problem and essentially functions as a litmus test for political alignment. Ostensibly this pattern stretches back to time immemorial,  however as the recent Netflix documentary “Reversing Roe” aims to demonstrate, this dichotomy between the two parties is a relatively new albeit concerning dynamic.

Indeed, the Republican party has not always been synonymous with the pro-life movement. For example, the Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the 1970 New York Abortion Reform Law, the most liberal in the country which allowed women to access abortions on demand. Similarly,  in 1967 Ronald Reagan signed the “Therapeutic Abortion Bill,” which allowed abortions to protect woman’s “physical or mental health.”. While he later expressed regret at signing the Bill, it represented one of the most liberal abortion laws of the time. This stance was not limited to Republican politicians but mirrored by Republican voters. Indeed, a Gallup poll conducted in 1972 demonstrated that two thirds of Republicans agreed that  abortion “should be a matter between a woman and her doctor ”.

Why then have Republican attitudes changed so dramatically? If we distil Republican’s core values to a belief in minimal government intervention and maximum individual liberty,  it becomes clear that the central rational of the pro -choice lobby that individual women are best equipped to make decisions about their body does not inherently contradict republican ideology, in fact it compliments it.  Why after all should a party which vehemently decries legislative attempts to control gun ownership as an infringement upon individual liberty choose to legislate against a women’s right to control he own body. Similarly, Republican’s championing of deregulation and free markets deminstrate a profound trust in the rationality of the individual rather than government. Thus, a brief skim of the history of abortion in America demonstrates that the rational of the pro -choice movement is not naturally inimical to core Republican ideology, neither is it completely at odds with some of the party’s past policies.

In the Netflix’s documentary “Reversing Roe” Stern and Sundberg demonstrate that over the last few decades, there have been times when the issue of abortion transcends partisanship. Furthermore, they argue that for the sake of women’s health it should remain a debate grounded in science rather than an ideological battle between parties vying for votes.

However, the recent appointment of Bret Kavanaugh and particularly his testimony concerning allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasely Ford confirm a growing partisan trend. In his recent testimony he suggested allegations against him were a Conservative conspiracy to tarnish his reputation which equated to “revenge on the behalf of the Clintons”. This nakedly partisan display calls into question his ability to act independently. Despite the founding father’s determination to create a judicial system which was independent of political pressure, the mechanism which allows the President to recommend candidates to the senate ensures that it is always a political appointment.  While campaigning for presidency Trump promised to appoint pro- life judges and since coming to power has confirmed Neil McGill Gorsuch and Bret Kavanaugh.  Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination will solidify a conservative majority potentially for decades and threatens the historic ruling of Roe v Wade.

In summary while it is tempting to view the stark division on abortion today a natural divide produced by two opposing ideologies, an examination of history and analysis of Republican ideology suggest otherwise. The debate surrounding abortion has become a political battlefield to mobilize evangelicals and liberals alike around a hot button issue during election periods. However, as suggested in the documentary “Reversing Roe” the politicisation, polarisation and partisanship of the abortion debate is coming at the expense of women’s right to basic healthcare and coming to a head following the soldifying of a conservative majority in the Supreme court.


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