Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading

Roe v. Wade: Repercussions on the Movement for Reproductive Rights

Many would be surprised to learn that a reproductive-rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg would criticize the Roe v. Wade decision.

Even an abortion rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg has criticisms of the Roe v. Wade decision.

On January 22, 1973 — 42 years ago today — the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, wherein a Texas woman sought an abortion, but existing legislation in Texas prevented her from doing so. The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that it was unconstitutional for states to interfere in the process of a physician providing a first-trimester abortion. Before the ruling, it was illegal for physicians to perform an abortion in 30 states. In the remaining 20 states, it was illegal for physicians to perform abortion unless it was deemed medically necessary.

Women, their autonomy, and their right to decide their future were not given as reasons why Roe v. Wade was decided the way that it was. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the Supreme Court, stating that the case was a right to privacy issue that was protected under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Before his death in 1999, Justice Blackmun stated outright that Roe v. Wade was not about women’s rights. Ronald Rotunda, law professor at Chapman University, recalls a 1994 conversation with Justice Blackmun where he explicitly spelled out the ruling’s intentions: “Roe ‘protected the woman’s right, with the physician, to get an abortion.’” Rotunda made clear that “Blackmun emphasized the italicized phrase with his voice.  He spoke of the case as a doctor’s rights case, not a woman’s right case.”


Some reproductive rights supporters think Roe v. Wade faltered in not explicitly prioritizing women’s rights to control their own bodies.


Each January, reproductive justice advocates celebrate the Roe v. Wade decision because it is absolutely essential that a woman is able to obtain an abortion if that is what she decides — because she, and she alone, should decide her future and fate. However, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade was never about women’s rights. Numerous legal scholars in favor of reproductive rights have taken issue with how Roe v. Wade was handled. Their criticisms are largely that: (1) the Supreme Court went beyond its role of judicial power and into that of legislative power by making abortion legal in all 50 states, and (2) the Supreme Court failed to make the decision about a woman’s right to choose her own future. Below is only a brief cross-section of these criticisms. Continue reading