The Racial Origins of Family Values Politics: Abortion and Busing in Michigan, 1970–80

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Gillian Frank, Stony Brook University
Two months before the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, voters in Michigan turned out at the polls to cast ballots in a statewide referendum on whether to legalize abortion. Also driving voters concerns was their elected representatives’ stance on the busing of children for the purposes of achieving racial integration in schools. This paper examines anti-abortion and anti-busing politics as they existed in Michigan in the 1970s and in so doing demonstrates how conservatives’ “family values politics” were enmeshed in the history of race relations. Focusing on a statewide referendum on abortion, this paper argues that the struggles over busing informed the concurrent debate over abortion.

Linking together anti-abortion and anti-busing activism was a common narrative about protecting endangered, innocent and defenseless children. Anti-abortion activists’ success, in particular, depended upon being able to represent the fetus as a white child and represent their activism as child protection. In so doing, conservative activists led American voters to believe that they have to choose between the best interests of “children” and reproductive rights or civil rights. In social struggles that rested upon being able to claim moral authority in public in order determine social values, the defense of silent and unborn populations gave force and direction to newly emerging right wing coalitions.

The statewide referendum on abortion, informed by grassroots activism against busing, provides unprecedented insight into the contested and racialized meanings of reproductive politics in the era of Roe v. Wade. The paper maps how pro-natalism and white privilege came to be yoked to one another within conservative politics of the 1970s and 1980s.

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