Roe at Forty: The Legal, Political, and Social Influence of Roe v. Wade

AHA Session 102
Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Roosevelt Ballroom III (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Reva Siegel, Yale University
Reva Siegel, Yale University

Session Abstract

Abortion has been one of the most polarizing and fraught political issues in recent American history. It has been central to the rise of social conservatism, reflected the widespread effects of feminism, touched on public health and population concerns, affected U.S. foreign assistance around the world, and has repeatedly surfaced in elections. While abortion has been an important political issue since the 1970s, it did not always occupy such a polarized and politicized role in American culture. 

The historians on this panel take the fortieth anniversary of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade as an opportunity to examine its broad effects on American society. Many scholars and observers have argued that the case, which enshrined the right to abortion as a constitutional right to privacy, engendered the cultural and political “war” over abortion--it ensured access to safe and legal abortion to American women, established abortion on the national political stage, sparked the pro-life movement, and largely determined the tactics of the women’s movement. This panel takes on the historiographical significance of Roe, both how it was indeed a watershed event and how its importance has been misinterpreted.

Blending social, legal, political, and cultural history, the historians on this panel move beyond the narrow historiographical focus on Roe as a court case and consider its wider influence. One paper considers the legal effects of post-Roe “conscience clauses,” which exempted religious institutions from providing abortions, thereby restricting access for women. Another paper also connects legal and medical issues by charting the effects of the decision in the surgical room, for doctors and women intimately involved in the actual practice of abortion. A third paper moves the discussion to the political realm by challenging the prevailing historiographical view that Roe limited the women’s movement to relatively conservative arguments based on the concept of choice. The fourth paper reframes the symbolic importance of Roe, arguing that Roe’s political and cultural meanings have changed significantly in the past forty years.

Each paper on the panel engages the conference theme “Lives, Places, Stories”: they consider the lived experiences of abortion after Roe v. Wade; geographically specific fights over Roe’s influence; and the power of historicized, politicized discourse in the ways that Americans have made sense of the meaning of the landmark  case. In her own way, each historian illuminates the current state of the abortion issue--its legal, political, and social meanings and restrictions--and brings much-needed historical analysis to this as-yet understudied topic. This panel will appeal to twentieth-century U.S. historians, legal historians, and those interested in sexuality or reproduction, as well as scholars interested in using history to better understand the present, as well as those with an investment in blending various historiographical approaches.

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