Conservatives' Losing Bet on Birth Control: History Suggests They Might've Woken a Sleeping Giant
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Amatniek’s outburst ensured that the otherwise staid hearing got media coverage. Women were so incensed over their exclusion from the hearing that the feminist group Redstockings organized an all-women abortion “speak-out” at the Washington Square Methodist Church. There women on the panel did something that no women had done before: they went public about their abortions. They told of the fear, pain, and humiliation they endured. Then a really extraordinary thing happened. Women in the audience stood up and, unprompted, began talking about their abortions. Irene Peslikis, who was at the hearing, told historian Ninia Baehr that it was like a “bomb” went off in the audience. “All of the sudden they realized that this was something that had been bothering them for the longest time,” she said.
The publicity from the speak-out galvanized women across the country. They held abortion speak-outs in their living rooms. They questioned why they disproportionately suffered the consequences of sexual activity, why they had to risk their lives or health to get an illegal abortion or beg a man for a legal abortion. The result of this consciousness-raising was a sea change in how women perceived the politics of abortion. They started to see access to abortion as a right, an expression of their full personhood, not a favor to be granted by men. Members of New York’s feminist movement found a Republican woman legislator, Connie Cook, who was on their side and she introduced a bill in the New York Assembly to completely remove abortion from the state’s criminal code, making it an entirely personal decision. It failed, but it moved the debate from just broadening the circumstances under which doctors could dole out abortions to making women the center of the abortion decision. A compromise measure was proposed that would allow women to make the decision about abortion up through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy but banned it thereafter except to save a woman’s life. This law passed and became the model for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally three years later.
It was the anger of women excluded from the abortion hearing that created the impetus for the widespread decriminalization of abortion. Forty-three years later, a similar outrage has woken women up to the implication of men who want to make reproductive decisions for them. From the furor over Virginia’s vaginal ultrasound bill, which is reverberating in states like Idaho that just killed a similar measure, to the continuing fallout from the Komen Foundation’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, it’s a good bet that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.
Patti Miller is currently working on a book about the history of the Catholic pro-choice movement in America. She was the founding editor-in-chief of the Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report and Daily HIV/AIDS Report and the former editor of Conscience magazine, the leading newsjournal of Catholic opinion. She also served as the Director of Writing and Research for Catholics for Choice. Patti has written extensively about reproductive health policy and the role of Catholicism and abortion in U.S. politics. She also has conducted numerous investigative reports on the religious right. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and USA Today, and she has appeared on CNN. Patti holds an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s in journalism from New York University.