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How Americans Thought About Abortion in the Run-Up to Roe

The new season of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast investigates how the pro-life movement found its footing in the years before Roe v. Wade.

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In the early 1970s, the future of abortion in America was far from settled. Some states were pushing to remove or loosen restrictions on abortion access. In others, women could be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy. Unexpected and dramatic battles raged across the country, even before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.

On the new season of Slow Burn, we’re looking at how Americans thought about the right to abortion before it was guaranteed—a time when more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion rights. We examine what life was like for women before the decision, and when and why the opposition to abortion took off.

One story we tell this season is that of the unlikely Catholic power couple who helped ignite the pro-life movement. Jack and Barbara Willke were a married doctor and nurse from Cincinnati. In the 1960s, they were active on the Catholic speaking circuit, talking about the pleasure of sex within marriage. But in the early 1970s, they pivoted to the issue of abortion, publishing a wildly successful book, the Handbook on Abortion, that became the go-to playbook for anti-abortion activists.

How exactly did the pro-life movement find its footing in the years before Roe? What was the argument the Willkes made, and why was it so convincing? Below you’ll find some of the sources that I used when researching the forces that shaped the right-to-life movement in the years leading up to Roe.—Susan Matthews

The Greatest Photograph of the 20th Century?

Charlotte Jansen
The Guardian

Susan Matthews: “A groundbreaking 1965 photo spread in Life magazine changed the way people understood human reproduction. Swedish photojournalist Lennart Nilsson spent years photographing fetuses, mainly from miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, and abortions. Most notably, he was able to capture a photo of a fetus still inside the womb by inserting an endoscopic camera into a woman’s uterus. The result was highly detailed, technical yet artistic photos that helped demystify the stages of fetal development. Most people had never seen anything like Nilsson’s photographs—ultrasound technology was relatively new (and not yet widely available) in the 1960s and 1970s. That issue of Life was the fastest-selling in the publication’s history. I hadn’t realized how mysterious pregnancy had been all the way up until the 1960s considering that these photos were the first opportunity many people had to look at a fetus.”

Final Approval of Abortion Bill Voted in Albany

Bill Kovach
The New York Times

SM: “New York’s 1970 change to its abortion law was a turning point in the national debate over abortion rights. The state senate’s debate over it was contentious, with the majority leader weeping at the bill’s passage. The bill removed most restrictions to abortion—another senator told his colleagues, ‘Your hands will reach into the womb with the doctor and you are going to kill, KILL, when you pass this law.’ Signed into law by Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the change was made after legislators, including Constance Cook, a Republican, insisted that they do something to address the harms of illegal abortions. Crucially, New York’s law did not have a residency requirement to obtain an abortion, opening the door to out-of-state patients.”

Remembering an Era Before Roe, When New York Had the ‘Most Liberal’ Abortion Law

Julia Jacobs
The New York Times

SM: “Before Roe v. Wade established a national right to abortion, New York’s 1970 law made the state a haven for women seeking abortions. From 1970 to 1972, more than 400,000 abortions were performed in New York, with the vast majority of patients coming from out of state. Thanks to this influx, the state law attracted the ire of the early pro-life movement, primarily led by the Catholic Church.”

The Dispassion of John C. Willke

Cynthia Gorney
The Washington Post

SM: “Jack and Barbara Willke got their start giving lectures on sex education from a Christian perspective. Then, in the early 1970s, they shifted their focus to abortion, pioneering much of the anti-abortion movement’s most common and persuasive rhetoric that is still in use today. At the time Cynthia Gorney profiled Jack Willke in this Washington Post piece, he had been president of National Right to Life for almost a decade.”

The Willke Way: How a Cincinnati Couple Put Roe v. Wade on the Ropes

Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SM: “The Willkes’ influence is keenly felt in Cincinnati, where they raised their six children, founded the country’s first Right to Life chapter, and wrote the Handbook on Abortion, the foundational anti-abortion text. As Horn writes, ‘They, quite literally, wrote the how-to manual for overturning Roe.’ Before doing this project, most of my understanding of the pro-life side came from the movement’s latter efforts, protesting outside of abortion clinics—but the Willke approach has been just as influential.”

Todd Akin Not Alone in Adhering to Bogus Rape Theory

Kim Geiger
Los Angeles Times

SM: “In 2012, Todd Akin, then a Republican congressman from Missouri, said in a TV interview that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape in part because victims of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely become pregnant. Akin drew widespread condemnation for his comments. This talking point can be traced back to the ideas of Jack Willke, who has asserted for years that the trauma of sexual assault ‘can radically upset [a woman’s] possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.’ When the L.A. Times asked him about Akin’s comments, Willke defended the congressman, saying that Akin’s only error was using the term ‘legitimate’ rape rather than ‘forcible’ rape. I remember hearing about Akin’s comments in 2012 and being baffled by where he would have come up with that—context of the Willkes and their hugely influential handbook makes the incident make a lot more sense.”

Abolishing Abortion: The History of the Pro-Life Movement in America

Jennifer L. Holland
The American Historian

SM: “There was not a cohesive, organized anti-abortion movement in America until the 1960s and ‘70s. During this time, abortion legalization was gaining momentum on the state level, driven by a few important factors. Two were medical in nature: Thalidomide, a sleeping pill from Europe, and German measles both caused birth defects and stillbirths. Women whose pregnancies were complicated by these events were some of the first to argue for liberalized abortion laws. The feminist movement was also taking off, with women arguing that they couldn’t have full rights without bodily autonomy. As states such as Colorado, California, and New York liberalized their abortion laws, organized opposition began to crop up, driven by Catholic professionals, clergy, and housewives. A key tactic used by pro-life activists, including the Willkes, was promoting the notion that ‘legally and culturally’ fetuses were humans with rights.”

From our partners

Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade

Susan Matthews

For the seventh season of Slate’s Slow Burn, host Susan Matthews explores the path to Roe—a time when more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion rights.

Susan Matthews

Susan Matthews is Slate’s news director.