Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973. It was the same month that LBJ died, when the U. S. ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, when the Watergate burglars went on trial, and when Harry Truman was memorialized at the National Cathedral following his death the day after Christmas 1972. The month marked a huge turning point in our politics—the symbolic end of the New Deal and the Great Society and the beginning of what would become known as the Reagan Revolution—the “me generation” and the era where Americans began to spend more time arguing about social issues in national elections than on economics or world peace or the environment.
Abortion is one of those issues that divides us still.
Look at the firestorm lit over Planned Parenthood. The Ohio Legislature wants to defund Planned Parenthood. Yet polls show that most Ohioans support a woman’s right to choose (as do the vast majority of Americans).
This is the reality over forty years after Roe v Wade was decided. Is there an end to this dispute? Will one side prevail over the other or will our children and grandchildren still find reasons to disagree about a woman’s reproductive rights?
I am not sure about the answer to that question, but I know a lot more about how this all began after writing my book, January 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month that Changed America Forever (Chicago Review Press 2015). And knowing how we got here is at least a first step in having an open and honest debate about abortion. As it stands now, both sides yell at the other and neither listens.
When I speak at the City Club on November 18, I want to explore Roe in particular. I will set the stage with the other dynamic events of January 1973, but then turn to the inner sanctum of the United States Supreme Court to provide an inside look at how Roe v. Wade became Roe v. Wade.
It is an amazing story and one you would not expect. I know about this story because I am the only person who interviewed Justice Lewis Powell’s law clerk, Larry Hammond, after Powell’s Papers were released. Hammond walked me through the Court’s deliberations and the crucial turning points. He admitted to me that the Justices believed that they were solving this issue for generations to come. Instead, the very way the case was decided sowed the seeds of the counterrevolution on the Right and the rise of the Evangelical movement in national politics.
Many have drawn a dotted line between the Evangelicals and the current Tea Party (sometimes referred to as “Teavangelicals”). It is not a stretch to say that the political stratagem of “no compromise” dates back to arguments over abortion that took center stage in the 1980s. Today, it is also no surprise to hear of threats of shutting down our federal government if Planned Parenthood is not defunded.
This is a core issue to our national debate and one that frankly has gone underground in the sense that no one wants to challenge their own thinking about it—yet few really know the history of this Supreme Court decision that remains so controversial today.
James Robenalt is a presidential historian and author of three books, his latest being "The Harding Affair, Love and Espionage During the Great War," and "January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that Changed America Forever." He is a partner at Thompson Hine LLP.