Abortion refers to the act of terminating a pregnancy before it can be carried to term. The abortion controversy concerns the ongoing debate and battle over the legal status of abortion in the U.S., both at the state and national levels. Abortion is among the most divisive issues in American public discourse. Views on abortion often carry religious, political, and cultural overtones. The debate is largely framed by two competing views: The Pro-Choice view, that abortion is a woman’s constitutionally-protected right; and the Pro-Life view, that abortion is immoral, and that the government should have the right to restrict and/or punish abortion.
While research suggests that many Americans harbor views somewhere in between these two divergent positions, beliefs on abortion law and reproductive rights tend to be divided starkly across political party lines. As a matter of broad policy, the Republican Party seeks to make laws restricting or limiting access to abortion while the Democratic Party seeks to remove restrictions and improve funding for access to safe and legal abortions.
The debate over abortion often bleeds into many other aspects of American politics, impacting the way that individuals on both sides of the abortion debate craft policy, support candidates, and engage the legal system.” – @AcademicInflux
Affiliates of either party may hold their own views on the subject which diverge from mainstream party beliefs, and the same is true for many Americans who identify as political independents. However, the divide over abortion is truly a major force in America’s 2-party political system. The debate over abortion often bleeds into many other aspects of American politics, impacting the way that individuals on both sides of the abortion debate craft policy, support candidates, and engage the legal system.
In other words, while the abortion debate ostensibly concerns a single issue, it carries far-reaching religious, legal, and political implications, and bears a central connection to women’s rights movements. As a result, the abortion issue has an encompassing effect on the way people vote and politically identify.
In the early 19th century, abortion was not viewed as a constitutional issue, and was therefore left to the discretion of individual states. Most states imposed their own restrictions. Some states placed limitations on when, or under what conditions, an abortion could be performed. Other states imposed total bans on abortions and criminalized the acts of receiving or performing an abortion. 1820 marked the first time that the federal government weighed in, outlawing abortions after the fourth month of pregnancy.
This was the beginning of a tempered national discourse over anti-abortion legislation and reproductive rights. As the feminist movement was itself in an early stage of development, the public push against anti-abortion legislation was measured and muted. However, early leaders of the feminist movement did begin to push back against legislation restricting abortions. Though many early women’s rights pioneers acknowledged their own moral opposition to the practice of abortion, they also spoke in practical opposition to the criminalization of abortion.
While many early feminists expressed disapproval of abortion on moral or religious grounds, they also argued the need for safe and legal abortion as an antidote to pregnancies resulting from marital rape and the forcible seduction of unmarried women. From this view, both unwanted pregnancy and anti-abortion laws were seen as an extension of male control over female lives and bodies, and in particular, an extension of the general disrespect for a woman’s right to abstinence.
In spite of this view, the mid- and late-1800s saw the acceleration of restrictions around abortion. Among the most notable federal restrictions were those resulting from the Comstock Law, named for United States Postal Inspector General and creator of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock. Beginning in 1873, the Comstock Law outlawed the transmission by mail of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material, which was deemed to include, among many other things, information regarding abortion, contraception, and the prevention of venereal disease. This law had the effect of dramatically impinging on awareness of, support for, and access to abortion rights.
The AMA played a major role in proliferating the moral argument against abortion. This campaign was effective, with state legislators adopting bans on abortion in every single state by 1900.” – @AcademicInflux
Toward the end of the 19th century, the American Medical Association (AMA) began a long and sustained public campaign decrying the practice of abortion. The AMA played a major role in proliferating the moral argument against abortion. This campaign was effective, with state legislators adopting bans on abortion in every single state by 1900. Though abortion was a criminal act in every state, some states held exceptions in instances where a woman’s health was in danger, or where a pregnancy was the consequence of incest or rape.
With widespread restrictions on abortion in place, various unrelated groups began to push back, touching off an increasingly public debate over abortion. In particular, some members of the medical community (in contrast to the AMA), began to voice public objection to the prohibition of abortion rights. In light of the restrictions and unavailability of safe and legal abortions, women facing unintended or unwanted pregnancy would resort to “back alley abortions,” procedures performed illegally and often under dangerous and unsanitary conditions. These conditions frequently resulted in health complications and fatalities. In light of the medical and legal dangers facing women with unwanted pregnancies, nurses, physicians, and social workers became part of a more vocal movement for an end to criminalization.
Certain religious groups also expressed support for decriminalization, arguing that the effects of unintended pregnancy on members of their community could be devastating. Some members of the Christian clergy took the position that supporting access to abortions was a more ethically grounded position than restricting or criminalizing the practice.
And as the feminist movement gained size and momentum, the issue over abortion became increasingly one of freedom, privacy, and women’s rights. The view gained traction that abortion was fundamentally a matter of personal choice and privacy, and that government laws banning abortion were an infringement on those constitutional rights.
In 1921, nurse, educator, and activist Margaret Sanger formed The American Birth Control League, which advocated for the opening of birth control clinics, and helped raise consciousness about the need for women to control their own fertility and reproductive decisions. In 1942, the league was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The nonprofit organization has since grown to include more than 600 clinics throughout the United States focused on reproductive healthcare. Today, Planned Parenthood is the leading provider of reproductive health services, including abortions, in the United States.
As broader mainstream support emerged for decriminalization of abortion, an array of landmark court decisions and state-level legislative changes began to alter the legal landscape.” – @AcademicInflux
The mid-20th century saw growing support for women’s reproductive rights among various cross-sections of the American public. As broader mainstream support emerged for decriminalization of abortion, an array of landmark court decisions and state-level legislative changes began to alter the legal landscape.
In the early 1960s, a number of high-profile public cases began to erode the sweeping restrictions over abortion. Among them:
1973 remains a landmark year in both the abortion debate and the broader struggle for women’s rights. In fact, the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade is among the most consequential court precedents in modern history. At the time of the decision, 30 states had total bans on abortion, 16 states allowed conditional abortion, and four states allowed legal abortions.
In Roe v. Wade, a Texas woman filed suit against the state, arguing that its anti-abortion laws were a violation of the 14th Amendment right to privacy. In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmum found that “This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or ... in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”
While frequently challenged, Roe v. Wade has been upheld and refined by these and other cases. Today, its precedent remains the law of the land regarding abortion.” – @AcademicInflux
In this finding, the Supreme Court would invalidate all existing federal and state-level laws criminalizing abortion, and it would extend new terms around the government regulation of abortion. Subsequent cases, such as Doe v. Bolton (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) have grappled with questions over the viability of a fetus and the health of the woman, especially during the later stages of pregnancy. While frequently challenged, Roe v. Wade has been upheld and refined by these and other cases. Today, its precedent remains the law of the land regarding abortion.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of abortion in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude political heads of state. The appearance of religious leaders, Supreme Court Justices, economists, and feminists demonstrates the impact of the abortion debate in various aspects of American life.
|3||Sandra Day O’Connor|
|6||Pope Benedict XVI|
|8||Pope John Paul II|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of abortion in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude the dominant appearance of religious scriptures, though we would make the case that such religious scriptures are worth consideration for a fuller understanding of the theistic dimensions of the abortion debate.
|2||The Feminine Mystique|
|3||Hills Like White Elephants|
|4||More Guns, Less Crime|
|5||The Second Sex|
|6||Mark of the Christian|
|7||The Dialectic of Sex|
|8||The Second Stage|
|10||The City of God|
Though Roe v. Wade set forth the federal precedent on abortion, the political and cultural orientation of individual states plays a major role in the funding, availability, and access to abortions at the local level. Moreover, groups who are opposed to the practice of abortion maintain a high level of political activity, pushing for legislation to limit or re-criminalize abortion. Within this context, there are essentially two distinct sides on the abortion issue.
There is a great deal of political activity around this issue, with highly emotional and engaged participants on both sides of the debate. In fact, abortion remains among the most politicized issues in public discourse, with views dividing somewhat rigidly across party lines. The Republican Party identifies closely with the Pro-Life movement, with many of its candidates and priorities echoing the views of anti-abortion activist groups; whereas the Democratic Party identifies closely with the Pro-Choice movement, with many of its candidates and priorities echoing the views of women’s reproductive rights activist groups.
This divide tends to frame a wide range of directly or tangentially related political issues including debates over the freedom of religious expression, individual healthcare rights, and the appropriate distribution of public resources. The last of these issues–distribution of resource–is of particular importance in the ongoing push and pull over abortion. While the 1973 court precedent prevents states and municipalities from banning or criminalizing abortion, many states have taken steps to limit abortions by creating obstructions to funding, access, and the availability of reproductive health services.
Again, consistent with the political divide that frames this issue, “red” states, those which tend to lean Republican in national politics, are most likely to take steps toward limiting abortion access, while “blue” states, those which tend to lean Democratic in national politics, are most likely to create and expand access to reproductive health services including abortion. Because this is an issue which stratifies so sharply across political lines, the legal and practical status of abortion in the U.S., and in individual states, is in constant dispute.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature, or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of abortion, the debate requires us to consider those who align with both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movement, as well as those who may be termed as “anti-abortion” and those who advocate for “abortion rights” or “reproductive rights.” Also pertinent are those with a practical or symbolic connection to activist groups such as the Pro-Life organizations Defense of Life and March for Life, as well as those connected to key court cases (Roe v. Wade) and organizations (Planned Parenthood). These terms should deliver us to a nuanced understanding of some key influencers and their position in the public debate.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the abortion issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
Abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy and, in the context of the public debate, largely refers to the medical procedures used to carry out this termination. The “abortion” terminology generally yielded results centered around the Pro-Choice Movement, highlighting activists and physicians who have advocated for women’s reproductive rights.
Anti-abortion refers to the position taken by contingents of the Pro-Life movement. The results yielded by this terminology generally point to activists and physicians who have opposed the decriminalization of abortion, or who have taken efforts to restrict access and support laws aimed at limiting or re-criminalizing abortion.
Pro-Life refers to the anti-abortion movement. Adherents to this viewpoint are often highly politically active, particularly as part of the Republican Party. The Pro-Life position is at once a political disposition in opposition to abortion and a reflection of the religious view that the life of a child begins at the time of conception. From this view, abortion is tantamount to infanticide. Many contingents of the Pro-Life movement also claim close connections to various religious communities, and most particularly to the Evangelical branch of Christianity. In many ways, the Pro-Life movement serves as the connective tissue between religious Evangelicals and the Republican Party, based on their shared opposition to abortion.
Pro-Choice refers to the viewpoint that abortion, and women’s reproductive rights in general, are a matter of personal choice. The Pro-Choice movement is considered both a philosophy regarding reproductive rights and a political disposition regarding the constitutional right of women to privacy and bodily autonomy. The Pro-Choice movement is closely connected with the Democratic Party, and broadly supports candidates for office who work to protect a woman’s right to choose.
Reproductive rights refers broadly to the set of freedoms and protections for women sought by advocates of the Pro-Choice position. This terminology refers to rights relating to contraception, abortion, access, and choice, as well as protection against infringement upon these rights either by the law or by indirect efforts at preventing access to reproductive health services. A search on this terminology reveals a list of activists and legal advocates who have worked to expand and protect these rights.
Planned Parenthood is a nationwide network of more than 600 reproductive health services clinics. In addition to being the nation’s leading provider of reproductive health services, including abortions, Planned Parenthood is a politically active entity that works to expand access and advocate for protections for women seeking counsel and treatment.
Abortion rights refer to the legal right to terminate a pregnancy (as opposed to the more encompassing phrase, “reproductive rights.“). The search on this terminology yields an array of activists, legal advocates and physicians who have worked to defend and better define the rights accorded to women around abortion based on the initial precedent set in Roe V. Wade.
Roe v. Wade refers to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case in which a Texas woman successfully argued that laws restricting access to abortion in her home state were an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment right to privacy. This law has been frequently refined, and constantly challenged, but has remained the prevailing federal position on abortion since the authorship of its majority position. It remains a major flashpoint in the debate for both the Pro-Choice advocates who celebrate this precedent and the Pro-Choice movement which has worked to undermine or overturn it.
The Pro-Life movement is comprised of numerous activist groups, many with close ties to both the Evangelical branch of Christianity and the Republican Party. Groups like the Defense of Life and the March for Life take the position that abortion is the termination of a life, and should be treated as a criminal act. These organizations support candidates and lobby for legislation aimed at limiting access to abortion and challenging the current legal status quo at the federal level.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the abortion debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
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