On Saturday, the New York Times previewed the hoopla that will accompany arguments about marriage equality in the Supreme Court this week in an article entitled "Shadow of Roe v. Wade Looms Over Ruling on Gay Marriage."
The article goes on to acknowledge that there are differences in the political climate and in political discussion of same-sex marriage, even though the opponents of equality -- Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant, and other traditionalist religious groups -- are very much the same forces that have tried for forty years to substitute fetal personhood for women's control of our reproduction.
The meme sent me running to Professor Kristin Luker's Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, a 1985 study that I consider the essential history of the earlier phases of the abortion debate.
Luker sets the stage for the 1973 Roe decision by tracing the legal history of abortion in the U.S. This country only acquired laws against abortion in the late 1800s as a byproduct of the medical profession's effort to kick a variety of competitors -- homeopaths, chiropractors, midwives -- out of the business of healthcare. University trained doctors didn't really have much to offer patients until the early 1900s, but they wanted exclusive rights and used the state governments to get them.
The abortion prohibitions allowed doctors discretion to conclude that some physical or mental impediment made the procedure indicated. Abortion wasn't something people talked about; it was a dirty secret. Because doctors didn't discuss openly the criteria they used to make exceptions to the laws and accorded each other the professional courtesy of not asking, individual doctors evolved different definitions of necessity for abortions. Meanwhile women continued to attempt self-abortion (think knitting needles) and to pay dangerous quacks to enable them to escape pregnancy.
Pressure for state-by-state reform of abortion laws only evolved in the 1950s and early 60s as doctors began to understand that they had very different views of the practice. The women's movement was not really launched until the end of the 1960s by which time medical professional advocates had won liberalized abortion laws in California and New York. Doctors who believed in liberalized abortion had achieved legal cover for their activities. Only the rudiments of an activist movement in favor of women being central to the decision to give birth had come into being when the Supreme Court legalized the practice, as a right for the woman and her doctor, in 1973.
Only then did opponents of legal abortion organize themselves to try to overthrow the Court's judgement. Opponents simply had not imagined that any substantial set of people believed women should have the option to decide when to raise a child. From Luker:
Because a fraction of the population that was politically uninvolved was totally dumbstruck by evolving professional opinion as embodied in the decision, there was huge space in which an anti-abortion movement could grow. Pro-choice women were not much better organized yet either and took some time to rally themselves against their unexpected foes.
The current decision about marriage equality will come in a very different environment. We've been arguing about same-sex marriage for 20 years in the public square -- more or less since Hawaii's highest court decided for legalization in 1993 and sent their legislature scurrying to stop it. We've fought elections over marriage equality for years, first losing, then winning in the ultimate court of public opinion. Progressive religious denominations have affirmed marriage bonds between LGBT couples. Opinion polls show 58 percent of us now support the novelty.
What this means is that there is no currently silent constituency that will be awakened by a pro-marriage equality decision. This is not like the abortion debate. It may take some years to work all the legal kinks out, but marriage equality is coming.