The Overturning of Roe v. Wade

Panel puts loss of abortion rights in historical context and looks to the future

A woman’s right to obtain an abortion is ingrained in American legal history, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade threatens the well-being of millions of women and children. Those were the observations offered by one retired and two current Vassar professors who hosted a webinar on June 29 on the recent court decision.

“Abortion rights are deeply rooted in this country’s history, and to say otherwise is factually wrong,” Eloise Ellery Professor of History Rebecca Edwards said in her opening remarks during the hour-long event.

Edwards noted that when the American colonies were settled, English common law had affirmed the right to an abortion before the “quickening,” when women can first feel the fetus about four months into their pregnancies. “None of the founding fathers ever challenged this doctrine,” she said.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that some physicians began to call for the criminalization of abortion, principally because they feared that white women weren’t having enough babies. “The doctors’ goal was to persuade women that it was patriotic to bear as many children as possible so the other races would not outpace them,” Edwards said.

Miriam Cohen, Evalyn Clark Professor Emerita of History, said the emerging women’s movement of the 1950s and 1960s had helped to lead to the Supreme Court to hand down the Roe V. Wade decision in 1973. “Access (to abortion) became a right of self-determination,” Cohen said. 

Cohen said it was noteworthy that those opposing abortion also often oppose supporting the children after they are born. “The right-to-life movement shows little commitment to programs that help children,” she said. “Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose parental leave and healthcare funding.”

Katie Hite, Professor of Political Science on the F. Thompson Chair, said she had experienced the social stigma attached to abortion herself, declining to tell her own children that she had had an abortion until they were well into their teens. She said those who support abortion rights hadn’t done enough to counter the anti-abortion movement. “Pro-choice advocates are often on the defensive, and the Democratic Party leadership has been flatfooted” in countering the political movement that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she said.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the professors’ remarks, Cohen and Edwards observed that those likely to be adversely affected the most by the court’s decision will be women of color and others who face economic challenges. “When barriers are erected,” Edwards said, “those barriers will be more burdensome for people who are disadvantaged.”

When a member of the audience asked the panel how the struggle for abortion rights interacts with the rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community, Cohen answered that they are closely aligned. “To some extent, these social movements were connected at the time of the women’s liberation movement and the LGBTQ uprising,” she said. 

Edwards agreed. “In legal terms, all of this is connected,” she said. “The best way to protect others’ rights is to make sure people understand this one (the overturning of Roe v. Wade) was a mistake.”


July 6, 2022