By Thomas Cassara, Contributing Writer
This Thursday, The Eisenhower Institute invited Dr. Geoffrey R. Stone to speak about Roe v. Wade in Mara auditorium in celebration of Constitution Day. Stone, an accomplished lawyer and Constitutional scholar, discussed the history of abortion, birth control, and the supreme court’s decisions on cases regarding abortion rights.
According to Stone, contraception and abortion were widely accepted since the days of the Ancient Greeks. However, Stone chose to focus mostly on its transition through the 17th to 21st centuries in the western world. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Stone explained that abortion was common and accepted in society as a form of birth control to avoid illegitimate births and excessive family sizes. Contraceptive pills, albeit rudimentary, were easily accessible at the time.
Stone stated that abortion has only become a controversial issue in recent centuries because of The Second Great Awakening and a Republican political strategy in the 20th century. During the Second Great Awakening, which occurred during the early 19th century, Evangelicals changed their stance on abortion. At the time, it was accepted that life began around the four-month mark. However, this changing religious philosophy lead to a the new perspective that life begins at conception.
This ideological conflict bled into the American government which put severe regulations on abortion at the federal and state levels at the turn of the 20th century, Stone explained. These restrictions forced women to either carry their pregnancies to term or attempt to find an illegal abortion in order to terminate their unwanted pregnancy. Illegal abortions were often dangerous, posing a serious health risk to the mother. Most of these back-alley abortions were provided by non-medical professionals using rudimentary tools. During the 1950s, 200 women died each year from botched abortions.
With this in mind, The United Methodists changed their stance on abortion back to providing more choice if the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother. American Baptists were okay with abortion no matter what believing the choice should be up to women and their physicians, as protecting the mothers from relying on back-alley abortions. Catholics on the other hand rejected abortion out right, believing it to be a sin regardless of circumstance.
These deaths led to a steady support for decriminalizing abortion at the federal level. Interestingly, in the years leading up to Roe, 59 percent of Democrats supported decriminalizing abortion and contraceptives, while 68 percent of Republicans supported decriminalization. This disparity was due to a significant portion of the Democratic party being made up of Catholics.
During the 1968 presidential election, these Catholic Democrats were threatening to become single-issue voters. Nixon saw an opportunity to weaken his opposition and flipped the party to take an anti-abortion stance. Stone believed this to be a deciding factor in the 1968 election. Much to Nixon’s and his supporter’s surprise, out of the four justices appointed by Nixon, three voted in favor of Roe v. Wade. Continuing the trend, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., an Eisenhower appointee, also voted in favor of Roe.
Today, Americans are divided over the issue of abortion. Stone broke down both perspectives regarding the Court’s decision during his presentation and explained why he felt pro-choice proponents are correct.
Regarding the pro-life movement, Stone stated, “Opponents maintain the Court invented a Constitutional right where it does not exist”. Stone countered this by citing the right to privacy. When later questioned by a student on where the right to privacy exists in the Constitution, Stone explained that it does not exist under its own amendment; rather, it exists under the ninth amendment, which grants citizens all other rights not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Stone clarified that this definition of privacy “has less to do with secrecy and more to do with personal autonomy”.
Regarding the pro-choice movement, Stone stated, “Supporters argue it was a perfectly sound decision, maintaining an important constitutional right of women”. This position would be supported by Stone’s argument that the right to privacy comes from the Ninth Amendment.