One year after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun told the Washington Post that the ruling would be regarded “as one of the worst mistakes in the court’s history, or one of its great decisions, a turning point.”
After five decades of bitter political controversy, it is clear that Justice Blackmun was right. And that’s why, in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case pending before them, many predict that the high Court will overturn Roe and the abortion issue will be returned to the states for the first time in 49 years.
But how did we get here? How did almost 50 years of bad jurisprudence lead us to this point? Unsurprisingly, the pro-abortion movement in the United States began with a vote at a feminist convention. But the details of that convention may surprise you.
The errors that led up to — and later became embedded within — Roe v. Wade began with a man convincing a woman that women needed abortion. Betty Friedan (who essentially launched the modern feminist movement in 1963 with her book The Feminine Mystique) was convinced by fellow magazine writer Lawrence Lader (a co-founder of what’s now called NARAL Pro-Choice America) that abortion laws needed to be overturned for women to be “emancipated” and “equal.”
Lader worked for years to get Friedan to embrace his abortion cause as a right all women needed. In 1966, he published a book titled Abortion: The first authoritative and documented report on the laws and practices governing abortion in the US. and around the world, and how–for the sake of women everywhere–they can and must be reformed. The book included a fabricated legal history invented by a former NARAL attorney, Cyril Chestnut Means, and was filled with lies and propaganda.
That whopping subtitle says it all. Lader, a biographer of the founder of Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger, set out to overturn abortion laws in every state. While Friedan was quite impressed with his book, she still wasn’t entirely convinced the call to repeal all abortion laws should be part of the women’s movement. But that didn’t stop Lader.
While on a roadtrip in October of 1967, Lader told Dr. Bernard Nathanson (an abortionist who later became pro-life) that if they wanted their abortion crusade to succeed, they had to “recruit the feminists.” According to Dr. Nathanson, Lader added, “Friedan has to put her troops into this thing — while she still has control of them.” At that time, Friedan was president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Although we don’t know exactly what Lader said or did to bring Friedan completely on board, we do know he finally convinced her to join his cause.
And on November 18, 1967, in a meeting in the Chinese Room of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Friedan rammed the demand to repeal all abortion laws into NOW’s “Bill of Rights.” The issue was hotly debated, but Friedan (a veritable powerhouse when she believed in a cause) dominated the meeting. When a vote was finally taken shortly before midnight, the final tally was 57 to 14 in favor of repealing all abortion laws.
Yes, you read that correctly: the demand to repeal all abortion laws in every state in the nation was inserted into the 1960s feminist movement by a mere 57 people.
What’s more surprising, approximately one-third of the ardent feminists in that room walked out and later resigned from NOW over the abortion vote. One member of the board of directors — Ohio attorney Betty Boyer — resigned from NOW after what she described as “a shouting match.” [If you’d like a more detailed account of this story, see Chapter 5 — “A Fly on the Wall of the Chinese Room” — in my book Subverted.]
So let’s be very clear about what happened here: from the very moment it was inserted into the feminist list of political demands, the abortion “right” was bitterly controversial. It was opposed not only by so-called anti-feminists (as the media later framed the story), but also by many liberated, working women who were among the initial leaders of the 1960s feminist movement.
By recruiting the feminists, Lader achieved what he set out to do and brought his abortion cause into the media spotlight. But more important, he achieved his goal largely by promoting an erroneous abortion-law history, which went on to provide the foundation for many of the arguments in Roe v. Wade. In Roe, Lader’s book is cited at least seven times and Cyril Means’ error-ridden abortion history is cited another seven times.
This goes a long way toward explaining why Princeton University Professor Robert George predicted in a recent essay last October that “Roe Will Go.”
“The Constitution defines no right to elective abortion, much less one so sweeping,” George observes. “And the precedents cited by Roe — even the most lawless ones — did not come close to supporting a right to any activity so harmful to innocent third parties.” One of Means’ articles, George writes, “was so recent [in 1973] that no actual scholar had been able to examine its sources, and so flawed that it was said to ‘fudge’ the history… Once scrutinized, the writer’s sources crumbled, as did Roe’s historical claims, as shown in multiple scholarly refutations.”
As you read this article, approximately 2,363 unique, unrepeatable human beings are being killed each day in the womb in the U.S. through abortion. The deaths of these defenseless little people may set certain men and even fewer women “free” to have sex without love or responsibility. But these same deaths often traumatize the mother, leaving her with physical and interior emotional scars.
After nearly 50 years of Roe, it is clear: abortion hurts women. That’s why it is so ironic that the movement that culminated in Roe began with a contentious debate at a feminist convention.
Sue Ellen Browder is former writer for Cosmopolitan magazine and author of “Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement.”