The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020 caused a resurgence of the long-standing debate over abortion in the United States, especially because it happened merely two months before the presidential election which could confirm Donald Trump for a second mandate. Trump’s first electoral campaign partially revolved around the promise to restructure the Supreme Court’s composition, and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as Bader Ginsburg’s substitute reignited the hopes of those seeing in the increasingly conservative makeup of the court a secure pro-life solution to the abortion debate.
Mary Ziegler opens her work, Abortion and the Law in America, by clarifying that what we tend to consider as a dispute ignited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade actually began in the 19th century, when abortion, a practice sought mainly by ‘white, married, and middle-class or wealthy’ (12) women, was already a contested issue. What shifted after Roe was the focus of the battle fought by pro-lifers who, instead of pursuing a hardly attainable constitutional amendment, began prioritising the supposed harms caused by abortion to women and society. In the 1970s, abortion helped bring to light the polarisation existing at the societal level around the issues of the welfare state and governmental assistance. Abortion-rights supporters began insisting on the harms caused by restrictions to the educational, professional, and economic development of women, while pro-lifers were obtaining significant victories at the state level.
By presenting the succession of provisions and landmark decisions that stemmed from Roe and helped shape the abortion debate, Ziegler sheds light on the changes to the role of women in the twentieth century. Each chapter presents not only the opportunity to discuss pivotal political or judicial events, such as the Hyde Amendment (discussed in chapter 2), which established an incremental banning on the funding of abortion, or the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey (the focus of chapter 4), declaring the unconstitutionality of Pennsylvania’s requirement that a woman could undergo the abortion procedure only after having presented the husband’s consent. Through Ziegler’s detailed report of the judicial history of abortion, the reader can discern the developments of the place occupied by women both in the private and public sphere, how both families and society as a whole reacted to women’s demands for more independence, and how, in general, the abortion debate has been a debate around the rights and duties of the woman.
The latest pivotal change that affected the abortion debate happened in the first years of the twenty-first century, when pro-lifers began framing the claims of abortion-rights supporters as threats to their religious liberty (as explained in chapter 7). Focusing on the rights to religious freedom and freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment allowed the conservative movement to fight a sustained battle against Obama’s Affordable Care Act and proved to be a convincing frame to protest other issues, including the legalisation of gay marriage. In recent years, particularly following the election of Donald Trump, the debate over abortion and the fate of Roe v. Wade has revived. As Ziegler concludes, however, this should not be looked at as a mere legal and constitutional battle, but as ‘a window into disagreements about poverty, personal responsibility, welfare reform, maturity, parenthood, marriage, the health care system, and the trustworthiness of the media and the government’ (211).
Ziegler’s work represents a conjunction of the main strains of the recent literature surrounding the abortion debate. Her book presents the life of real protagonists of the pro-life v. abortion-rights fight (in a similar way to Johanna Schoen’s 2015 Abortion after Roe), but also examines in depth the several milestone decisions that punctuated this social and ideological battle, in a detailed manner which reflects her expertise as a legal scholar and the more technical current of the literature (represented by works such as Abortion in the United States, edited by Philip Mullins, 2018, and the 2014 collection of essays In Search of Common Ground on Abortion). Moreover, Abortion and the Law in America allows the reader to acknowledge the developments of public discourse surrounding the issue throughout the decades (another crucial issue which is the focus of the 2017 The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics, by Andrew R. Lewis). The strength of Ziegler’s work lies in her ability to unite a rigorous recount of the legal events of the latter part of the twentieth century with clear description of the unfolding and development of the arguments that were exploited in the abortion debate.
This book appears at a pivotal moment for the debate surrounding the legality and accessibility of abortion, as Trump’s touted agenda involving the Supreme Court reinforced the conviction that the fate of abortion practice lies in the decision of nine justices. As Ziegler’s work clarifies, the abortion debate should be considered as a mirror of the ideological and political polarisation sweeping through the United States; a climate which has been exacerbated by the atomising figure of Donald Trump. Behind the abortion debate hide not the beliefs of the Supreme Court, or of other courts throughout the nation, but the ideological forces that shape the democratic debate as a whole and the future of sexual and gender equality, race relations, and the role of the state in the lives of citizens.