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Abortion: Reform vs. Repeal

Protection of Women or Feminist Justice?

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Abortion Protest March

Photograph from an abortion protest march in New York City, 1977.

Peter Keegan / Getty Images

What was the difference between reform of abortion laws and repeal of abortion laws?

The distinction was important to feminists during the 1960s and early 1970s. Many people were working to reform century-old abortion laws throughout the United States, but some activists argued that these attempts at reform disregarded the autonomy of women and supported men's continued control over women. A better goal, the feminist activists insisted, was the repeal of all laws that restricted women's reproductive freedom.

A Movement for Abortion Reform

Although a few stalwart individuals had spoken out quite early for abortion rights, the widespread call for abortion reform began during the middle of the 20th century. During the late 1950s, the American Law Institute worked to establish a model penal code, which proposed that abortion be legal when:

  1. The pregnancy resulted from rape or incest
  2. The pregnancy gravely impaired the physical or mental health of the woman
  3. The child would be born with serious mental or physical defects or deformities

A few states reformed their abortion laws based on the ALI's model code, with Colorado leading the way in 1967. However, many feminists rejected these attempts at abortion reform, not just because they did not "go far enough" but because they were still based entirely on a concept of women being protected by men and subject to the scrutiny of men. Reform was harmful to women, because it reinforced the idea that women must ask permission from men.

Repeal the Abortion Laws

Instead, feminism called for repeal of abortion laws. Feminists wanted abortion to be legal because they wanted justice for women based on freedom and individual rights, not a hospital medical board's decision of whether a woman should be granted an abortion.

Groups such as the National Organization for Women began to work for repeal. The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws was founded in 1969. Known as NARAL, the group's name changed to the National Abortion Rights Action League after the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry published a position paper about abortion in 1969 called "The Right to Abortion: A Psychiatric View." Women's liberation groups such as Redstockings held "abortion speak-outs" and insisted that women's voices be heard alongside men's.

Lucinda Cisler

Lucinda Cisler was a key activist who often wrote about the need for repeal of abortion laws. She claimed that public opinion about abortion was distorted because of the framing of the debate. A pollster might ask, "Under what circumstances would you favor a woman having an abortion?" Lucinda Cisler imagined asking "Do you favor freeing a slave when his bondage is (1)injurious to his physical health…?" and so on. Instead of asking how we can justify abortion, she wrote, we should be asking how we can justify compulsory child bearing.

"The proponents of change always pictured women as victims -- of rape, or of rubella, or of heart disease or mental illness -- never as possible shapers of their own destinies."
- Lucinda Cisler in "Unfinished Business: Birth Control and Women's Liberation" published in the 1970 anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful

Repeal vs. Reform: Finding Justice

In addition to defining women as needing to be somehow "protected," abortion reform laws took for granted state control of the fetus at some point. Furthermore, activists who challenged old abortion laws now had the added difficulty of challenging additional reformed-but-still-flawed abortion laws, too.

Although reform, modernization or liberalization of abortion laws sounded good, feminist activists insisted that repeal of abortion laws was the true justice for women.

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