Lee Epstein
Lee Epsteing Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor
Published in 1985. In The Reagan Administration and Human Rights, ed. Tinsely E. Yarbrough. New York: Praeger. (Revised version of a paper delivered at the 1984 meeting of the American Political Science Association.)

Karen O'Connor
Lee Epstein


Roe v. Wade.  No student of the political process can hear the name of this case without conjuring up the debate that has raged since the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its momentous decision on January 22, 1973.  On that date, a majority of the Court, in effect, struck down all restrictive state abortion laws.

Much has been written about the events leading to Roe.  Many of those accounts have credited the loosely formed coalition of diverse pro-choice groups with setting the stage for the 1973 decision.  To some degree, this is true.  Beginning in the mid-1960s, a strong pro-choice movement gained momentum, attracting new constituencies yearly.  And this movement faced little organized opposition.  Most commentators, in fact, were quick to point out that a true pro-life movement did not begin until the 1973 decision catalyzed abortion foes to act.  Thus, in part, up until 1973, the scales were unbalanced; the pro-choice forces clearly had the upper hand.

Other factors contributing to the pro-choice movement’s victory in Roe v. Wade, however, were present in 1973.  The included: (1) The zero population growth ethos.  At that time many believed that the earth’s resources were insufficient to support the rapidly growing population.  For some, therefore, it was not taboo to view legalized abortion as a way in which to control further growth.  (2) Media exposure.  A major aspect of the abortion movement emphasized by the media was the inability of the poor to obtain safe abortions.  Regular attention was given to the horrors of back alley abortions, increasing sympathy for the cause.  (3) The growth of the women’s rights movement.  As the women’s movement gained increasing clout in the United States, so too did its demands for reproductive freedom, which included a woman’s right to choose.  Into the early 1970s, in fact, abortion on demand came to be one of its major goals.  (4) Medical advances.  In the early 1970s, a plethora of studies indicated that properly performed abortions were less risky to a woman’s health than carrying a pregnancy to term.  Thus, science or safety could no longer be used to justify restrictive laws.  (5) Public opinion.  Public opinion polls taken a year before Roe v. Wade indicated that most Americans favored abortions in some circumstances, although it is probable that the electorate would not have gone as far as the Supreme Court did in giving women nearly unqualified rights during the first two trimesters of pregnancy.  For these and probably many more reasons, legal abortion became a reality in 1973. 

The purpose of this chapter is not to retrace old ground, particularly when that story has been so well told.  Rather, it is to look beyond Roe and to examine the status of the abortion issue in the context of the Reagan administration- a particularly significant concern given President Reagan’s professed total commitment to reversing Roe and the fact that he has been stymied in his efforts even though all the elements for policy change were in place at the time of his election.  An additional goal of this chapter, then, is to examine why the Reagan administration has been unable to reverse abortion policy.

To accomplish our goals, we trace the status of abortion from 1973 to 1980 and then from 1980 to 1984.  We do this by examining each of the five elements noted as essential for policy change: public opinion, interest groups, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch.  Our analysis reveals that by the time Ronal Reagan took office in early 1981, the elements considered crucial for policy change weighed in his favor.  Public opinion leaned toward the pro-life position, the pro-life movement was invigorated, the Senate was controlled by Republicans, and the Supreme Court in several recent decisions had indicated its willingness to limit Roe.  Even though all the elements for policy change were propitious in 1980, however, by 1984 the pro-life movement lost much of its luster.  As we shall see, this can be explained, in part, by the largely symbolic nature of the Reagan administration’s support for change in abortion policy.    

Click here for the chapter (.pdf).
Click here for the conference paper (.pdf).