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'Throughline': The history of abortion after 1973


The Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade transformed the abortion rights landscape overnight. The people who opposed those rights were deeply shaken and newly motivated. In the years since Roe, they began advocating their cause more broadly to bring more people into the movement and gain political power. Today, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei at NPR's history podcast Throughline take us back to that time to help us understand how what happened then paved the way for the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe.

BERNARD ROSENFELD: My name's Bernhard Rosenfeld. I'm a board certified OB-GYN doctor. I'm an abortion provider.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: And you're talking to us from Texas.


ABDELFATAH: Houston. How long have you lived in Houston?

ROSENFELD: Now 40 years.

ABDELFATAH: So 40 years ago would have been in, I guess, the early '80s.


ABDELFATAH: In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president.


JOHN CHANCELLOR: We have projected Ronald Reagan the winner.

ABDELFATAH: It was a victory for opponents of abortion rights. As a candidate, Reagan had made opposition to abortion rights an important part of his campaign, even though he supported laws to expand abortion rights while governor of California.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: So when he won the presidency, it signaled the beginning of a new era for the movement.

ABDELFATAH: And for Dr. Rosenfeld, who had carried out abortions in Michigan, Maryland and even Reagan's home state, California, before landing in Texas, something seemed to be changing on the ground.

ROSENFELD: The anti-abortion groups started picketing the clinics and then even started picketing my home. So it really exploded.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, ma'am, can I give you some information? Young lady, whatever your circumstances are, would you just be willing to come talk with us?

ABDELFATAH: They called themselves sidewalk counselors and stood outside clinics to intervene before a woman had an abortion.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There have probably been lots of voices urging you to abort your child. But we're here to talk with you about whatever the situation is that makes you feel that's necessary.

JENNIFER HOLLAND: They coordinate between all the anti-abortion groups in the city so that someone always takes a day, and so someone is protesting all the time.

ARABLOUEI: Jennifer Holland is the author of the book "Tiny You: A Western History Of The Anti-Abortion Movement." She says the movement was adopting a strategy in the early 1980s that placed women alongside the fetus as victims and abortion providers as the ones with blood on their hands.

HOLLAND: Reagan passed his laws, giving more room to activists, especially in schools.

ABDELFATAH: But by the mid-1980s...

HOLLAND: Roe has been sort of the law of the land for a decade or more.

KARISSA HAUGEBERG: So if you were anti-abortion in 1986, you would wonder, like, you know, I've done everything. I've gone through the - you know, the traditional levers.

ABDELFATAH: This is Karissa Haugeberg, author of "Women Against Abortion: Inside The Largest Moral Reform Movement Of The 20th Century."

HAUGEBERG: I voted for an anti-abortion president, maybe anti-abortion senators, and nothing has changed.

HOLLAND: This is the moment when a certain segment embraces what they call the rescue movement.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: Earlier this month, hundreds affiliated with a group called Operation Rescue staged anti-abortion demonstrations in New York City.

ARABLOUEI: Carole Joffe, author of "Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America," says...

CAROLE JOFFE: Their mission was to end abortion.


RANDALL TERRY: The judges, the politicians, they're getting the signal, as is Planned Parenthood, NOW, ACLU, etc. Legalized child-killing's days are numbered. We will win.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: This CBN News exclusive footage shows a clinic worker arriving just before 7 a.m. to open the doors. She is met by the sight of protesters blocking those doors. The confrontation you are seeing resulted...

HOLLAND: You know, constant harassing phone calls, glue in locks, sometimes actually going in and chaining themselves to equipment.

PHIL LEAHY: We would sit down and it was, you know, the sit-in movement in the in the '60s with - it was the civil rights movement, and it was more or less the same thing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Help us, oh, God.

ROSENFELD: They destroyed property. They put garden hoses on our roof and wrecked the roofs.



ROSENFELD: You know, had chemicals that they threw.

LEAHY: And then there would be arrests, and we'd just spend time in jail.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #3: Police did arrest 275 protesters at this demonstration. Six hundred ninety more were arrested at...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Reform our country, God, before it's too late. Amen.

JOFFE: The first abortion doctor was killed in Pensacola, Fla., in March '93.

HAUGEBERG: So one thing that I think a lot of people don't understand is that there has been an undercurrent of violence to the anti-abortion movement since it began. So even in the 1960s, I found evidence of people sending hate mail, wishing people who were publicly identified as pro-choice or having had an abortion - sending the messages saying, like, you're going to hell; I hope you die, that sort of thing.

HOLLAND: But, you know, once it escalates to kidnapping and murder, that really did pose a real problem for the mainstream movement.

DANEEN DOLCIE: They picture me with six guns on my hips and bombs in my hand, you know? That's just not us. But that's what they want to see.

HOLLAND: They had to imagine these people as, you know, what I think the media calls, like, lone wolves - mentally unstable people and people who were marginal, not sort of a real part of the movement.

DOLCIE: But there will always be those people.

ABDELFATAH: In 1994, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Freedom of Access to Abortion Clinic Entrances Act, which made it a federal crime to use physical force, threaten or obstruct someone from getting an abortion. That didn't mean protesters couldn't stand outside of clinics. But there were now more barriers against the worst kind of violence and vandalism. Despite that, violence would continue to plague clinics over the coming decades.


ARABLOUEI: And it put the abortion issue front and center in the national conversation. With the violent wing of the movement facing more scrutiny, mainstream activists doubled down on their political ambitions, working within the system to make ending abortion and getting rid of Roe a central issue for the Republican Party.


FADEL: Those were Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can hear the whole episode on the podcast Throughline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.