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Beyond Abortion: <i>Roe v. Wade</i> and the Battle for Privacy

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For most Americans today, Roe v. Wade concerns just one thing: the right to choose abortion. But the Supreme Court’s decision once meant much more. The justices ruled that the right to privacy encompassed the abortion decision. Grassroots activists and politicians used Roe—and popular interpretations of it—as raw material in answering much larger questions: Is there a righ For most Americans today, Roe v. Wade concerns just one thing: the right to choose abortion. But the Supreme Court’s decision once meant much more. The justices ruled that the right to privacy encompassed the abortion decision. Grassroots activists and politicians used Roe—and popular interpretations of it—as raw material in answering much larger questions: Is there a right to privacy? For whom, and what is protected? As Mary Ziegler demonstrates, Roe’s privacy rationale attracted a wide range of citizens demanding social changes unrelated to abortion. Movements questioning hierarchies based on sexual orientation, profession, class, gender, race, and disability drew on Roe to argue for an autonomy that would give a voice to the vulnerable. So did advocates seeking expanded patient rights and liberalized euthanasia laws. Right-leaning groups also invoked Roe’s right to choose, but with a different agenda: to attack government involvement in consumer protection, social welfare, racial justice, and other aspects of American life. In the 1980s, seeking to unify a fragile coalition, the Republican Party popularized the idea that Roe was a symbol of judicial tyranny, discouraging anyone from relying on the decision to frame their demands. But Beyond Abortion illuminates the untapped potential of arguments that still resonate today. By recovering the diversity of responses to Roe, and the legal and cultural battles it energized, Ziegler challenges readers to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that privacy belongs to no party or cause.


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For most Americans today, Roe v. Wade concerns just one thing: the right to choose abortion. But the Supreme Court’s decision once meant much more. The justices ruled that the right to privacy encompassed the abortion decision. Grassroots activists and politicians used Roe—and popular interpretations of it—as raw material in answering much larger questions: Is there a righ For most Americans today, Roe v. Wade concerns just one thing: the right to choose abortion. But the Supreme Court’s decision once meant much more. The justices ruled that the right to privacy encompassed the abortion decision. Grassroots activists and politicians used Roe—and popular interpretations of it—as raw material in answering much larger questions: Is there a right to privacy? For whom, and what is protected? As Mary Ziegler demonstrates, Roe’s privacy rationale attracted a wide range of citizens demanding social changes unrelated to abortion. Movements questioning hierarchies based on sexual orientation, profession, class, gender, race, and disability drew on Roe to argue for an autonomy that would give a voice to the vulnerable. So did advocates seeking expanded patient rights and liberalized euthanasia laws. Right-leaning groups also invoked Roe’s right to choose, but with a different agenda: to attack government involvement in consumer protection, social welfare, racial justice, and other aspects of American life. In the 1980s, seeking to unify a fragile coalition, the Republican Party popularized the idea that Roe was a symbol of judicial tyranny, discouraging anyone from relying on the decision to frame their demands. But Beyond Abortion illuminates the untapped potential of arguments that still resonate today. By recovering the diversity of responses to Roe, and the legal and cultural battles it energized, Ziegler challenges readers to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that privacy belongs to no party or cause.

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