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How G.O.P. Support for Decriminalizing Abortion Faded Over Decades

Few can imagine it today, but on the eve of the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, more Republicans than Democrats supported decriminalizing abortion.

That nugget comes from a fascinating new work of historical, legal and political analysis recently published in The Yale Law Journal by Linda Greenhouse, a former Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times and a sought-after opinion writer who now teaches at Yale Law School.

The paper, which Greenhouse wrote with Reva B. Siegel, a law professor and colleague in New Haven, is based on and updating the second edition of their book on the same subject

Greenhouse and Siegel tell the story of how GOP strategists decided in the early 1970s that the party could attract new Republican voters by making a play for Catholics and evangelicals centered on abortion.

It took about 10 years for this new political coalition to coalesce with the rise of Ronald Reagan, they write — driven by the emerging alliance between Evangelical Christians and Catholics.

In a particularly revealing passage, they point out how George Gallup, the trailblazing pollster, noted in a column published in The Washington Post on August 25, 1972—nearly five months before the court published its ruling in the Roe case—that 64 percent of Americans, and 56 percent of Catholics, agreed with the statement “the decision to have an abortion should be made only by a woman and her doctor.”

At 68 percent, a higher proportion of Republicans agreed with that statement than Democrats, at 59 percent, Gallup added.

Today, those numbers look very different. According to polls by the Gallup Organization released early this month: 58 percent of Republicans supported the overthrow of Roe, a record, compared to 15 percent of Democrats.

Greenhouse came across a clipping of George Gallup’s column among Justice Harry Blackmun’s court papers while working on a series for The Times, which later became the basis for a biography she wrote on the life and influence of the liberal judge on the bench.

Blackmun was, of course, the main author of the Roe decision, the fall of which on Friday sent political shockwaves.

Greenhouse said she didn’t know why Blackmun’s papers included the poll.

“But what I suppose it underlined at the time,” she said, “was that abortion was not an overburdened issue.”

“Every Republican president since Reagan has chosen a platform to elect those judges and judges who would vote to overthrow Roe,” Greenhouse said.

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On Politics regularly shows work by Times photographers. Here’s what Shuran Huang told us about capturing the image above:

Abortion rights and anti-abortion protesters arrived this morning to await the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.

As the crowd grew, both groups began to challenge each other. “My body, my choice,” the woman on the right shouted to the anti-abortion protesters.

About fifteen minutes later the decision was made.

Thank you for reading. We’ll see you Monday.

— Blake

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