What is Roe v. Wade?

On January 22 earlier this week, American and pro-life Catholic blogs commented on the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. What is Roe v. Wade actually, and what does it have to do with us in Singapore?

In summary, Roe v. Wade was a case argued in the U.S. Supreme Court which resulted in a landmark judicial opinion regarding privacy and abortion in the United States, according to the Wikipedia entry. According to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on January 22, 1973, most laws against abortion violated a constitutional right to privacy. The decision overturned all state and federal laws outlawing or restricting abortion that were inconsistent with its holdings.

Before Roe v. Wade, abortion was divided by law into two groups: therapeutic abortions and illegal abortions. Therapeutic abortions were defined in terms of direct threats to the mother’s life, and all other abortions were illegal.

So how did the U.S. law come from one which only allowed abortions on the condition that the mother’s life was threatened, to one that abortions are now allowed for whatever reason, no questions asked? This situation in the U.S. happens to be the situation in Singapore as well, hence the connection between Roe v. Wade and us in Singapore.

Much of this has to do with an American physician known as Alan Guttmacher, who served as the president of Planned Parenthood from 1962 to 1974, and vice-president of the American Eugenics Society. Under his direction, Planned Parenthood became the largest abortion provider in the world, and sought to make abortion services available to anyone for any reason. Guttmacher also founded the Association for the Study of Abortion in 1964, and was a member of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization, and had the Guttmacher Institute named after him.

In 1927, Guttmacher witnessed the death of a woman from a self-induced abortion. After this, he decided that “safe” legal abortions were the only compassionate alternative to illegal abortions. This is the main reason that Singapore legalized abortion.

By the early 1950s, two decades prior to Roe v. Wade, Guttmacher was at the very head of the drive to legalize abortion. In 1952, he was recruited by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital to become its first director of its newly combined obstetrics and gynecology department. He threw himself into the development of programmes on abortion, sterilization, and contraception.

Within three years, he was already regarded as a pioneer in the field of providing abortion services. In fact, his public espousal of abortion was so forceful, and the abortions he performed were so numerous that the hospital even asked Guttmacher to cease performing so many abortions, to avoid gaining a reputation as an abortion mill.

But how did he do it, 20 years prior to Roe v. Wade? Weren’t these abortions illegal? Not according to Guttmacher and many of the doctors at that time. What Guttmacher did was to apply the existing law at that time, which allowed for abortion when the mother’s life was directly in peril. He became one of the earliest abortion advocates to broaden the definition of “direct threat to the mother’s life” to a more general and indefinite threat to her “health”, including especially her psychological health. As such, he was able to break the law by continually bending it.

Hence, Guttmacher used the tactic of interpreting the definition of “therapeutic” so broadly that almost anything could be considered a “therapeutic” reason for allowing abortion.

Guttmacher was, of course, well aware that with the advance of medicine, there were far fewer cases where the life of a mother was directly threatened. In place of such direct threats, according to Guttmacher, many doctors at the midpoint of the 20th century had substituted “psychiatric indications” as a sufficient threat, not the life, but to the well-being of a pregnant woman.

Going further, and entirely beyond the existing laws, doctors like Guttmacher added eugenic considerations under the ever-expanding category of therapeutic abortions, even though the health status of the foetus did not directly endanger the life of the woman. This means that abortion was permissible if a baby carried a genetic disease. For Guttmacher, even the possibility of malformation of the baby was enough for him to perform an abortion.

However, bear in mind Guttmacher’s original reason for advocating abortion – he wanted to ensure that safe and legal abortions were made available for the poor and less fortunate. Sounds like a good enough reason to support abortion, doesn’t it?

Well, Guttmacher realised that expanding legal abortion through appeals to psychiatric reasons was quickly resulting in psychiatrists being the professional arbiters of almost all abortions. That, he thought, would only make the rich more able than the poor to procure an abortion. “I reluctantly concluded [in 1969] that the only way truly to democratize legal abortion and to reduce illegal abortion markedly is to establish abortion on request, removing abortion from the penal code,” he wrote in “Abortion: Odyseey of an Attitude”, Family Planning Perspectives 4, no. 4 (Oct. 1972):5-7.

In short, Guttmacher became an advocate of abortion on demand, no questions asked.

Guttmacher himself was especially proud of his role in pushing the country towards Roe v. Wade. This he did, in no small way, as a member of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Abortion Law Reform Panel in 1968. New York implemented the liberalization of abortion in 1970 and it became a model for abortion advocates all over the nation.

When the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, Guttmacher cited the “success” of the New York law (along with that of California) as the reason for the decision. He died in 1974, immensely satisfied that his efforts had resulted in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

- summarized and adapted from “Architects of the Culture of Death” by Donald de Marco and Benjamin Wiker, pgs 326-331

If you wish to find out more about what the Culture of Death is and how it came about, this is an excellent book to pick up. It gives a summary of various influential thinkers and how their philosophies were influenced more by a justification of their own experiences and a rejection of the existence of God.

Alan Guttmacher’s experience and influence shows us the danger of thinking that abortion is “alright” for reasons other than a direct threat to the mother’s life, because it is so easy to go from that to a threat to the woman’s well-being e.g. a teenage pregnancy causing the girl to give up her dreams.

For a healthy alternative to contraception, try Natural Family Planning (Singapore).


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4 Responses

  1. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is a United States law which defines violent assault committed against pregnant women as being a crime against two persons: the woman and the fetus she carries.

    This law was passed in 2004 after the murder of the then pregnant Laci Peterson and her fetus, Connor Peterson.

    If it is right for a man (or woman) to be charged for homicide and sentenced to prison
    ( or worse) for killing the unborn (and rightfully so) then the unborn should have equil consideration in relation to abortion..

    I don’t get it,
    Is a fetus earmarked for abortion of any less value to a fetus killed by violence.
    Is not abortion a violent attack on an inocent life just the same.

    It’s just not ethical to protect one without the other…..they’re one and the same……..

  2. Hi ausblog,

    I don’t get it either. Law is a strange thing…

    God bless,
    Catholic Writer

  3. Before Roe v. Wade, abortion was divided by law into two groups: therapeutic abortions and illegal abortions. Therapeutic abortions were defined in terms of direct threats to the mother’s life, and all other abortions were illegal.

    I have to correct you here. Colorado allowed abortion for “mental health” excuses, via a hospital committee, starting in 1968. California and New York both legalized abortion-on-demand in 1970.

  4. Upon the lifting of all ban to Abortion by the US Supreme Court what was the stand of the Catholic church on this issue?

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