50 Years Ago, While America Slept, ‘Roe v. Wade’ Began to Transform the Nation

Consequential as it was, Roe got scant press attention when it first came before the Supreme Court in December 1971

New York Times headlines from Dec. 14, 1971 (l) and Jan. 23, 1973
New York Times headlines from Dec. 14, 1971 (l) and Jan. 23, 1973 (photo: The New York Times / Screenshots)

If tradition holds, then the Supreme Court justices may have already decided Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, though it will likely be months before any of us know the outcome.

The nine justices heard oral arguments in the closely watched abortion case on Dec. 1. If the court followed its usual practice, the justices would have gathered on Dec. 3, to conduct a preliminary vote on the case and assign a member of the majority to write the opinion.

It may be late June or early July before the Dobbs decision comes down. What to do, then, in the meantime? One suggestion is to look back while we’re looking forward.

Dobbs looms so large because it has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that swept away the abortion restrictions in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Listening to the live audio stream of the Dec. 1 arguments, one could almost believe that Roe had been decided 48 months, not 48 years, ago. The emotions surrounding the case remain that raw.

But America is a much different place than it was in the early 1970s.

Consequential as it was, Roe merited comparatively scant attention in the press when it initially came before the Supreme Court.

The first oral arguments in the case took place Dec. 13, 1971. The following day, Dec. 14, The New York Times published a report on the proceeding on page 21. The un-bylined story was titled “2 SUITS CONTEST BANS ON ABORTION.”

“The Supreme Court was asked today virtually to sweep away the states’ antiabortion laws by ruling that it is unconstitutional for the government to interfere with women’s control over their own bodies,” is how the article begins.

“In arguments over the constitutionality of the antiabortion laws of Texas and Georgia, two women lawyers challenged the statutes. If their grounds were adopted by the Court, the result would probably be to invalidate all laws that restrict physicians in performing therapeutic abortions,” the article continues. Neither the lawyers nor any of the justices are quoted in the story.

The article notes that in 1971 only four states permitted abortion on demand: Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington.

The Times did publish a court story on page 1 that day.

Headlined “Appeals Court Throws Out Rule Sending Little Leaguer to Bench,” the article concerned “diminutive 11-year-old” Arnold Paglia, a second baseman for the Richmond Funeral Home baseball team of the Staten Island Little League. The league suspended him because his father failed to attend “work parties” with other dads to maintain the ballfield.

The appeals court ordered that Arnold be reinstated to the team.

“Arnold, a dark-haired 65-pounder who stands 4 feet inches, welcomed the news with the aplomb of a big leaguer,” the Times reported.

Simpler days.

Other news of the day included coverage of a massive fire in the New York financial district that forced the evacuation of 7,000 people, and fierce fighting between India and Pakistan.

There was also an article about Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, Pope Paul VI’s vicar for Rome, announcing a “disciplinary crackdown” on priests, friars and nuns in the city. Responding to recent reports in secular newspapers about misbehavior by clergy and religious, the cardinal urged them to “offer an example of an austere life and of clear withdrawal from any compromise with evil, whatever its form.” 

“Church authorities — and, reportedly, Pope Paul VI personally — were especially displeased by press coverage of the case of a priest who was arrested in a local movie theater earlier this month and is being held on a morals charge,” the Times reported. “Mass-circulation newspapers reported that the priest had been in civilian clothes and that the feature was a rerun of ‘Some Like It Hot,’ the Marilyn Monroe film.”

As it turned out, the Supreme Court had to rehear arguments in Roe 10 months later, on Oct. 11, 1972, after the justices were unable to reach an agreement in the case.

The 7-2 decision invalidating state abortion bans was released just three months later, on Jan. 22, 1973.

That same day, former President Lyndon B. Johnson died of an apparent heart attack at his Texas ranch. His passing got top billing on the front page of the Times the following day, but beneath that banner headline was another one: “High Court Rules Abortion Legal the First 3 Months.”

“The majority rejected the idea that a fetus becomes [a] ‘person’ upon conception and is thus entitled to the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Constitution,” the Times reported.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Byron White called the decision “an exercise of raw judicial power.” He lamented that “the Court apparently values the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence and development of the life or potential life which she carries.”

In an accompanying story in the Times, Cardinal Terrence Cooke of New York called the decision “shocking” and “horrifying,” while Cardinal John Krol described it as “an unspeakable tragedy for this nation.”

For pro-life Americans, the days have been anything but simple since then.

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