When Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse ended her 30-year career covering the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts, a Harvard graduate, wished her well in her new job at "one of the best law schools in New Haven."
Now, on the 40th anniversary of the high court's history-making abortion decision, Greenhouse and Yale Law School co-author Reva Siegel have produced Before Roe v. Wade. This collection of historic materials and commentary takes the reader back to the political, religious and popular thinking of the time. Greenhouse found that the issue then wasn't seen in 1973 as it is now as a womens' rights issue, or a fetal life matter but more of a decision about professionalism and progress. The judges didn't see why their medical counterparts had to face criminal charges for undertaking some of that profession's most difficult treatment decisions.
Greenhouse, Yale's distinguished journalist in residence, is married to Law Tribune Editorial Board member Eugene R. Fidell, a Yale Law School lecturer. She spoke recently with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: What is the objective of this new book about Roe?
LINDA GREENHOUSE: What we were trying to do was recreate the landscape on which Roe landed in 1973. We look back on that period through a lens that I think is distorted by what has happened subsequently. For instance, people assume that the abortion rights movement was anchored in the feminist activity of the late '60s. Actually that's not true. The early stirrings of reform came from the public health community, and the elites of the legal profession. It became part of the feminist agenda only as the '60s moved toward the '70s. That's kind of interesting, and another part is how the justices were responding. How do these five Republican guys find a right to abortion in the Constitution without getting into the doctrine? I think it was clear that they were responding to their elite peers in the [medical and legal] professions.
LAW TRIBUNE: Mostly men, also.
GREENHOUSE: Yes, and those were the voices that resonated with them, and most of them said these criminal abortion laws, anchored in the 19th century, that drive women to the back alley and force doctors to practice medicine at their peril, don't make sense anymore in the second half of the 20th century. That was what the court was responding to, we think.
LAW TRIBUNE: You've collected the amicus briefs. Which are the most interesting?
GREENHOUSE: They're all very different. There were strongly feminist briefs that were presented to the court, but those were not reflected in the ultimate opinion. There are very strong theologically-grounded right-to-life briefs that were presented to the court, and those aren't reflected either. The two dissenting opinions in Roe William Rehnquist's and Byron White's are not based on the fetal life concerns that we now associate with the right-to-life movement, but rather with judicial activism concerns.
LAW TRIBUNE: Do you get the feeling that America is close to reversing Roe v. Wade?