Letters From the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.
In personal essays, reported features, and constitutional arguments, The Atlantic has been covering the American abortion debate for decades. Here’s a selection of the responses that coverage has garnered through the years. These letters provide a window into a long-running national conversation, as experienced—and argued—by our readers.
In 1965, a woman decided to have an abortion. The woman and her husband, who already felt the economic strain of three children, realized, among other things, that they couldn’t afford to have another. The following August, under the pseudonym “Mrs. X,” she wrote about her experience for The Atlantic. The “successful,” “deft,” and “sterile” illegal abortion had left her “admirably relaxed for the first time in two weeks.” It also raised questions: “Is the time coming when we can rid ourselves of one more hypocrisy, closing the gap between what we do and what we say we do?”
“I cannot understand your stooping to sensationalism of [this] type,” wrote Mary Pat Gregerson from Des Moines, Iowa; “this is the type of article I’d expect to find in a ‘confessions’ magazine,” not The Atlantic. A member of the Iowa State House of Representatives, Gregerson believed that abortion rights constituted a threat to American democracy: “When that life has not had the opportunity to justify its existence, we no longer need to fear Communism; its worst aspects have already been realized.”
Sonya B. DeBerry from Atlanta, Georgia—who read the article “first with disgust and finally with anger”—and Jetse Sprey from Cleveland, Ohio, argued that Mrs. X could have avoided the pregnancy altogether. But while DeBerry felt Mrs. X “would profit more from a visit to a good psychotherapist than an abortionist,” Sprey wanted to “commend” Mrs. X and her husband for their “responsible and farsighted attitude toward their family,” which promoted the “quality rather than the quantity of their offspring.”
One reader, whose name was withheld by request, was concerned about the safety of abortions given that “proper care is not available, even illegally,” to many women. This reader cautioned that Mrs. X’s safe procedure was an anomaly; the “large majority” of abortions, the reader said, were induced by “unskilled neighbors and friends.” These facts, the reader warned, should not be forgotten by those who “might have been lulled into a sense of security” by Mrs. X’s story.
Walter R. Thorson from Cambridge, Massachusetts, felt that Mrs. X had ignored the “philosophical and ethical questions involved” in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. “Surely Mrs. X does not view the law as merely a consensus of practice; if she does, then segregation in the South is justified, for example.”
While Mrs. X’s story was unconventional for the time, it wasn’t necessarily unfamiliar. One reader recounted her trip to Havana, Cuba, where it was cheaper to receive an abortion and where there was “no judging of patients by the staff.” She “never regretted” her decision: “Our happy, healthy children are a testimony to our unborn child.”
By the time Harriet Pilpel wrote about abortion for The Atlantic in June 1969, seven states (starting with Colorado in 1967) had amended their laws to allow women to have the procedure under special health circumstances. While Pilpel lauded the progress, her piece argued in favor of legalizing abortion nationwide.
If abortion were allowed to anyone, Andrew J. Huhtanen from Auburn, New York, wondered, would it “make a human life a trivial thing? … What is to stop the killing of human ‘vegetables’ in hospitals, mental institutions, and homes for the aged?” he asked.
Cornelius F. Murphy Jr. from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, believed abortion debates came down to issues of justice—“that is, what society and the pregnant woman, owe to another person.” (Pilpel later responded to Murphy, noting that the New York State Court of Appeals held that “the law has never considered the unborn fetus as having a separate ‘judicial existence’” until it is born, alive.)
“Why do most presentations urging legalization of abortion spend more time worrying about the plights of hypothetically deformed embryos and potential battered children,” Anne Treseder from San Francisco, California, asked, “than they do worrying about the rights of actual, adult women?”
The Atlantic published little on abortion during the ’70s, and nothing in the immediate aftermath of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made the procedure legal throughout the United States. The few pieces on the topic that made it to print in these years did not yield any published letters.
When Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in February 1988, most observers thought his vote would shape the future of abortion rights. Writing in The Atlantic, Gene Sperling disagreed: “Both eyes” should be on Sandra Day O’Connor instead, he argued. Her dissents in Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health and Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists shed light on the balancing act of two disparate considerations regarding abortion: the right to individual privacy and the compelling interest of the government.
Gene Sperling’s conclusions used “narrow thinking” and “an erroneous premise,” wrote Ray Mueller from Chilton, Wisconsin. “Solely” emphasizing “a woman’s right to control her body” during pregnancy, he continued, is not “logically consistent.” If the intent is to prevent conception, “the same as the effect of abortion,” then the right to privacy or to control one’s body “ought to apply before pregnancy as well.”
Susan N. Prall, a reader from New York City, said that the standard Sperling suggested O’Connor would likely adopt—granting the government the right to proscribe abortion, barring health concerns for the mother—“would not result in any real accommodation” of the protection of abortion rights. States would be required to provide a “meaningful avenue” for abortion access in the case of health concerns, but based on O’Connor’s own definition of meaning, Prall predicted, that would amount to nothing “but a series of roadblocks.” Given the “alarming frequency” with which judicial interventions were occurring, she continued, “the state’s interest in preserving potential life has apparently superseded the woman’s right of privacy and bodily integrity.”
In September 1995, George McKenna wrote that Abraham Lincoln’s antebellum ontological perspective on slavery—he denounced it, but had “no intention of abolishing it”—could serve as a potential framework for the pro-life movement. Influencing individuals’ moral principles and encouraging alternatives rather than demanding an “immediate end” to abortion, McKenna wrote, would acknowledge the “present legal status” of choice while urging “Americans to choose life.” This method, he asserted, would be simultaneously pro-choice and pro-life.
Louise Ambler Osborn, a clinic employee whom McKenna had quoted in his piece (she thought of her clinic as “a place of healing and care”), wrote that his characterization of pro-choicers as people “who simply refuse to face up to what abortion is” was wrong; “having an abortion is hard.” Most women who choose to have one, she argued, are “acutely aware” that the procedure means “stilling a heartbeat,” and they “consider very carefully the significance” of following through. “It is arrogant and callous to assume otherwise,” she finished.
Alexis A. Gilliland from Arlington, Virginia, thought that the controversy over abortion was not, as McKenna painted it to be, about the unborn. Instead, it was the “most passionate battle in the ongoing power struggle between men and women.”
McKenna wrote back to each reader defending his stance: “How can ‘stilling a heartbeat’ be reconciled with ‘healing and care’?” he asked Osborn. The idea that this issue represented a power struggle between women and men, he thought, was “nonsense”; public-opinion polls “have consistently shown women to be more pro-life than men.”
In late 2004, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The conservative-leaning judge’s terminal illness sparked debate over his replacement and the future of Roe v. Wade. It was in this context that Benjamin Wittes argued, in the January/February 2005 issue of The Atlantic, that the pro-choice movement would be better served if the landmark decision were overturned. Removing abortion from the policy arena (as Roe did), he wrote, had “mobilize[d] a permanent constituency for criminalizing abortion” without requiring “any obligation to articulate a responsible policy.” Because the majority of Americans supported legal abortion “at least some of the time,” Wittes hypothesized that if the federal law became a voting issue, many states would adopt protections “relatively quickly.”
Wes Alwan from Front Royal, Virginia, thought that public opinion, even if it swayed pro-choice, “cannot provide a safety net against the loss of a constitutional right.” If the public never put the “rights of minorities” in jeopardy, “there would be no need for a constitution.”
John R. Wooden, from Beaverton, Oregon—a “liberal Democrat raised in a conservative family”—felt that Wittes misread “the conservative mind.” Conservatives, he wrote, “fervently believe” that abortion constitutes murder. And to Wooden, the 2004 election—which kept President George W. Bush in office for a second term—showed that moderates “have signaled that Roe isn’t a primary issue.”
Timothy Rood from Piedmont, California, predicted that, were Roe to be overturned, 21 states would outlaw abortion, writing, “we cannot, as should be obvious, rely on state legislation to protect reproductive rights.”
In June, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, and the following month President Donald Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace him, prompting speculation that Roe v. Wade might once again be in jeopardy. In an essay for TheAtlantic.com, Deborah Copaken put her two abortions—one as a teenager, one in her 30s—in conversation with her motherhood. What a woman “chooses to do with her body if she finds herself accidentally pregnant,” she wrote, “should not be up for debate in 2018.”
Mandi Mangler from Hamden, Connecticut, began her letter with a note of appreciation for Copaken’s article, writing, “Truly, each of our unique stories defy simple classification, stereotypes, and slogans.” But Mangler took issue with Copaken’s “underlying assumption”: Pro-choice proponents, Mangler wrote, “avoid discussing fetal development, viability, or pain. They’d rather we not look behind the curtain.”
One reader who had multiple miscarriages and knew well the “injustice” and “grief” of not being able to carry a fetus to term suggested that it’s time to “make adoption more socially acceptable.” There is “no one-size-fits-all solution” for women who have unplanned pregnancies, she argued.
In response, Copaken honed in on what she saw as being “at the heart of the matter: bodily autonomy.” These readers were entitled to their opinions, Copaken wrote; but “they do not concern my body or my choices over what happens to that body.”