Friday, January 13, 2006

Making a Movement

Garance Franke-Ruta at TAPPED looks at reproductive rights in the context of how other nation-changing movements.

Abortion is legal in America, not because of the wisdom and fairness of its judges or righteousness of its politicians; it’s legal because thousands — millions — of women worked for decades to challenge their partners, their families, their elected representatives, and society as a whole about the wisdom of keeping it illegal. Countless hours and sleepless nights and marches and arrests and speeches went into that work; endless conferences and fundraising efforts and legal challenges undergirded it. It was not an easy accomplishment.

Looking at some other movements for social change, it took 82 year of fighting for women to get the vote in this country, and more than 70 years for abolitionists to win their battle to outlaw slavery (not to mention a civil war). Close to a century and a half after that, the nation has not yet managed to achieve full equality between black and white. The tremendous social progress toward equality there has been over the past 50 years grew out of another bitterly contested, often violently opposed movement. The passionate work of civil rights activists, coupled with quiet day-to-day shifts in actions and sentiments by less forward individuals, finally led the legal and political system to come around. And the legal decisions, in turn, acted like electric transformers to amplify the energy for a new social direction.

Social change in a large, geographically dispersed democracy is a tough, tough business, and controversial social changes often take decades to reach the point of electoral and judicial codification — at which point such codifications act to ratify changes that have already occurred or else are well underway.


Should abortion rights as we know them soon be over-ruled, the fight to restore them will not be a matter of what happens on election days in 2006 or 2008. Abortion is one of the big, slow-moving social change fights; it could take another three decades to work through the battles that ensue after a new court ruling, and restore a social order akin to the freedom of choice women have had for the past 33 years. Or it could never happen. Nothing in history is inevitable.