Roe v. Madison: The Abortion Debate on Campus

The 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized first trimester abortion in the United States, opened the floodgates, so to speak, on debate over abortion across the country.  Some Americans, particularly those fashioning themselves as “pro-life” viewed the decision as a legal sanction on murder. On the other hand, “pro-choice” advocates viewed the decision as a major victory for women’s reproductive rights, as it allowed women the option of safe, regulated access to abortion services.  This is crucial when noting that prior to 1973, illegal abortions were responsible for the death of up to 5,000 women a year.  Since the decision in Roe v. Wade, the debate over abortion has become increasingly heated and polarized among the American public.  Feminists, with small exceptions like the group Feminists for Life, generally fall on the “pro-choice” side of the argument, arguing for women’s autonomy over their own bodies.  Abortion has, in fact, sometimes been seen as the raison d’être of Second Wave Feminism, but the reality is clearly much more complex than that.  Like the rest of the country, the students of Madison were passionately involved in the debate over abortion, as referenced in letters to the editor of The Breeze that sometimes even inspired direct responses from other readers. These articles provide a fascinating glimpse into the opinions of a few representatives of Madison’s populace, showing the ways in which their views reflect the larger debate going on nationwide. (Shaw and Lee, 300-301)

"The Abortionists" was a student written play that starred five talking fetuses.

“The Abortionists” was a student-written play that starred five talking fetuses. 1973.

One article article discussing abortion reveals the existence of a student-written and directed play called “The Abortionists,” which was apparently performed in Anthony-Seeger Hall on three nights in March of 1973.  The play, which was a student project by then Senior Speech and Drama major Bob Plummer, starred five talking fetuses engaged in a dialogue with the outside world that involves “the justifications of abortion.” According to the article, the play presented the abortion debate to the audience “in an objective manner, leaving the decisions faced in having an abortion open to the audience’s own conscience.”  However, the play does not sound like it was particularly “objective” given that it presented the development of the human embryo and fetus in a scientifically inaccurate manner and personified the fetuses for an emotional appeal.  That this play concept would strike the author of the article as “objective” and, perhaps, that the play would happen at all on the Madison campus suggests that the debate on abortion at Madison was not in any way sophisticated in 1973. (Coyle, 5)

One student uses The Breeze to defend abortion rights.

One student uses The Breeze to defend abortion rights. 1978.

By 1978, the discourse on abortion at Madison had advanced to the point that this article, “Abortion rights need guarding,” was published in The Breeze.  The author of this article, obviously pro-choice, discusses the dangerous precedent set by laws that restrict women’s access to abortion.  He argues that a certain proposed law in Akron, Ohio would “frighten young women wanting abortions.”  He further argues that, for women’s safety and for their autonomy, women should not be intimidated when seeking abortions, but should be welcomed into a non-judgemental hospital environment that can facilitate abortions in the safest way possible.  Of course, such a blatantly pro-choice argument would not go unnoticed at good ol’ Madison College. (Carlson, 3)

A student responds with their own views on the abortion debate. 1978.

A student responds with their own views on the abortion debate. 1978.

One student, Olen D. Burkholder, apparently was not happy with the views expressed by Kris Carlson in his article on abortion, as he wrote an article directly responding to Carlson’s essentially expressing the exact opposite opinion.  While Carlson holds that abortion laws should not frighten women, Burkholder feels that abortion laws must intimidate women seeking abortions.  He believes abortion laws should intimidate women because “the decision to voluntarily take a human life is a very serious one.”  He goes on to call abortion an ” uncivilized option” and goes in to misrepresent abortion by calling it “the slaughter of thousands of innocent babies.”  The author then moves beyond traditional pro-life rhetoric and moves into a type of rhetoric that could probably be described as dangerously anti-woman.  In response to Carlson’s argument that without access to legal abortions, many women would end up dying as a result of unsafe, illegal procedures, Burkholder says “a few girls wanting abortions may indeed turn to cheap phony doctors or even coat hangers. So what?” Further disregard for the safety and real-life experiences of so many women before Roe v. Wade is shown by Burkholder when he goes on to say “Any woman silly enough to resort to such methods only deserves sympathy for her lack of brains.”  This article apparently received no response, suggesting that the rhetoric found within was acceptable to the general student population of Madison College at the time.  This demonstrates that, while some students were engaged with feminist ideas regarding abortion, the majority of students skewed right on this particular issue.  (Burkholder, 2 and 13)

Works Cited:

Shaw, Susan M., and Janet Lee. Women’s voices, feminist visions: classic and contemporary readings. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2012.

Coyle, Kevin. “The Abortionists.” The Breeze. March 2, 1973.

Carlson, Kris. “Abortion rights need guarding.” The Breeze. March 24, 1978.

Burkholder, Olen D. “Abortion law must intimidate.” The Breeze. April 11, 1978.