Adolescent women and antiabortion politics in the Reagan administration

Charlotte Jeffries

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Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973 made abortion legal in the United States, it has consistently been subject to attempts to limit its reach, to make abortions harder to access, and thus to restrict their availability or frequency. In recent years, both pro-life and pro-choice groups have been reenergized, through calls to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress in 2015, and the 2016 Supreme Court ruling which prohibited a Texas “clinic-shutdown” law, for obstructing women's legal access to abortion under Roe. An era where this law was particularly contested, however, was the 1980s, which saw the Christian right crystallize and rally together to support the election of Ronald Reagan as President, in the hopes that he would promote their goals. Though extra-governmental pro-life groups and antiabortion individuals within the federal government were not ultimately able to do away with Roe, and would eventually become disappointed with Reagan's efforts in securing this, a series of measures over the course of the administration saw abortion access limited for one group of women in particular: teenage girls. This essay follows these legislative moves over the course of the 1980s, which include the first federal abstinence-only education bill, the Adolescent Family Life Act, a series of laws that allowed states to enact parental notification or consent clauses for minors’ abortions, and a “squeal rule” for doctors who treated sexually active teenagers. It analyses the discourse of and around each of these measures in order to understand how young women's sexual conduct mobilized abortion policy in this era. In doing so, it offers new perspectives on the significance of adolescent female sexuality to Reagan, to the Christian right, and to progressives involved in the heated debates over abortion and related battles of the 1980s culture wars.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-213
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number1
Early online date7 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018

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