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Abortion rights in Iowa has not always been a political hot button issue

Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley speaks to a group of Iowans sitting at a "town hall meeting" in Bedford, Iowa.
Clay Masters
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IPR News
Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley talks to a group of Iowans at a "town hall meeting" in Bedford on Aug. 30.

IPR’s Clay Masters spoke with University of Iowa gender, women’s sexuality studies and history professor Lina-Maria Murillo for some deeper historical and political context on abortion rights in Iowa.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade in June gave states the right to determine how they want to regulate abortion – and even outlaw it all together. This has turned abortion into a hot button political issue for this upcoming midterm election for many races, including the U.S. Iowa senate race between Chuck Grassley and Mike Franken. IPR's Clay Masters spoke with University of Iowa gender, women’s sexuality studies and history professor Lina-Maria Murillo for some deeper historical and political context on abortion rights in Iowa.

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University of Iowa
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Lina-Maria Murillo is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, History, and Latina/o/x Studies at the University of Iowa.
“It's critical for people to understand how their views on abortion are being manipulated for political gain."

“It's critical for people to understand how their views on abortion are being manipulated for political gain,” Murillo said.

Here are some of the key takeaways from Murillo’s interview:

The current ties of abortion to religion are 'quite new'

It might be hard to imagine that abortion has not always been such a political hot button in Iowa. Murillo says Iowa began restricting abortion in the mid-1800s along with other states.

By the end of the 1880s, Iowa and most other states in the nation had completely outlawed abortion access, unless deemed necessary by a physician. After all, physicians were at the head of the anti-abortion movement in the 1800s and making abortion a crime was about controlling women for a nationalist purpose.

“Basically, the origins of making abortion into a 'crime' at the end of the 19th century has nothing to do with religion,” Murillo said. “This current iteration that we see around access to abortion and its ties to religion are quite new.”

Throughout the early parts of the 20th century, most abortions were illegal and performed underground. Murillo says many underground abortion providers were themselves physicians and existed often in plain sight.

But, law enforcement, the courts, and public opinion let them work because people understood abortions were a fact of life. Murillo says there was a national moral panic after World War II, politicians and other moralists blamed easy access to abortion for women’s reluctance to return to the home. In the 1960s, this was no longer a feasible conversation as broader civil rights issues came to the national forefront.

“Basically, the origins of making abortion into a 'crime' at the end of the 19th century has nothing to do with religion. This current iteration that we see around access to abortion and its ties to religion are quite new.”

In Iowa, pushes to liberalize abortion access in the late 20th century centered around overpopulation

“There's a group of public intellectuals and scientists, a lot of these folks are funded by what today we might call dark money, to suggest that there is a crisis on the hands of the world [and] there's just way too many people,” Murillo said, adding that it was directed mostly toward the so-called "developing world."

“This really becomes part of the national discourse, this fear of overpopulation. Through the war on poverty funds, through the Johnson administration, they create a population control committee,” Murillo said. “They start to give money for access to contraception. This is when the question of abortion takes on a different sort of route. People begin to think about access to abortion as part of a larger birth control regimen.”

Murillo says the root of many of these overpopulation concerns had to do with race and who was being born in Iowa. This is what influenced people politically, but this history is a touchy subject now.

“I think the overpopulation question was a racist one, but the fact that it was willing to bring people who have more conservative views over to the pro-abortion side tells you about the power of narrative around the issues of reproduction, and who has control over other people's reproduction,” Murillo said.

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Iowa PBS Pool Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
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Iowa PBS hosted a debate for Iowa's U.S. Senate seat with retired Navy admiral Mike Franken, D–Sioux City, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R–New Hartford last Thursday in Johnston.

The history of abortion has evaporated in how the issue is discussed in politics today

“Being able to talk to people plainly and openly about that is becoming increasingly more and more difficult,” Murillo said.

Murillo points to the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and his Democratic challenger Mike Franken. Sen. Grassley regularly talks about his religious beliefs when asked about abortion rights. Like this summer, when Grassley spoke at the evangelical Christian Family Leader Summit in Des Moines, which has a lot of sway in Republican circles.

“When you talk about the overturning of Roe v Wade… that is a historic move a historic decision,” said the head of the Family Leader Bob Vander Plaats. “[Sen. Grassley] is someone who knows how Washington D.C. is played, he stuck to his Iowa roots, and he led with the courage of conviction, and we're reaping the results today.”

He referenced the role Grassley played in 2016, when, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he delayed former President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination. This allowed former President Trump to nominate three Supreme Court justices, who would all go on to get confirmed and then support overturning Roe v. Wade. Grassley welcomes the praise.

“Judicial confirmations do matter and elections matter,” Sen. Grassley said at the event in July. “2016 made a big, big difference.”

Public polls published in the Des Moines Register have shown 50 years of Iowans supporting legal abortion in most or all cases. Murillo says abortion rights goes far beyond just the matter of choice for women and their reproductive health. It has much larger political implications.

Mike Franken talks about the “right to choose” when discussing abortion on the campaign trail.

“I have friends that are Republicans, and every female Republican friend that I know is either silent on this issue because they're so upset with their party, I think, or they're verbal about it that, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe we did this,'” Franken told IPR between campaign stops this summer. “Nobody wants a freedom of choice taken away from and that's what we've done. That’s what the Republicans have done.”

“Being able to talk to people plainly and openly about that is becoming increasingly more and more difficult."

Murillo said history says a lot about where the country, and Iowa, is headed amid changing demographics.

“The way that people seem to talk about it is that this is solely a woman's health issue and not part of a larger trajectory in the upheavals of politics in the United States,” Murillo said.

“Certainly in the upheavals in politics in a place like Iowa where currently the demographics of the state are changing quickly where the majority of the people in the next 20 [to] 30 years of young people in Iowa are going to be people of color,” Murillo said. “Deeply aligned and critical to that vision is the end of abortion.”

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.