A Glimpse at Abortion's History in the US
America’s history regarding abortion is complicated, and that seems fairly understandable given the morality behind it remains difficult to map out to this very day. Still – to understand where things stand today, we are often best served by first looking towards the past. The old saying goes that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. While lacking knowledge of this regard wouldn’t doom anyone, it certainly would make for a limited understanding of the full scope of the issue. With that in mind, let’s look backwards a bit.
In our country’s early days, the 18th century forward through roughly 1880, abortion was actually allowed.1 It only became illegal after the mother felt the movements of the fetus, a very subjective and personal standard that meant the practice was rarely challenged.1 So – why and where did we first see the shift to viewing abortion as a legal issue? Surprisingly, it wasn’t an effort of purported morality or faith that led the charge – but efforts from the medical community.1 Abortion became illegal with the exception of the protection of the mother’s life with significant backing from the medical establishment in 1880.1
It’s worth noting here that this stands in stark contrast to the modern day, where the American Medical Association disproves of government meddling or interference in the practice of medicine short of it being merited by scientific evidence.1
The reality, though, is that even when something becomes illegal it doesn’t stop happening. Abortion, of course, would be no different. Indeed, shifting it from an accepted medical practice to an illegal act simply meant moving from safer conditions to hidden, dangerous ones. This became especially true during the Great Depression, when abortion “wasn’t seen as a women’s issue, it was an economic issue.”1
Interestingly, in the 1960’s (prior to abortion becoming legal again) a group known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion formed with the goal of helping women find access to safe, but still illegal, abortions.1 This could well be credited to the desire to protect against the risks of a self-inflected abortion or a back alley one, instead of a true acceptance from those of faith – but it is difficult to judge. Other options included bribing a doctor with a hefty fee or seeking an abortion outside the country.1 By 1967, Colorado and California had legalized abortion access.2 By June of 1970 sixteen states had legalized the practice, albeit often with stringent restrictions.2
Roe v. Wade (1973) changed the landscape entirely by legalizing abortion access nationwide.1 While this decision has yet to be reversed, there have been over a thousand laws passed by varying states in an attempt to limit access.1 In essence, even with legal access guaranteed there are still many activists, groups, politicians, and states that have worked to build as many limitations as possible into the legal framework around abortion. And that will be the topic I endeavor to address next.