Every American is aware of the historic Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and its divisive aftermath, but most do not know the history behind the controversy. When our country was founded, abortions before quickening, which is when the fetus begins to move, were commonplace and accepted as a normal part of life. Abortifacient drugs were sold in pharmacies, advertised in newspapers, and could even be bought through mail order. When these failed, procedures were also readily available. States did not even begin to pass laws banning abortion until the mid-1800s, and even the Catholic Church did not condemn these abortions until 1869. There were myriad reasons for this shift in public opinion, ranging from the fear that White Americans would be overwhelmed by numbers, to the nascent American Medical Association’s move to deprive competitors of a main source of their income. By 1910, all but one state had outlawed abortion, sadly just as medical technology could have drastically increased the safety of the procedure.
In the one hundred years that abortion was illegal in the United States, there were times when the illicit or back-alley abortion rate climbed as high as 1.2 million a year. Although some providers continued to provide safe treatments, many of these were carried out by shoddy practitioners, or in the most desperate of circumstances, using coat hangers, knitting needles, and toxic chemicals. Some sympathetic people banded together, especially in the mid-20th century, into organizations such as Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion and The Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, colloquially known as Jane, to provide or connect women with safe abortions. It wasn’t until the Rubella outbreak in the 1960s, which brought a host of birth defects, that the national conversation about abortion began to change.
Colorado was the first state to legalize abortion in 1967, followed three years later by Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington. In 1973, abortion once again became legal in the United States. Although currently legal, different states have a slew of regulations restricting access to abortion. Although some are quite reasonable, such as prohibiting abortions after the fetus becomes viable, others range from tiresome waiting periods to the downright ridiculous practice of requiring doctors to provide medically untrue information to patients. Many states attempt to pass new restrictions each year, edging ever closer to crossing the undue burden protection given by the Supreme Court. Looking into the future, the threat of birth defects from the Zika Virus mirrors eerily the Rubella outbreak of half a century ago. Will this new enemy cause a similar shift in public opinion as its earlier cousin?
Counsiling and Waiting Periods for Abortion. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/counseling-and-waiting-periods-abortion (accessed 11/1/16), part of Guttmacher Institute.
History of Abortion. https://prochoice.org/education-and-advocacy/about-abortion/history-of-abortion/ (accessed 11/1/16), part of National Abortion Federation.
Ravitz, Jessica. The Surprising History of Abortion in the United States. http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/23/health/abortion-history-in-united-states/ (accessed 11/1/16), part of Cable News Network.