Abortion on Demand: A Second Wave Feminist Demand

The history of advocating for reproductive rights

Abortion Protest March
Photograph from an abortion protest march in New York City, 1977. Peter Keegan / Getty Images

Abortion on demand is the concept that a pregnant woman should be able to access an abortion at her request. Reproductive rights, which encompasses abortion access, birth control access, and more, became a crucial battleground for the feminist movement beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present day.

What Does "On Demand" Actually Mean?

“On demand” is used to mean that a woman should have access to an abortion:

  • without a waiting period
  • without having to travel to another state or county
  • without having to first prove a special circumstance such as rape
  • with no further cost-prohibitive restrictions

Nor should she otherwise be thwarted in her attempt. The right to abortion on demand could apply to either the entire pregnancy or be limited to a portion of the pregnancy. For example, Roe v. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion in the first and second trimester in the United States.

Laws that attempt to hinder a woman's access to abortion, therefore, would be in direct opposition to this demand. Indirect action, such as defunding clinics that provide abortion as just one of several medical services, also would be considered a hurdle to abortion on demand.

Abortion on Demand as a Feminist Issue

Many feminists and women’s health advocates actively campaign for abortion rights and reproductive freedom. During the 1960s, they raised awareness of the dangers of illegal abortions that killed thousands of women each year. Feminists worked to end the taboo that prevented public discussion of abortion, and they called for the repeal of laws that restrict abortion on demand.

Anti-abortion activists sometimes paint abortion on demand as abortion for “convenience” rather than abortion at the woman’s request. One popular argument is that “abortion on demand” means “abortion is used as a form of birth control, and this is selfish or immoral.” On the other hand, Women's Liberation Movement activists insisted that women should have complete reproductive freedom, including access to contraception. They also pointed out that restrictive abortion laws make abortion available to privileged women while poor women are unable to access the procedure.

Timeline of American Abortion Rights History

By the 1880s, most states had laws criminalizing abortion. In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first official birth control clinic in New York (and was promptly arrested for it); this clinic would be the predecessor of Planned Parenthood, the most well-known and widespread network of reproductive and gynecological care clinics in America. Despite the laws against it, women still sought illegal abortions, often leading to complications or even death.

In 1964, Geraldine Santoro died in a motel after a failed abortion attempt. The gruesome photo of her death was published in 1973 by Ms. magazine and became a rallying point for pro-choice activists, who pointed to the image as proof that women would continue to seek abortions whether legal or not; the only difference would be the safety of the procedure. The 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that laws against contraception violated a married couple's right to privacy, which began laying the legal groundwork for a similar logic regarding abortion.

Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case, was decided in 1973 by a 7-2 majority. The ruling declared that the 14th Amendment protected women's rights to seek an abortion, striking down laws that explicitly banned it. However, this wasn't close to the end. Several states maintained "trigger laws," which would immediately re-ban abortion if Roe v. Wade was ever reversed in a future case. And the Abortion Control Act in Pennsylvania imposed significant restrictions on abortions, which were upheld as legal in a later Supreme Court ruling.

Opponents of the pro-choice movement took to violence, bombing abortion clinics and, in 1993, murdering a prominent doctor outside his Florida practice. Violence against abortion providers continues to the present day. Additionally, laws vary widely from state to state, with many states attempting or succeeding in passing laws that restrict certain kinds of abortion. "Late stage abortion," which often involves aborting a fetus with a fatal abnormality or when the mother's life is in danger, became a new rallying center for the debate.

By 2016, over 1,000 abortion restrictions had been enacted at the state level. Following Republican control of the government after the 2016 federal elections, anti-abortion activists and state lawmakers began enacting harsher laws that further restricted or attempted to completely ban abortion. Such laws, which were immediately challenged, will eventually make their way up the appeals courts and could, in theory, head to the Supreme Court for a second round of debate over the legality and accessibility of abortion in America.