Abortion History

A brief history of the abortion controversy in the United States

Pro-choice rally at Love Park November 13, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pro-choice rally, 2003, Philadelphia. Getty Images / William Thomas Cain

In the United States, abortion laws began to appear in the 1820s, forbidding abortion after the fourth month of pregnancy.

Through the efforts primarily of physicians, the American Medical Association, and legislators, most abortions in the US had been outlawed by 1900.

Illegal abortions were still frequent, though they became less frequent during the reign of the Comstock Law which essentially banned birth control information and devices.

Some early feminists, like Susan B. Anthony, wrote against abortion. They opposed abortion which at the time was an unsafe medical procedure for women, endangering their health and life. These feminists believed that only the achievement of women's equality and freedom would end the need for abortion. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in The Revolution, "But where shall it be found, at least begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of woman?" ) They wrote that prevention was more important than punishment, and blamed circumstances, laws and the men they believed drove women to abortions. (Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in 1868, "I hesitate not to assert that most of this crime of child murder, abortion, infanticide, lies at the door of the male sex...")

Later feminists defended safe and effective birth control -- when that became available -- as another way to prevent abortion. (Most of today's abortion rights organizations also state that safe and effective birth control, adequate sex education, available health care, and the ability to support children adequately are essentials to preventing the need for many abortions.)

By 1965, all fifty states banned abortion, with some exceptions which varied by state: to save the life of the mother, in cases of rape or incest, or if the fetus was deformed. Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion worked to liberalize anti-abortion laws.

The Supreme Court in 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, declared most existing state abortion laws unconstitutional. This decision ruled out any legislative interference in the first trimester of pregnancy and put limits on what restrictions could be passed on abortions in later stages of pregnancy.

While many celebrated the decision, others, especially in the Roman Catholic Church and in theologically conservative Christian groups, opposed the change. "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" evolved as the most common self-chosen names of the two movements, one to outlaw most abortion and the other to eliminate most legislative restrictions on abortions.

Early opposition to the lifting of abortion restrictions included such organizations as the Eagle Forum, led by Phyllis Schlafly. Today there are many national prolife organizations which vary in their goals and strategies.

Opposition to abortions has increasingly turned physical and even violent -- first in the organized blocking of access to clinics which provided abortion services, organized primarily by Operation Rescue, founded in 1984 and led by Randall Terry. On Christmas Day, 1984, three abortion clinics were bombed, and those convicted called the bombings "a birthday gift for Jesus."

Within the churches and other group opposing abortion, the issue of clinic protests has become increasingly controversial, as many who oppose abortions move to separate themselves from those who propose violence as an acceptable solution.

In the early part of the 2000-2010 decade, major conflict over abortion laws was over termination of late pregnancies, termed "partial birth abortions" by those who oppose them. Pro-choice advocates maintain that such abortions are to save the life or health of the mother or terminate pregnancies where the fetus cannot survive birth or cannot survive much after birth. Pro-life advocates maintain that the fetuses may be saved and that many of these abortions are done in cases that aren't hopeless.  The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act passed Congress in 2003 and was signed by President George W.

Bush. The law was upheld in 2007 by the Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart.

In 2004, President Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, permitting a second charge of murder -- covering the fetus -- if a pregnant woman is killed.  The law specifically exempts mothers and doctors from being charged in any cases related to abortions.

Dr. George R. Tiller, the medical director at a clinic in Kansas which was one of only three clinics in the country to perform late term abortions, was assassinated in May, 2009, at his church. The killer was sentenced in 2010 to the maximum sentence available in Kansas: life imprisonment, with no parole possible for 50 years. The murder raised questions about the role of repeatedly using strong language to denounce Tiller on talk shows.  The most prominent example cited was repeated description of Tiller as a Baby Killer by Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly, who later denied having used the term, despite video evidence, and described the criticism as having the "real agenda" of "hating Fox News".  The clinic where Tiller worked closed permanently after his murder.

More recently, abortion conflicts have been played out more often at the state level, with attempts to change the assumed and legal date of viability, to remove exemptions (such as rape or incest) from abortion bans, to require ultrasounds before any termination (including invasive vaginal procedures), or to increase the requirements for doctors and buildings performing abortions.  Such restrictions played a role in elections.

At this writing, no child born before 21 weeks of pregnancy has survived more than a short period of time.

More on Abortion History:

Note:

I have personal opinions on the issue of abortion and have been involved personally and professionally in the issue. But in this article I've attempted to outline the key events and trends in the history of abortion in the United States, remaining as objective as possible.

On such a controversial issue, it's difficult not to let biases influence one's choice of words or emphasis. It's also certain that some will read into my writing biases and positions that I don't have. Both of these are natural tendencies, and I accept their inevitability.

Books About the Abortion Controversy

There are some excellent legal, religious and feminist books on abortion which explore the issues and the history from either the prochoice or prolife position. I've listed those books which, in my opinion, outline the history by presenting both factual material (the text of actual court decisions, for instance) and position papers from a variety of perspectives, including both prochoice and prolife.

  • Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars: Cynthia Gorney. Trade Paperback, 2000.
    A history of the "two sides" and how their proponents developed deepening commitments during the years abortions were illegal and then after the Roe v. Wade decision.
  • Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes: Laurence H. Tribe. Trade Paperback, 1992.
    Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard, Tribe attempts to outline the difficult issues and why legal resolution is so difficult.
  • Abortion Controversy: 25 Years After Roe vs. Wade, A Reader: Louis J. Pojman and Francis J. Beckwith. Trade Paperback, 1998.
  • Abortion & Dialogue: Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, & American Law: Ruth Colker. Trade Paperback, 1992.