Abortion is as old as the Bible, but recently its history and politics have moved from attention on pregnant women to unborn fetuses. “Women always have and always will have abortions,” said Heather Ault, 4000 Years for Choice founder and graphic designer. “It’s fundamental to human existence, and all human societies around the world have practiced forms of controlling pregnancy, to various degrees of effectiveness with the tools and knowledge they had available at that time, whether it be toxic herbs, early surgical methods, or magic and spells.”
In Numbers 5:11-31, God is described as instructing Moses to present “The Test for an Unfaithful Wife” (NIV), a ritual to be used by priests against women accused by their husbands of unfaithfulness. These women are to drink “bitter water,” a potion that to abort any pregnancies that result from “having sexual relations with a man other than your husband.”
The Royal Archives of China holds the earliest written record of an abortion technique in the 3000s BCD. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, a founder of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture in the 2700s BCE, wrote recipes for contraception and abortion which were quoted into the 16th century. In the 300s BCE, siliphium, now extinct, was regarded as a gift from Apollo and used for both contraception and abortion in northern Africa and Greece. At the same time, Egyptians and Greeks used the birthwort plant for the same purpose. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “If too many children are being born, there are measures to check propagation,” and Aristotle agreed on the need for population control.
In the 200s, prolific Christian theologian Tertullian described two surgical methods used for abortion. In 418, St. Augustine, like most theologians of the time, felt that abortion wasn’t homicide because “unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified.” In 1318, St. Thomas Aquinas opposed abortion unless the fetus was “ensouled” at approximately 30 days after conception. Aquinas did not consider abortion a sin before this time because it was not a human being. After England broke with the Catholic Church in 1540, abortion was no longer considered a crime under common law.
During American slavery beginning in the 1600s, black slaves used the cottonwood plant as an abortive remedy to spare their children a life of misery. Colonial women used the same technique because abortion was legal through common law before “quickening,” the first detectable fetal motion at about the fourth month.
In 1821, Connecticut passed the first law in the United States that made abortion illegal. By the end of the nineteenth century, every state had passed anti-abortion legislation except Kentucky, which waited until 1910. The oppressive maternity homes established for pregnant women refused, however, to house black women. A choice was Dr. Bronson’s Female Pills, which promised to “remove difficulties arising from obstruction”; text warned that taking these during the first three or four months or pregnancy might result in miscarriage—most likely the remedy’s intent. The most widely known abortionist in the 1830s, Madame Restelle operated for 35 years with additional offices in Boston and Philadelphia. By the 1850s, she was one of over 200 abortionists in New York City, largely sought out by middle- and upper-class Protestant women who wanted smaller families.
Male doctors pressed for laws against abortion when they took over health care for women from the midwives, who they considered a threat to the male economic and social power. After the AMA declared in 1857 that abortion should be illegal, politician and “morality” advocate Anthony Comstock crusaded against birth control, sex workers, and eventually abortion. In 1873, the “Comstock Law” outlawed contraception and abortion with limited exceptions for health and women lost their common law right. Comstock also succeeded in passing laws against sending anything through the mail related to sexuality and was instrumental in jailing Margaret Sanger for defying the contraception prohibition.
Not until 1869 did the Catholic Church condemn abortion at all stages of pregnancy. By 1896, the Chicago Health Department forbade “any midwife having in her possession any drug or instrument or other article which may be used to procure and abortion,” as well as eleven other rules intended to control how they practiced traditional women’s health care.
When Margaret Sanger surveyed 10,000 working-class women during the 1920s, she found that 20 percent of them had had abortions. Another study showed that ten to 23 percent of educated, middle-class women had had the same procedure. By the late 1920s, 15,000 women a year died from illegal, unsafe abortions from knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, and buttonhooks. Physicians reacted to the rising death toll in the 1930s by providing abortion care through underground clinics and working to protest the prohibition on abortion.
In 1931, a study in the Bronx found that 35 percent of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish women had had at least one illegal abortion. The next year, Harlem Hospital (New York City) opened a separate ward to treat women seeking emergency post-abortion emergency services from illegal abortions. For 10 years during the Depression, Dr. Josephine Gabler performed over 18,000 abortions at her office on State Street in Chicago. Eighty percent of the women were married and 57 percent already had children. She had referrals from over 200 area doctors.
During the 1930s, the U.S. had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world with induced abortions responsible for at least 14 percent of the deaths. The increase in the number of the abortions to over 681,000 coincided with the rising economic problems faced by most people in the U.S. Women began to organize their own “birth control clubs,” such as one in New Jersey with 800 members. They paid dues and carried cards entitling them to regular examinations and access to illegal abortions.
Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer, Jr., a black physician in Detroit, started providing abortions in 1938. After performing 30,000 procedures, he was incarcerated from 1958 to 1960. In 1939, 68 percent of medical students in the U.S. said that they would be willing to perform abortions if they were legal. By the 1950s, between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed each year.
With abortions still illegal in many states in 1959, Patricia Maginnis, a medical technician in San Francisco, developed a do-it-yourself abortion procedure that involved dilating your own cervix to miscarry. Although oral contraceptives came on the market in 1965, it was available only through prescription to married women for the next seven years. In Chicago, a group of young women started “The Service,” an underground feminist healthcare system to help women find safe and affordable illegal abortions, before it renamed itself “Jane” and trained themselves to provide surgical abortions in-house. Between 1969 and 1973, Jane performed nearly 12,000 abortion procedures. A similar group called the Feminist Women’s Health Center began in California.
All these efforts could stop in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the right of privacy included “a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” The 7-2 decision found that a person’s “zone of privacy” extended to their doctor’s office although Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision ruled that more narrow state laws could be constitutional after the point of fetal viability.
Blackmun’s ruling is the reason for the huge spate of anti-abortion, anti-women laws clogging state constitutions and statutory restrictions in the past half decade which have again removed the “zone of privacy.” In the past four years, 231 abortion restrictions have been enacted at state levels. The U.S. is rated D+ in overall reproductive rights and health, downgraded from the C rating in 2014, and 27 states are ranked either “hostile” or “extremely hostile” to abortion. Not satisfied with attacking abortion, many of these states have attacked pregnant women, imprisoning them for using drugs or alcohol and convicting them of feticide if they accidentally have miscarriages. At this time, 38 states have feticide laws.
As the number of restrictive anti-choice laws rise, so does the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth—from 14.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2007 to 28 in 2014—almost double, as the conservative states pass draconian laws surrounding reproductive rights. This rate is seven times higher than seven European countries and 14 times that of Israel which has liberal abortion laws and government-subsidized abortion services. The states with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest uninsured rates, infant and child death rates, and teen drug and alcohol abuse as well as lower preventive care and cancer screening rates.
On March 2, 2016, the Supreme Court will hear its first abortion case in eight years: Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a case concerning a Texas law designed to close down more than 75 percent of clinics that provide abortion services in the state—a law which is actually a de facto abortion ban. The question before the court is whether reducing abortion clinic numbers into single digits for a state the size of Texas constitutes an “undue burden.” The decision will most likely set new precedent for the country. The answer will be whether every woman has a right to safely and legally end a pregnancy in this nation that claims to prize personal freedom.
Today is the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We can only hope that women will regain some of the rights they have lost during the past 43 years.