At the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, Loretta Ross, Toni Bond, and others coined the evocative term reproductive justice to make clear that women have human rights, including the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have” safely, and with our government playing an affirmative role in manifesting these rights.
Women (aka human beings with human rights) have the power to give life and, thus, the power not to. To say otherwise is to deny reality, common sense, and ethics. Our nation’s cyclical state crackdowns on women and their bodies are rarely about the sanctity of life, as the brief history recounted here attests. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but there’s no getting around the patriarchal thrust of an abortion ban.
Abortion was legal and unrestricted until “quickening” (approximately 20 weeks) in all US states until 1821, when Connecticut passed a law targeting abortifacient drugs and the women who used them. This signaled the fall of lay-healers, midwives, and herbalists and the rise of the professional medical class—white men—prone to dramatic interventions (bleeding! opium!) and hefty fees.
The American Medical Association, recently formed to keep out “irregular” practitioners (women, people of color), launch their first major campaign when OB-GYN Horatio Robinson Storer vows to criminalize abortion in every state. After all, “medical men are the physical guardians of women and their offspring.”
Despite the march to nationwide criminalization, women still needed and sought abortions and other women found ways to provide them. One example of many: Madame Restell (Ann Trow Lohman), a New York City abortionist for four decades, opened outposts in Philadelphia and Boston. In later years, constantly harassed by the police, she committed suicide by slitting her throat in the bathtub of her mansion on 5th Avenue.
By the turn of the century, abortion was a felony in every state— Thanks, AMA!—but the abortion rate remained steady.
Money—that is, not having enough to take care of another life—was always a key reason that women chose to terminate pregnancies. Financial issues factored into doctors’ changing feeling about the procedure, too, During the Depression, safe abortion care in a medical setting was common, despite it being illegal.
Dr. Mary Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, convened thirty-eight specialists from the fields of obstetrics, psychiatry, public health, biology, sociology, law, and demography to get their arms around the issue. They found the number of illegal induced abortions fell somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million, annually.*
*This is quite a span, but getting real numbers was difficult given the extralegal status of abortion care. The lower number was based on a ratio of 3.1 induced abortions per 100 pregnancies found by C. Kiser and P. K. Whelpton for their Indianapolis sample and by D. G. Wiehl and K. Berry for a New York City sample. The higher number was based on a ratio of 18.9 induced abortions per 100 pregnancies reported by the staff of the Institute of Sex Research from their analysis of 5,293 women.
In the years leading to legalization, helping women attain safe abortions transformed from purely personal to urgently moral. In 1965, University of Chicago college student Heather Booth created “Jane”—an abortion referral service in Chicago—to help a desperate friend-of-a-friend. Initially just a phone number—you could “ask for Jane” and get the name of a doctor—overwhelming need demanded that a collective form to field the calls. (Eventually some of its members learned to perform procedures themselves, providing more than 11,000 first-trimester abortions between 1969 and 1973.) In 1967, a consortium of ministers and rabbis began referring women in need to safe illegal abortions under the aegis of the Clergy Consultation Service at Judson Church in New York City.
In New York, young women’s liberation activists grabbed the bullhorn and the high ground when they disrupted male-led “expert” hearings on abortion, asserting that women who’ve had abortions “are the real experts!” The first abortion speakout —twelve women testifying about their abortions in front of a raucous crowd of 300 at Washington Square Methodist Church— galvanized media with its brazen honesty. By the early 1970s, hundreds of famous women like Simone de Beauvoir, Billie Jean King, and Gloria Steinem were on record about their illegal abortions,* vanquishing (for a time) the stigma and silencing that enabled abortion bans.
*343 French women signed their names to an ad in Le Nouvel Observateur, confirming that they’d had an abortion in what became known as the “Manifesto of the 343.” Ms. magazine’s 1972 preview issue featured a similar list, with 53 well-known US women.
Boricua physician Helen Rodríguez Trías brought attention to the racist mission behind patriarchal control of women’s bodies. At the same time abortion was a criminal offense, women in poverty, particularly women of color, were sterilized without informed consent under federal programs—a fact she witnessed in Puerto Rico and in the South.
The Supreme Court caught up with the culture and handed down their decision in Roe v. Wade, which supersede state laws criminalizing abortion. The case itself was rife with the absurd and tragic fallout prompted by denying women control over their reproductive decisions. Norma McCorvey (known by the pseudonym Jane Roe), carried to term three times, placing three daughters for adoption. She was never able to access an abortion. Meanwhile, Henry Wade, the DA who had to defend the ban on behalf of Texas, was pro-choice.
After nearly 50 years of legal terminations, the majority are medication abortions. Access hasn’t increased the incidence of abortions; for 40 years, the rate has steadily declined and for the last 10 years is lower than it was the year abortion became legal. If Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is upheld and Roe is overturned, the total number of states prepared to protect access to abortion is a mere 16.
Among the great books on this topic:
Reproductive Justice: An Introduction by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger (University of California Press, 2017)
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers
by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (Feminist Press, 2010, orig. published 1973)
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts (Vintage, 1998)
My Notorious Life: A Novel by Kate Manning, (Scribner, 2014)
The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021)
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler (Penguin, 2006)
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (Picador, 2014)