Women’s History Month: What exactly is the history of abortion in America?

I wish abortion never had to happen but it does. And every abortion that does happen needs be exactly as this sign reads.

I was a “responsible” teenager. Before my high school boyfriend and I had sex, I insisted on him wearing a condom. We read the directions on the packaging as we lay next to each other in our underwear. I’d had no other sexual partners and I trusted that he was disease-free. I believed that his declarations of love were sincere although I did not feel the same way about him. I guess I liked him well enough to lose my virginity to him.

I wasn’t trying to ruin my life by having a child out of wedlock at age 17. Although I’d heard many success stories of women who didn’t let teen pregnancies prevent them from achieving, I knew that there were no guarantees that I wouldn’t become another statistic. I insisted on him wearing a condom—a condom he later revealed he’d poked a hole in with a stick pin.

I do not have a 23-year-old child today because I chose to have an abortion instead. It was neither a simple nor easy decision. Although I knew that I would bend time, space, heaven and earth to financially provide for my child, I also knew I was neither emotionally nor psychologically ready to be a parent. And there was no way that I could navigate parenthood in partnership with a guy who’d purposefully sought to permanently connect my life to his through a child. On top of that, he’d also given me chlamydia. I remember the doctor referring to him as “Poison Penis” as she wrote a prescription for both of us and scheduled my procedure.

I did not consider myself a victim. I’d decided to have sex with him. I’d decided to trust him and his word. I’d thought myself too smart, too knowledgeable to have an unintended pregnancy. As the days counted down to my procedure, I thought about allowing myself to have the child as punishment for the “sins” I’d committed. But I realized I’d really be punishing an innocent child. I went through with the abortion and, years after, my religious upbringing made me emotionally crucify myself again and again.

Every woman who experiences an abortion has her own story and reasons for having done so. None of the women to whom I’ve spoken about it were flippant about their choice; it was a heavy decision. The vast majority of those women wanted motherhood, wanted children, wanted to love in that way. Some of them, like me, did become mothers. But also, like me, they understood that circumstances at the time of their unintended pregnancy would have resulted in more harm than good. I do not regret my choice and I was glad I was able to have a safe, medically-sound abortion.

While the ongoing debate surrounding abortion rights is a fairly recent thing in history, abortions are certainly not. Truthout.org reveals:

Abortion has always existed. The earliest written record of abortion is more than 4,000 years old. Pregnancy has always been accompanied by the seeking and sharing of methods for ending pregnancy. Up until 1821, abortion simply existed and, like pregnancy and other “woman-related” business, was entrusted to midwives and other caregivers.

As per the National Abortion Federation:

It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived. At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortions before “quickening” were openly advertised and commonly performed.

Quickening was defined as the point in pregnancy where the mother is able to feel the fetus move and/or typically the fourth month of pregnancy. During the 18th and early-19th century, if an abortion was performed after quickening then the procedure was considered illegal—but not because of the question of when life begins.

In the book When Abortion Was a Crime written by historian Leslie Reagan, Reagan notes:

At conception and the earliest stage of pregnancy, before quickening, no one believed that a human life existed; not even the Catholic Church took this view. Rather, the popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies.

Per the timeline posted at TheCut.com, during the 1820s-1830s:

Abortifacient (abortion-inducing) herbs and fungi such as savin, pennyroyal, and ergot often kill the women who use them. States begin to pass poison-control measures, the country’s first abortion-regulation statutes.

The state of Connecticut was the first to ban abortifacient herbs and fungi for abortions after quickening and made it punishable with a life sentence. Such laws did nothing to stem abortions. What set the stage for the current abortion debate was the same faction that bears a heavy responsibility for America’s rising maternal mortality rate. According to Prochoice.org:

The strongest force behind the drive to criminalize abortion was the attempt by doctors to establish for themselves exclusive rights to practice medicine. They wanted to prevent “untrained” practitioners, including midwives, apothecaries, and homeopaths, from competing with them for patients and for patient fees.

 The best way to accomplish their goal was to eliminate one of the principle procedures that kept these competitors in business. Rather than openly admitting to such motivations, the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) argued that abortion was both immoral and dangerous. By 1910 all but one state had criminalized abortion except where necessary, in a doctor’s judgment, to save the woman’s life. In this way, legal abortion was successfully transformed into a “physicians-only” practice.

That’s right. The anti-abortion movement was launched as a medical industry business move. And again, these laws did nothing to curb the incidence of abortion.

As time went on, new abortion methods and new organizations established to perform abortion despite abortion’s illegality. Women were so desperate to control their own bodies and destinies that they were taking all kinds of risks to have abortions. Scores of women died and others were being admitted to hospitals for botched and incomplete abortions.

In 1964, Geraldine Santoro’s death became the driving force for the pro-choice movement when her coroner’s picture was published in Ms magazine.  According to this site:

Gerri was 6 1/2 months pregnant in June 1964. Gerri’s boyfriend obtained a medical book and borrowed some surgical equipment. They went to a motel where Dixon tried to perform the abortion. When the attempt failed, when it all went terribly wrong, Dixon fled the scene, leaving her there to die, alone, in this cold impersonal hotel room. She was bleeding profusely and tried with towels to stop it but she couldn’t.

Nine years later, following a series of states allowing for legalization of abortion, the Roe V. Wade decision granted women the right to terminate pregnancies under the 14th amendment. But today, that right is slowly and surely being undermined.

I know that most folks do not know the history I’ve referenced in this blog. Before 24 hours ago, I certainly didn’t. But just like I challenge myself to understand the who, what, when, why and how of any situation, I challenge anyone and everyone reading this blog to always dig for the truth of any matter. Abortion was not deemed illegal or immoral, even by the church, until a single industry wanted to cement its financial standings. Who stands to benefit from the demise of abortion rights today?

2 thoughts on “Women’s History Month: What exactly is the history of abortion in America?

  1. Powerful statements. Thank you for providing better awareness of this issue.

    It is criminal that in this day and age there are people who believe they have the right to choose what someone else can do with their body.

    1. Thanks for reading.

      What I’ve noticed in delving into the history of discrimination in all of its various forms is that this type of control is central to maintaining the status quo of who has power and who doesn’t. Leslie Reagan’s book specifically talks about how the AMA’s movement to criminalize abortion and position the medical industry was in direct response to women who were attempting to enter the field to continue to practice the services they’d been providing all along. We have to do better…and that starts with really taking a deeper look at history.

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