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Abortion has been a contentious issue in many parts of the county. While abortion is supposed to be a fundamental reproductive human right, the issue has been subjected to numerous social and political campaigns, all at the expense of women’s health. Abortion laws have gone through a long journey of criminalization and legalization over the years. There have also been numerous court battles on abortion access, with different states taking different positions or offering varying support for abortion. The late 20th century recorded significant progress in reforms around abortion laws as it was declared legal in all states according to the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court ruling (Baker, 2022). Abortion should be a universal legal right as people are entitled to freedom over their bodies, yet it has faced significant challenges due to opposition from people with differing beliefs.
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Abortion Laws in the 1800s to 1970s
Abortion was illegal in most countries within America and all over the world. In countries such as Connecticut, any person who aided or performed an act that led to abortion was punishable under the law (Planned Parenthood, 2022). Moreover, actions of anti-abortion rights advocates like Dr. Horatio Storer in 1857 worsened the attempts to legalize abortion as he pioneered a movement called the Physicians Crusade against Abortion. Dr. Horatio also led a committee that investigated the criminal abortions that were taking place in Massachusetts, and according to him, any form of abortion was a criminal act, yet the state was not punishing such crimes (Perkins, 2021). In 1847, the American Medical Association was formed by a section of male doctors, and it looked into the reproductive health of care workers, and the services that they provided were phased out (Planned Parenthood, 2022). The AMA argued that male physicians had the power to decide when an abortion could be performed, leading to more criminalization of abortion procedures.
The 1880s saw the beginning of an era of abortion criminalization that ended in 1973 when the Roe V Wade ruling ruled that abortion was a constitutional right for women. The abortion laws that followed since the 1880s comprised restrictions whereby most states allowed abortions in cases where it was to save the life or health of a patient or for therapeutic purposes (Baker, 2022). The restricted abortion laws led to a heightened stigma around the act, and most women procured illegal abortions. The criminalization of abortion continued to worsen as in 1910; there was a nationwide abortion ban where it was declared illegal at any stage of abortion, and only doctors could authorize the act (Perkins, 2021). The illegalization of abortion was championed by men as there was a wave of increased immigration, and they felt it was a way for upper-class white women to have more children who would safeguard their country (Guttmacher Institute, 2022). The aftermath of this illegalization was increased illegal abortions that claimed the lives of many women.
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Therefore, the 1930s recorded significant deaths from underground practitioners who tried to secure abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute (2022), out of the recorded maternal deaths, 18% were from illegal abortions, which translated to about 2700 women. In 1955, a conference on abortion legalization took place to address the alarming deaths from illegal abortions as the media publicized the issue (Locke & Burk, 2020). The doctors who attended the conference called for a reform of the abortion laws (Baker, 2022). Another major occurrence in the history of abortion laws happened when thalidomide, a drug intended to ease pregnancy symptoms, led to increased congenital disabilities (Perkins, 2021). In 1962, an expectant TV host who used the drug could not legally obtain an abortion, and she had to travel to Sweden to perform the procedure. This event led to massive public support for the reform of abortion laws in America (Planned Parenthood, 2022). Different factions of the community and medical practitioners continued to push for abortion law reforms, and in 1969, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws was established to campaign for reforms in abortion laws.
Abortion laws faced major reforms from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The efforts to push for the reforms came from healthcare providers, clergy teams, lawmakers, and advocacy groups (Planned Parenthood, 2022). Several states started repealing their abortion laws while others instituted major reforms whereby abortion was legalized in cases where; the patient’s life was at risk, if the pregnancy had physical or mental dangers to the patient, if fetal abnormalities were detected, and if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest (Baker, 2022). Another radical change in the abortion laws was recorded in 1970, whereby New York City legalized abortion, and institutions offering free abortion services sprung up (Perkins, 2021). The legalization in New York attracted many patients from states that had not fully legalized abortion.
Abortion Laws after 1970
The landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling of 1973 changed the abortion laws in America. According to this ruling, the court held a constitutional right for a patient to terminate a pregnancy privately (Locke & Burk, 2020). This case set a precedent for other abortion-related cases as abortion was legalized in all the states across America (Planned Parenthood, 2022). However, in 1976, a discriminatory law was passed under the Hyde Amendment whereby insurance programs such as Medicaid would only pay for abortion services in restricted cases of incest, rape, or life-threatening conditions of the patients (Perkins, 2021). This amendment was seen as racist as most of the beneficiaries of the Medicaid insurance program were blacks, Latinos, and other minority groups. Fortunately, few states included abortion services in their Medicaid programs (ABC News, 2022). Efforts from the advocacy of reproductive justice institutions have yielded fruits as the current Biden-Harris administration excluded the Hyde amendment in their budget in 2021.
In 1984, the global gag rule under Reagan’s administration was passed. This law prevented foreign organizations that received health aid from America from providing information or advocating for abortion services (Planned Parenthood, 2022). This law has been rescinded and reinstated depending on the president on power and views on abortion. Further, in 1992, a landmark ruling between Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey held that abortion was a constitutional right (Locke & Burk, 2020). Numerous court cases have been recorded regarding abortion cases (Perkins, 2021). The attitudes towards abortion for many people have changed over the years, and they believe that abortion should be legalized as people have a right over their bodies (ABC News, 2022). Unfortunately, the Supreme Court overruled the landmark Roe V. wade court ruling in June 2022, and states have the discretion to set their abortion laws.
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Therefore, abortion has been a contentious issue in America for many years, and numerous reforms have been passed based on this health issue. Abortion should be a basic reproductive healthcare service that oppressive laws should not regulate. The abortion laws have recorded different reforms, which included criminalization and legalization of the procedure. The Roe V. Wade ruling brought major reforms to abortion laws as it was declared universal and constitutional healthcare services for all American states. Unfortunately, the most recent Supreme Court ruling overturned this provision, and this has been a major setback for a crucial health procedure. Abortion should be legalized as it is a basic human right, and people should reproduce when they are ready.
- Planned Parenthood (2022). Historical abortion law timeline: 1850 to today. Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/abortion/abortion-central-history-reproductive-health-care-america/historical-abortion-law-timeline-1850-today
- Perkins, A. (2021). An overview of abortion in the United States. Nursing made Incredibly Easy, 19(4), 47–53.
- Locke, S., & Burk, A. (2020). Women’s Rights are Human Rights: The Story of Abortion Laws and the Women Affected.
- ABC News. (2022, June 24). Abortion in America: A visual timeline. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/abortion-america-visual-timeline/story?id=85588254
- Guttmacher Institute. (2022, August 8). An overview of abortion laws. Retrieved from https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/overview-abortion-laws
- Baker, C. N. (2022, August 19). The history of abortion law in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/health-info/u-s-abortion-history/