A brief history of abortion in the USA

Written by former president of SNU, Sarah Borgen

Abortion is a controversial and dividing topic amongst Americans today, however, abortion was not always approached as a moral issue.

For instance, the debate about abortion in the mid 1800s was actually about exactly who should perform the medical procedure, not whether it was right or wrong.

Contributing to the transformation was the American Medical Association (AMA) formed in 1847. Midwives had performed most abortions, along with all types of reproductive care, but the AMA wanted to acquire the monopoly. Strategies to discredit midwives led to the regulation of abortion. At the time, the science guiding the practices of midwives and physicians was based on little more than superstition. However, the midwives had a more successful birth rate and lower mother mortality rate than physicians (Radosh 21-22).

This did not deter the AMA, in 1859, from proclaiming physician-facilitated abortions to be safer (Radosh 21). Much of the propaganda focused on the death of women seeking abortions from midwives. Shortly after, midwifery became illegal, giving physicians a monopoly over the practice. Abortion was put solely into the hands of men because only men were physicians at this time (Radosh 23).

In the early 20th century, abortions sparked little controversy. “In 1939 about two million abortions were performed” (Radosh 23). Of those two million abortions, the majority were achat cialis authentique requested by married women who already had children. Abortion became a major concern for the public when the amount of casualties were exposed. At the time about 10,000 women per year died from them, resulting in the criminalization of abortion (Radosh 24).

Apart from the danger of the procedure, shift began in the attitudes around abortion for a variety of reasons. Firstly, treatment for issues afflicting pregnant women became more advanced. Problems “such as chronic vomiting, cardiac problems, diabetes, toxemia, or renal problems” no longer would justify reasons for an abortion (Radosh 24). Secondly, abortions were no longer performed in the patient’s home, thus granting hospital review boards complete control over the practice of abortions. This regulation was different at each hospital. Some only provided abortions to wealthy women, while denying poor women.

Other hospitals required that the women had a certain amount of medical problems to justify an abortion. Others had a quota system and once that had been reached, women seeking abortion were turned away. Lastly, the Catholic Church took a more firm position against abortion.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed abortion to be morally wrong. A combination of decreased access to abortion and an increase in religious fervor on the morality against abortion, contributed to the politicizing of abortion (Radosh 25).

Legalization and Roe v. Wade

In 1973, the Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, determined under the ninth and fourteenth amendments that women had a right to privacy. This meant the law protected women’s right to a medically safe abortion—a huge achievement for the women’s liberation movement (Fischer and Goff 34). The ACLU explains what the right to privacy is and how it affects the right to choose:

The right to privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, but the Supreme Court has said that several of the amendments create this right. One of the amendments is the Fourth Amendment, which stops the police and other government agents from searching us or our property without “probable cause” to believe that we have committed a crime. Other amendments protect our freedom to make certain decisions about our bodies and our private lives without interference from the government…

Unfortunately, not even a year after Roe v. Wade passed, “over fifty bills were introduced to restrict the right to abortion” (Radosh 29). That was just the start of the backlash. Only five years later, in 1976, the Hyde Amendment passed which restricted funds for Medicaid to be used for abortion, negatively affect poor women (Radosh 26).

Over the past 40 years the attack on safe and legal abortions has continued on both federal and local levels. The battle over a woman’s right to choose is still in constant jeopardy, with new political attacks every legislative session. We must continue to work towards a future without limitations to choice.



This is an excerpt from my senior undergrad thesis, “The Problems with Fetal Personhood.”

Fischer, Kathy and Goff, Sarah. “Health and Medical Aspects of Abortion.”

Radosh, Polly. “Abortion, A Sociological Perspective.”