The Contentious History of Abortion Rights in America Through Literature

The topic of abortion has been controversial for close to 200 years. Let’s take a look at the history of Us Abortion laws and its effects on pregnant people.

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Pro-abortion protestors gathered with signs saying "I love someone who had an abortion" and "Bans off my body"

The landmark Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade was passed on January 22, 1973. This case decriminalized abortion and allowed patients to choose their medical care without fear of repercussions. It was overturned on June 24, 2022, in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Read on to learn more about both these cases and a bit about abortion laws in U.S. history.

Trigger warning: The mention of abortion may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

Why was abortion banned in the first place?

For a long time in U.S. history, abortions were just a part of life. It wasn’t discussed, but everyone knew that it happened. It was allowed until the fetus started moving — also called quickening — which typically happens around four months. At least, this was the rule for white women; enslaved Black women were considered the property of slave masters, and they were forbidden from having abortions. So, for white women, abortion bans didn’t begin until later.

An abstract timeline with images of abortion laws in the U.S.
IMAGE VIA PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION

In 1847, a group of male doctors formed the American Medical Association (AMA), which basically placed them in charge of U.S. medical practices. They believed they should have the power to decide when abortions were necessary rather than midwives and others who provided obstetric services, despite having no knowledge of or experience with pregnancy. They then set out to criminalize abortions, which led to dozens of anti-abortion laws between 1840 and 1860.

To learn more about the history of abortion bans in America, you can read Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. This book records abortions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the U.S. and how abortion became legalized.

'Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy' by James C. Mohr book cover showing newspaper clippings.
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Before Roe v. Wade

A few states, such as New York and California, had legalized abortions before the 1973 decision. However, most states had banned abortions, and there were few options left for those who wanted one. They had to fly to a state that had legalized abortions, find a doctor in their state who would do it even though it was illegal, fly to another country, or perform the abortion themselves.

A woman holding a sign that says "Abortion is a woman's right" during a protest in 1971.
IMAGE VIA BERKELEY RESEARCH

Most of these options — particularly the last one — were risky and also expensive. Self-abortions were so common because many of women couldn’t afford the other options. As a result, hundreds of people died every year from botched self-abortions.

For an analysis of U.S. anti-abortion laws from the mid-19th century to 1973, read When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. It covers from when abortion was banned to when it was legalized and covers what women did during this time to get an abortion, as well as personal stories.

'When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867–1973' by Leslie J. Reagan book cover with a white background and large pink A.
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What led to Roe v. Wade?

A woman named Norma McCorvey — using the alias Jane Roe — sued Henry Wade, the District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas, in 1970 after she was denied a abortion the previous year. Texas had completely banned abortion unless the pregnant person’s life was in danger. Since McCorvey’s life wasn’t in danger, she was denied an abortion. Her lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, argued for McCorvey’s right to an abortion — though at that point, she had already given birth — and for millions of Americans both then and in the coming decades.

Norma McCovey sitting at her desk in her office.
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To learn more about Jane Roe, her family, and some of those connected to the case, read The Family Roe: An American Story. Journalist Joshua Prager detailed McCovey’s life, both before and after her case, how her case affected abortion laws in the U.S., and even stories from Baby Roe, McCovey’s youngest daughter.

'The Family Roe: An American Story' by Joshua Pager book cover with a white background and red rectangle and white, blue, and white thread through the middle.
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Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court, on January 22, 1973, ruled that “A person may choose to have an abortion until a fetus becomes viable,” with viable meaning up to 24 to 28 weeks after conception. This is based on the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which means that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Women marching with signs such as "Safe legal abortions all women."
IMAGE VIA MICHIGAN ADVANCE

They also made specific rules based on each trimester: no state could intervene in normal matters during the first trimester; they couldn’t prevent abortions during the second trimester, but the state could control abortion procedures in order to protect pregnant people’s health; and in the third trimester, states could either allow or ban abortions to protect the fetus’s viability or to protect the pregnant person.

To read more on the Roe v. Wade case, read Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal. It details the history of the most controversial Supreme Court case, from court deliberations to back-alley clinics.

'Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal' by Martin Faux book cover showing a protest with women carrying signs
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The Aftermath of Roe v. Wade

To say Roe v. Was was a controversial case is an understatement, and the decision even more so. Pro-choice and pro-life activists have fought against each other ever since, and both have worked to change laws to their beliefs. Regardless, while Roe v. Wade was still in place, states couldn’t criminalize abortions when used to protect the pregnant person’s life and/or health. The law wasn’t perfect, and there were still obstacles to face, but it seemed the U.S. was heading in the right direction.

Norma McCovey and Gloria Allred holding a sign that says "Keep abortions legal."
IMAGE VIA EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY BLOGS

To learn about what life was like during Roe v. Wade, read No Real Choice and After Roe. No Real Choice rejects the belief that all American women had full control over their reproductive health before Roe was overturned, focusing mostly on Black and low-income women. After Roe gives a clear account on the cultural and political responses after Roe was passed, and how the arguments changed over the decades.

'No Real Choice: How Culture and Politics Matter for Reproductive Autonomy' by Katrina Kimport book cover showing a side profile of a pregnant woman with her hand on her belly.
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Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

Jackson Women’s Health Organization sued Thomas E Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer, in March 2018 over a 2018 Mississippi state law that banned abortions after 15 weeks. It was struck down in lower courts, but the state of Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade and rescind the constitutional right to an abortion.

A woman holding up a sign that says "My right, my decision."
IMAGE VIA CENTER FOR REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

This case was brought to the Supreme Court on December 1, 2021, and on June 24, 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned. Many states, such as Arkansas, Mississippi, both Dakotas, and more, banned abortions immediately following the case, or at least very soon after. Other states have followed through since, and it’s very difficult for many to get abortions and even adequate reproductive healthcare.

For more insight on the Supreme Court case, read The Viability of Roe: Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It was published before Roe was overturned, and author Dr. Ruddy gives a scientific, fact-based explanation of how pro-life advocates could win the case by expanding on the definition of viability.

'The Viability of Roe: Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization' by Kathleen T. Ruddy book cover with a picture of the outside of the Supreme Court building.
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Abortion Access Now

Abortions are still legal in many western and northeastern states, but many have either completely banned abortions or set up strict obstacles to accessing it. (Here is an interactive map of abortion access in all 50 states.) Unless something drastic happens, it seems unlikely that abortion access will change in the near future.

A protest following the overturn of Roe v. Wade and a sign reads "Hell hath no fury like American women scorned."
IMAGE VIA VOA NEWS

For more on abortion since Roe was overturned, read New Handbook for a Post-Roe America. The author runs through several worst-case scenarios for a post-Roe America and how to respond and fight back.

'The New Handbook for a Post-Roe America: The Complete Guide to Abortion Legality, Access, and Practical Support' by Robin Marty book cover with a blue and white background.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSHOP.ORG

While the abortion situation in the U.S. isn’t entirely grim and hopeless, it does paint quite a bleak picture for us now and for future generations.


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