A Brief History of Abortion Law in America

Abortion is as old as antiquity. As long as people have been having sex, there have been women having abortions. The American debate over whether a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, for America’s first century, abortion wasn’t even banned in a single US state.

Even the definition of abortion was different. In early America, as in Europe, “What we would now identify as an early induced abortion was not called an ‘abortion’ at all,” writes Leslie Reagan in When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. “If an early pregnancy ended, it had ‘slipp[ed] away,’or the menses had been ‘restored.’ 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.” Abortion was permissible until a woman felt a fetus move, or “quicken.” Back then, Reagan notes, “the popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies.”

 “In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of maternal deaths recorded in that year.” Fatalities began decreasing with the advent of antibiotics to treat sepsis, but this too depended on one’s status. “In New York City in the early 1960s,” Benson Gold notes, “1 in 4 childbirth-related deaths among white women was due to abortion; in comparison, abortion accounted for 1 in 2 childbirth-related deaths among nonwhite and Puerto Rican women.”

A Brief History of Abortion Law in America