Abortion: A Quick History Lesson

Written By Elise Laird ’19

A Quick History Lesson on One of Our Country’s Most Important Issues

Our Founding Fathers did not address the issue of abortion when writing the Constitution, nor when outlining the Bill of Rights. In fact, abortion was not really addressed nor criminalized in the United States until the mid-late 1800s. At this point, the quality of care in other sectors of medicine proceeded to take-off, whereas abortions remained a dangerous procedure. 

By criminalizing abortion, the problem did not disappear, but a woman’s access to an abortion became polarized by wealth, geography, and race. Upper-class women had the ability to travel outside the United States to have the procedure performed, but women with less financial security were subjected to procedures done by incompetent practitioners who were not qualified to perform the procedure. Often, poor women and women of color were unable to find a practitioner and resorted to performing abortions on themselves by using coat hangers, knitting needles, chemicals, or strong drugs. Thousands of women a year were treated for complications resulting from these unsafe abortions, and many even died.

Starting in 1967, over 100 years after the first law was passed banning abortions, states began to reform and repeal restrictive abortion laws. This led up to the landmark decision made in 1973, Roe v. Wade, which struck down all existing criminal abortion laws. The court decided that it is a woman’s right to have the freedom to choose to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. Between 1973 and 1992, the Supreme Court rejected multiple efforts to limit access to abortions, and upheld the rights of women across the country. 

However, these efforts to limit women’s rights came to a pinnacle in 1992 when the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upheld a Pennsylvania law that placed many restrictions on women wanting access to an abortion. These restrictions included mandatory waiting periods, parental consent, and the dissemination of biased information to women receiving an abortion. This case also allowed states to implement laws that limit access to abortion at any stage of a pregnancy as long as there is not an “undue burden” placed on a woman’s access to abortion. Then in 2007, Gonzales v. Carhart upheld the legality of a ban on intact dilation and extraction, or what is politically referred to as “partial birth abortion”.

These two cases both dealt significant blows to women’s rights and a woman’s ability to exercise her freedom to have an abortion. And currently there is a case going before the Supreme Court from Texas, Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, that could also severely limit a woman’s right to choose. If the Texas law is allowed to stand, more than 75% of the women’s clinics in Texas that offer abortions would be forced to shut down. According to the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Jessica González-Rojas, if the law is upheld, “women in the Rio Grande Valley would have to drive up [to] and over 200 miles to get to the next nearest clinic”. For a lot of them this means taking off work they can’t afford to miss, having to gather money for the gas, an overnight stay, and the procedure. This puts a significant burden on these women, and is something we should fight to avoid.

TRAP laws are being implemented in many places across the country, and this Texas law is an example of one of them. In an effort to limit a woman’s access to an abortion, these laws are imposing stricter restrictions on abortion providers than are imposed on other medical practitioners. These laws are often spun as trying to improve the standard of care for women’s health, but in reality often do more to hurt women than to help them. The implementation of these laws jeopardize a woman’s access to the safe abortion she has a right to, and this is not something we should stand for as a country. 

It is our responsibility to protect a woman’s right to a safe abortion, and if we fail to challenge these laws that are being implemented across the country, we will fall back into the dark days that were the late 1800s and early-mid 1900s. Abortions should remain legal and most importantly, they should remain safe. By criminalizing abortion, we will revert to abortions being performed by unqualified practitioners who put a woman’s life at risk. This is not something we can stand for as a nation, and we must work to preserve a society that does not criminalize abortion.