Debate over Legal Abortion in America

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Almost half of American women have terminated at least one pregnancy, and millions more Americans of both sexes have helped them, as partners, parents, health-care workers, counselors, friends. Collectively, it would seem, Americans have quite a bit of knowledge and experience of abortion. Yet the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract: we might be discussing brain transplants.

Farfetched analogies abound: abortion is like the Holocaust, or slavery; denial of abortion is like forcing a person to spend nine months intravenously hooked up to a medically endangered stranger who happens to be a famous violinist. It sometimes seems that the further abortion is removed from the actual lives and circumstances of real girls and women, the more interesting it becomes to talk about.

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Opponents often argue as if the widespread use of abortion were a modern innovation, the consequence of some aspect of contemporary life of which they disapprove (feminism, promiscuity, consumerism, Godlessness, permissiveness, individualism), and as if making it illegal would make it go away. What if none of this is true?

Historical advertisements: The Granger Collection, New York.

When Abortion Was a Crime, Leslie J. Reagan demonstrates that abortion has been a common procedure — “part of life” — in America since the eighteenth century, both during the slightly more than half of our history as a nation when it has been legal and during the slightly less than half when it was not.

The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business — including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press — was booming.

In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians. The American Medical Association’s crusade against abortion was partly a professional move, to establish the supremacy of “regular” physicians over midwives and homeopaths.

The physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868. “This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” (It should be mentioned that the nineteenth-century women’s movement also opposed abortion, having pinned its hopes on “voluntary motherhood” — the right of wives to control the frequency and timing of sex with their husbands.)

Nonetheless, having achieved their legal goal, many doctors — including prominent members of the AMA — went right on providing abortions.

women were often able to make doctors listen to their needs and even lower their fees. And because, in the era before the widespread use of hospitals, women chose the doctors who would attend their whole families through many lucrative illnesses, medical men had self-interest as well as compassion for a motive.

Thus in an 1888 exposé undercover reporters for the Chicago Times obtained an abortion referral from no less a personage than the head of the Chicago Medical Society.

Unless a woman died, doctors were rarely arrested and even more rarely convicted. Even midwives — whom doctors continued to try to drive out of business by portraying them, unfairly, as dangerous abortion quacks — practiced largely unmolested.

What was the point, then, of making abortion a crime? Reagan argues that its main effect was to expose and humiliate women caught in raids on abortion clinics or brought to the hospital with abortion complications, and thereby send a message to all women about the possible consequences of flouting official gender norms.

Publicity — the forced disclosure of sexual secrets before the authorities — was itself the punishment. Reagan’s discussion of “dying declarations” makes particularly chilling reading: because the words of the dying are legally admissible in court, women on their deathbeds were informed by police or doctors of their imminent demise and harassed until they admitted to their abortions and named the people connected with them — including, if the woman was unwed, the man responsible for the pregnancy

Unsurprisingly, the Depression, during which women stood to lose their jobs if they married or had a child, saw a big surge in the abortion rate.

Well-connected white women with private health insurance were sometimes able to obtain “therapeutic” abortions, a never-defined category that remained legal throughout the epoch of illegal abortion.

Even for the privileged, though, access to safe abortion narrowed throughout the fifties, as doctors, fearful of being prosecuted in a repressive political climate for interpreting “therapeutic abortion” too broadly, set up hospital committees to rule on abortion requests. Some committees were more compassionate than others.

Moderate reforms had already been tried: twelve states permitted abortion in instances of rape, incest, danger to physical or mental health, or fetal defect, but since most women, as always, sought abortions for economic, social, or personal reasons, illegal abortion continued to thrive

Legalizing abortion was a public-health triumph that for pregnant women ranked with the advent of antisepsis and antibiotics.

Anti-abortion zealots have committed arson, assault, and murder in their campaign against abortion clinics.

Similarly, the general lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting those who perform abortions and the almost total failure to prosecute and jail women for having them suggest that whatever Americans may consider abortion to be, it isn’t baby killing, a crime our courts have always punished quite severely.

it seems absurd to suggest that the overburdened mothers, desperate young girls, and precariously employed working women who populate these pages risked public humiliation, injury, and death for mere “convenience,” much less out of “secular humanism” or a Lockean notion of property rights in their bodies. It’s even more preposterous — not to mention insulting — to see them as standing in relation to their fetuses as a slaveowner to a slave or a Nazi to a Jew.

Reagan suggests that the abortion debate is really an ideological struggle over the position of women. How much right should they have to consult their own needs, interests, and well-being with respect to childbearing or anything else?

Abortion as philosophical puzzle and moral conundrum is all very well, but what about abortion as a real-life social practice?

Since the abortion debate is, theoretically at least, aimed at shaping social policy, isn’t it important to look at abortion empirically and historically?

“A fetus is not a person and not the subject of an indictment for manslaughter,” Boston’s Superior Court Judge James P. McGuire told the jury.

“I will continue to do abortions. They are a woman’s right,” he said after his conviction, “Women since they’ve been on this earth have been making that choice, whether they want to carry that baby or not….The only humane thing we can do is make sure that when they make that choice they have the opportunity to make it under the best conditions possible.”

At the same time, there begins to appear on the part of some an alarming readiness to subordinate rights of freedom of choice in the area of human reproduction to governmental coercion.

Notwithstanding all this, we continue to maintain strict antiabortion laws on the books of at least four fifths of our states, denying freedom of choice to women and physicians and compelling the “unwilling to bear the unwanted.”

Since, however, abortions are still so difficult to obtain, we force the birth of millions more unwanted children every year.

to cut down on population growth we should make abortion easy and safe while we continue to develop other and more satisfactory methods of family limitation.

“There is no perfect contraceptive. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that the intrauterine devices, one of the most effective contraceptives available today, have a failure rate of 1.5 to 3%. This means that if all married women in the United States could and did use these contraceptives, there would still be about 350,000 to 700,000 unwanted pregnancies a year among married women alone. Even sterilization is not a 100% effective method of contraception; some operations fail. Therefore, in order to insure a complete and thorough birth control program, abortion must be made available as a legal right to all women who request it.”

The situation is today reversed; abortion under modern hospital conditions is safer than childbirth.

Though the population experts have not yet aligned themselves on the side of abortion-law reform, something is beginning to happen. Seven states–Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, and North Carolina–have amended their laws to permit abortion not only to save life but also to protect the health, mental and physical, of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, and to avert the birth of defective offspring

The 8000 to 10,000 in-hospital abortions contrast, of course, with the estimated one million performed outside hospitals annually. Probably not much more than one half of these are performed by doctors; the rest by the “kindly neighbor,” the “close friend,” or the woman herself. Generally speaking, the laws do not distinguish in their prohibitions of abortions between doctors and nondoctors. Moreover, the out-of-hospital abortions performed by doctors are obtained by the same group which accounts for the bulk of the in-hospital abortions: the middle- and upper-income white woman who can afford the hundreds or thousands charged for expert medical service outside the law. And these are the same women who can afford to go to Japan, Sweden, England, or one of the Iron Curtain countries where abortions are legal and where they typically cost something between $10 and $25.

But most of the old laws on abortion remain unchanged on the statute books. In a few states, like Connecticut or Missouri, the law says that the abortion may be performed to save the life of the child as well as that of the mother, although no one is sure what this means. As a matter of fact, no one knows what the laws which permit abortion to save the life of the mother mean.

“In order that a physician may best serve his patients he is expected to exalt the standards of his profession and to extend its sphere of usefulness.”

Washington (AP) – The Clinton administration is asking the Supreme Court to let it join a Nebraska doctor’s fight against a state abortion law.

Justice Department lawyers asked the nation’s highest court this week to let them participate when the Nebraska case is argued before the justices the week of April 24. They said the law violates some women’s constitutional right to end their pregnancies.

The court’s decision in the case may determine the fate of 30 states’ bans on the late-term procedure opponents call “partial-birth” abortion and which is known medically as intact dilation and extraction.

President Clinton twice has vetoed a federal ban enacted by Congress.

The court has not yet said whether it will let the administration participate in the argument, but in a friend-of-the-court brief made public Thursday government lawyers called the Nebraska law “unconstitutional for three reasons.”

The brief says the law challenged by Bellevue doctor LeRoy Carhart is written so broadly that it could be enforced against more than one abortion procedure and is too vague to let doctors know just what abortion techniques are outlawed.

Even if the law is limited to a single procedure, the brief says, it unduly burdens a woman’s right to abortion because “it fails to provide an exception to preserve the pregnant woman’s health. The only exception to Nebraska’s ban is if the outlawed procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life.”

“The statute therefore prohibits the . . . method even when a physician concludes that that method is best suited to preserve the health of a particular woman,” the brief says. “The ban therefore forces at least some pregnant women to forgo a safer abortion method for one that would compromise their health.”

The surgical procedure involves partly extracting a fetus, legs first, then cutting the skull and draining it to allow full removal from the uterus.

Abortion-rights advocates say the court’s decision could broadly safeguard or dramatically erode abortion rights, depending on what state legislatures can consider when regulating abortions.

A federal appeals court struck down the Nebraska law along with Iowa and Arkansas laws. But nearly identical laws in Illinois and Wisconsin were up-held by another federal appeals court.

Jan. 22, 1998, marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark decision Roe v. Wade. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling, of course, gave women the legal right to have an abortion.

Poll results: 8,885 people voted 1. Should abortion be legal? 77% yes22% no 1% don’t know 2. Will Roe v. Wade be overturned in your lifetime? 13% yes 69% no 18% don’t know 3. Have you or has anyone you know had an abortion? 86% yes 10% no 4% don’t know

Abortion Coverage Leaves Women out of the Picture

For example, the Supreme Court decision that enabled states to require women under the age of 18 to get parental consent before getting an abortion was widely covered. However, while more than 1 million teenagers become pregnant each year, and thousands of them are affected by state legislation requiring parental consent, reporters almost never sought their reaction, covering the legal change without consulting anyone in the group that it impacts.

This graphic depicts the abortion debate as two hands tugging at a rag doll– suggesting that the debate is about an “unborn child” rather than about women’s rights

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Debate over Legal Abortion in America. (2018, Aug 15). Retrieved from

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