Reproductive justice is always a hot topic in the U.S., but never more so than during election season.
We’re planning for the future right now—with our votes, our voices, our political action, our personal choices. So let’s take a quick trip into the past, and nerd out together with this handy-dandy timeline of abortion legislation in this country pre-Roe v. Wade.
Pre-1880: Abortion is common and legal practice when administered before the first sensations of fetal movement known as the “quickening,” typically felt at 15-20 weeks after conception.
1821: Connecticut bans abortifacient substances.
1829: New York makes abortions a misdemeanor when performed before the quickening, and a felony when performed after the quickening.
1850s onward: The American Medical Association leads the way in campaigning for abortion to be criminalized, likely as an attempt to control the scope of midwives and to maintain power in the medical realm. Many anti-abortion crusaders are also motivated by eugenic concerns as immigrant populations increase and birth rates decline among white, Protestant, U.S.-born women.
1860: Twenty states have enacted regulations surrounding abortion.
1873: Anthony Comstock founds the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and successfully advocates for federal passage of the “Comstock Law” which bans the production and publication of information about contraception, prevention of venereal disease, and—you guessed it—abortion. It also prohibits the sending of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the U.S. Postal Service.
1900: Abortion is a felony in all states, with some exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or to protect the parent’s life. Abortions continue to happen illegally with relative ease, often by trained doctors.
1921: Margaret Sanger founds the American Birth Control League in New York City in order to encourage women to take charge of their own fertility, and to promote the founding of birth control clinics particularly for Black and Latinx populations. Read more information about Sanger’s troubling views on eugenics, and the more disturbing ways those flaws are manipulated by today’s anti-choice activists, here.
Late 1920s: About 15,000 people die yearly as a result of illegal abortions.
1930s: The Depression sees an increase in the abortion rate, and in fully staffed clinics that provide safe abortions; about 800,000 abortions are performed yearly by licensed medical providers. Birth-control clubs also form at this time, in which members pay regularly into a shared fund and take money out as needed for the cost of an abortion. These clinics and clubs exist largely undisturbed until the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the medical and legal establishments work to shut them down, break the networks through which people learn about and access them, and smear them as unsafe and expensive.
1940s and 1950s: Dangerous self-administered abortions increase. Some doctors set up hospital committees to hear abortion requests and rule on their legality under the poorly-defined category of “therapeutic” abortions, which are still permitted but mainly available to white people with private health insurance and useful connections.
1965: In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court strikes down a Comstock Law in Connecticut and Massachusetts which prohibits giving married people information or medical advice about contraception. Following the decision, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issues a medical bulletin defining conception as implantation (not fertilization) and thus distinguishing between contraceptives and abortifacients.
1967: A network of religious leaders founds the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in order to refer people to safer illegal abortions.
1967: Colorado is the first state to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother.
1969: A group of women in Chicago, concerned with the dangers of unsafe and expensive illegal abortions, founds the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. The collective is code-named Jane, and over four years they perform more than 11,000 safe and affordable abortions in Chicago.
1970: Hawaii legalizes abortions up to 20 weeks, but only for residents of Hawaii; New York decriminalizes abortions up to 24 weeks. Alaska and Washington follow suit, and states where abortion is legal become destinations for those with enough money to travel for a safe, legal abortion.
1971: The Supreme Court case United States v. Vuitch upholds a Washington, D.C. law allowing abortion to protect the health of the parent.
1972: The Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird establishes the right of unmarried people to use contraceptives, following up on the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision that protected only the rights of married people.
1973: The landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision strikes down all state laws that made abortion illegal. The Supreme Court rules that the decision to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester is protected under a person’s right to privacy, and allows states to place restrictions after the first trimester as long as the restrictions do not endanger the pregnant person’s health or life. Prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion was legal under certain circumstances in 20 states.
Tune in next week for a post-Roe v. Wade timeline! And in the meantime, keep an eye out for present-day attacks on reproductive rights. Great resources include NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the National Institute for Reproductive Health.
To be continued.
Sources (which also happen to be must-reads):