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These days, restrictions on abortion are being passed so often that it can be easy to forget abortion has been legal for much of American history.

Abortion: Solidly Rooted in America’s History

Leaders didn’t outlaw abortion in America until the mid-1800s. From colonial days until those first laws, abortion was a regular part of life for women. Common law allowed abortion prior to “quickening” — an archaic term for fetal movement that usually happens after around four months of pregnancy.

Medical literature and newspapers in the late 1700s and early 1800s regularly referred to herbs and medications as abortion-inducing methods, since surgical procedures were rare. Reproductive care including abortion was unregulated in those days; it was provided by skilled midwives, nurses, and other unlicensed women’s health care providers. Midwives were trusted, legitimate medical professionals who provided essential reproductive health care.

Prior to the Civil War, white men were not generally involved in the kind of gynecological or obstetric, or OB/GYN, practices we know today. Half of the women who provided reproductive care were Black women, some of whom were enslaved; midwives also included Indigenous and white women, according to an essay by Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine.

Abortion was frequently practiced in North America during the period from 1600 to 1900. Many tribal societies knew how to induce abortions... During the 1860s a number of states passed anti-abortion laws. Most of these laws were ambiguous and difficult to enforce. After 1860 stronger anti-abortion laws were passed and these laws were more vigorously enforced. As a result, many women began to utilize illegal underground abortion services.

— Alliance for Perinatal Research and Services (1979)


Rules Banning Abortion for Enslaved Black Women

It is clear to see how deeply abortion bans are rooted in white supremacy and patriarchal strongholds when we look at the history of Black women in this country. The tradition of disregarding the humanity of Black people is part of more than 400 years of white supremacist systems in America. Although abortion was legal throughout the country until after the Civil War, there were different rules for enslaved Black women than for white women. Enslaved Black women were valuable property. They didn’t have the freedom to control their bodies, and slave owners prohibited them from having abortions.

Under the law, white men owned Black women’s bodies. So, enslaved women who had access to emmenagogic herbs — plants used to stimulate menstruation — had to make remedies to induce their own abortions in secret.

When slavery was abolished in 1865, the societal control over Black women’s bodies remained. Today, our white supremacist culture judges Black women for both having children and for having abortions — besetting them with blame for virtually any decision they make and any form of agency they take about their bodies.

The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans:
Today’s attacks on abortion access have a long history rooted in white supremacy.

By Michele Goodwin, Chancellor's Professor of Law, U.C. Irvine (via ACLU)
Read the Essay

The Rise of Laws Banning Abortion in the U.S.

Starting around the time of the Civil War, a coalition of male doctors — with the support of the Catholic Church and others who wanted to control women’s bodies — led a movement to push state governments to outlaw abortion across the board. The male-dominated medical profession wanted to take authority from the female-dominated profession of midwives, including the authority to provide abortion.

By 1910, abortion was banned nationwide. However, those with means — specifically wealthy white women — could afford to travel to skirt the law and access abortion while other people could not.

A Brief History of Abortion Law in America:
It's only become a hot-button issue in recent decades. For America's first century, abortion wasn’t banned in a single US state.

By Irin Carmon


Read the Article

Legalization and the Continued Fight for Equitable Access to Abortion in America

The 1960s gave rise to abortion law reform. In the late 1960s, 11 states liberalized their abortion laws. And in 1973, the Supreme Court established the legal right to access abortion nationwide with its landmark decision in the Roe v. Wade case.

However, due to systemic racism, laws restricting access to abortion continued to target Black people and other people of color. 

  • For instance, the Hyde Amendment bars federal Medicaid dollars from being used to cover abortions. 

  • Hyde has particularly restricted the reproductive freedom of Black and Latino people. 

  • Because of systemic racism built into America’s economic practices and policies, Black and Latino communities are less likely to have jobs that offer employer-sponsored health insurance and are more likely to rely on Medicaid.

Planned Parenthood is fighting for abortion access for all people. This fight is intersectional. It’s about dismantling America’s racist systems, like the economic and health care systems that make disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown people rely on public insurance that doesn’t cover abortion. 

See the Abortion Law Timeline: 1850 to Today

Check out our abortion law timeline to learn more about the rise of abortion bans and restrictions in the American legal system. Spoiler: It started from a concerted effort to consolidate power in the hands of wealthy, white men. 

View Timeline

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