A History of American Abortion Rights: The Ongoing Fight for Women's Reproduction Freedoms


Abortion is about as old as pregnancy, a procedure even Puritans practiced — in colonial America, it was legal before quickening, usually around the beginning of the second trimester. Today, it's still legal, despite conservatives' better efforts. Thanks to the anti-abortion movement, a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy seems in many areas to be hanging on by a thread.

"In my more than 20 years with NAF [National Abortion Federation], I have not seen such an escalation of hate speech, threats, and calls to action against abortion providers," the organization's president and CEO Vicki Saporta said of abortion rights in 2015. 

And yet the majority of Americans think it should be legal for a woman to terminate her pregnancy, regardless of whether or not they morally approve of the procedure. According to the most recent statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, over 1 million abortions were performed nationwide in 2011. Now, as in the past, efforts to curtail women's abortion access haven't kept women from terminating pregnancies. But never has the anti-abortion movement been so virulent as it is today.

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Before quickening

The first abortion law was instituted in Connecticut in 1821, and designed to guard women from "taking the trade," which often meant consuming poison in order to end their pregnancies, according to the Chicago Tribune. Abortifacients were easy to obtain and frequently fatal. 

In a review of Leslie Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime, the Atlantic described the abortifacient retail landscape in the first half of the 19th century. Even as the law targeted the sale of abortion drugs, the business of pregnancy termination was "booming," thanks to the involvement of midwives and alternative medical practitioners. Physicians didn't like that.

1847 saw the founding of the American Medical Association (AMA) and the push to "improve, professionalize and ultimately control the practice of medicine in the United States," in the words of James Mohr, author of Abortion in America. The AMA took the nation's abortion reins, the Atlantic reported, as a means of exerting its authority, driven by one Dr. Horatio Storer. 

The physicians' crusade against abortion 

Storer spearheaded the physicians' crusade against abortion, beginning in his native state of Massachusetts and fanning out across the country. In 1857, Storer successfully lobbied the AMA to create a Committee on Criminal Abortion. Even as the opposition argued that women seeking to end their pregnancies would invariably do so, Storer argued the "crime [of abortion] is against the child," while the mother had only herself to blame.

The Committee on Criminal Abortion made the debate about the life of the child, in an impersonal way. More exactly, it seems to have been about the life of Storer's preferred America: In 1868, according to the Atlantic, his main concern was whether or not the West would "be filled by our own children or by those of aliens." 

"This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation," he said. At the time, wealthy white protestant women were the ones having abortions. With the American WASP threatened, Storer's solution was to require women of European stock to carry pregnancies to term.

An open secret

According to the National Abortion Federation, 20 states implemented abortion-restrictive laws by 1860, but the procedure remained routine — as the Atlantic reported, the annual abortion rate in Victorian America was about 2 million per year. Criminalizing abortion didn't mean ending abortion: According to CNN, "therapeutic abortion" was occasionally allowed to save the mother's life. Women of means often found a way, even if they were publicly shamed for it.


Making abortion illegal made it dangerous. This was the era of the back-alley abortion, of the coat hanger, which claimed some 5,000 lives annually. The risk mobilized the women's liberation movement to construct underground abortion networks and lobby for an update to national law; by the beginning of the 1970s, according to CNN, 20 states had eased their abortion laws, with New York, Alaska, Hawaii and Washington repealing them. Then the Supreme Court flipped the script.

Roe v. Wade and beyond

Over 100 years after the government criminalized it, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized abortion up until the fetus could survive on its own outside the womb. The decision was made following 1973's landmark case, Roe v. Wade, and has been under continual fire ever since.

With 1983's Akron v. Akron and 1989's Webster v. Reproductive Health, SCOTUS nullified laws that would have blocked abortion access. In 1992, Planned Parenthood challenged Pennsylvania's hyper-restrictive Abortion Control Act in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, wherein SCOTUS found the ACA unconstitutional because it placed "undue burden" on women seeking legal abortion. Two years later, in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Abortion Clinic Protection Bill, shielding providers from harassment by anti-abortion activists.

Then came the Bush administration, which worked to limit abortion rights. In 2007, it succeeded when SCOTUS upheld 2003's Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a decision Justice Ruth Bader said "cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away a right declared again and again by this court, and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women's lives." 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

That effort is ongoing. Attacks on abortion clinics are a constant threat for the people who staff them, and over 1,000 restrictive laws have passed since 1973, 27% of them since 2010. As of April 13, 411 anti-abortion laws had been proposed, 21 of them implemented across five states.

Now that Planned Parenthood is essentially synonymous with abortion, the conversation has become more about how to take down the politically valuable organization and its ilk. We've seen botched sting attempts; a string of omnibus bills extending from Texas throughout the South, forcing the closure of abortion clinics; unconstitutional measures pushed through state legislatures. Although the court has stayed attempts to deny women their right to abortion, the procedure is now more actively persecuted than it was in the Puritans' day. Two steps forward, three steps back.

Read more: The Fight Over Planned Parenthood Isn't About Women or Children — But They Lose Every Time