The History of Abortion and Abortion Law in the United States

The History of Abortion and Abortion Law in the United States

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The History of Abortion and the Abortion Law in the United States


In all known societies around the world, not just in the United States, people have employed abortion as a way of reproduction throughout history, irrespective of its legality. In America, leaders did not allow abortion until the mid-1800s. From the colonial days until the first laws were formed, abortion had become a regular part of women’s lives. Common law had allowed abortion until the quickening stage, which is when an expectant mother feels fetal movement at around four months. Because surgical procedures were rare, newspapers and medical literature in the late 1700s and early 1800s regularly called medications and herbs as abortion-inducing methods. Reproductive care at the time was highly unregulated and was provided by skilled nurses, midwives, and other women health care providers that were not licensed.

Before the Existence of Abortion Laws

During colonial America and early republic days, no abortion laws existed at all. Worth noting, church officials opposed and frowned upon the practice; they generally treated it as evidence of premarital or illicit sex rather than murder. At the same time, some localities prosecuted abortion cases. For example, in the 1740s, Connecticut tried both a man and doctor for a misdemeanor in relation to the passing of Sarah Grosvenor, that had died following a botched abortion. Although the case focused on the role of the man in her death and not abortion per se, such prosecutions were rather rare. As a matter of fact, historians posit that at the time, first–trimester abortion was very common. The reason is partly because of society’s understanding of life and conception. Many historians generally agree that at the time, there were no reliable pregnancy tests, and as a result, abortion was not condemned or prosecuted until the point of quickening. As a matter of fact, women did not calculate their due dates until they felt kicks which take place as late as the 20th week in the second trimester. This was when a fetus became generally recognized as a person or a baby.

How Early Abortion Took Place.

During this era, women that did not wish to stay pregnant had numerous options. Herbs such as tansy, pennyroyal, and savin were accessible in kitchen gardens. They would concoct and administer it to themselves to cause menstruation and clear obstructions. Although reasons for terminating a pregnancy varied, the most common reasons were dangers of childbirth, the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock, and the lack of reliable contraception. Although birth rates were at an all time high in 1835, the average woman gave birth over six times in their lifetime. Most women wanted to reduce the number of times they would carry a pregnancy and deliver a child. It is estimated that up to 35% of pregnancies that happened in the 19th century ended up in abortions (Assis & Larrea, 2020). For women that were enslaved, abortion had even more tight regulation seeing their offsprings were seen as property. Historians posit that most slave-owners were paranoid of abortions taking place in their farms. Historian Liese Perin documents at least one enslaved woman whose privileges were taken from her for being suspected of inducing a miscarriage. Some enslaved women were known to chew cotton roots, take abortifacients, or ingest dangerous substances such as turpentine or calomel. In the 19th century, the upper and middle-class women had an upper hand in detecting and treating unwanted pregnancies.

How abortion was Criminalized.

At the time, it was viewed that home and reproductive issues were a woman’s realm so women are the ones that passed down information about pregnancy and childbirth and not doctors. This gave them space to make informed reproductive health decisions. However, this would slowly cease to be the case as the first abortion laws were formed. Most laws focused on abortions and unregulated patent medicines that were pursued after quickening. In 1821, the first abortion law was codified in Connecticut that punished individuals that provided or took poison or other destructive substances with the intention of causing a miscarriage (Wilson, 2021). Patent medicines were especially concerning; they could be accessed without prescriptions and manufacturer made them from any ingredients they wanted and advertized them as they liked. Most of the medications were abortifacients and were marketed as such which was of concern to doctors. As the physician profession advanced in the mid-19th century, they increasingly argued for having licensed male doctors and not female midwives caring for women in the reproductive cycle. This was the beginning of denouncing abortion. In 1857, a year after Gynecologist Horatio Storer joined the American Medical Association, he pushed the team to explore what he termed criminal abortion (Barkan, 2013). Storer posited that abortion was immoral and led to derangement in women as it interfered with the natural process. Storer lobbied the association to view abortion not as a medical act but as a serious crime that reduced diminished the occupation as a whole. Storer gathered his colleagues into a crusade named the Physicians Campaign Against Abortion. The public stance of doctors served as a justification for the rising number of criminal statutes. For opposers, abortion was a social evil as much as a moral one. The growth of cites, end of slavery, and influx of immigrants prompted fears among the natives that white Americans were not giving birth so as to diminish the dominance of groups deemed undesirable.

A Country of Outlaws

By 1900, the United States had transitioned from a country that did not have any abortion laws to one where abortion as being legally prescribed. After ten years, all states had anti-abortion laws, many of which incorporated exceptions for pregnancies that put the mother’s life in danger. With the assistance of a U.S Postal inspector known as Anthony Comstock, accessing the once-common information about how to end a pregnancy became difficult to access. The Comstock Act made it illegal in 1873 to pass across obscene materials, including information about contraception or abortion across states or through mail (Marcus-Delgado, 2022). At that time, Americans began to understand that birth control and abortion went hand in hand. A combination of criminal statutes, anti-obscenity laws, and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 made it unlawful to make, transport misbranded medicines or drugs. This made it increasingly hard for women to access safe abortions. The legal repercussion of abortion put in place at the time had a chilling effect, and yet despite this, women sought after the practice just like 100 years ago. Towards the dawn of the 20th century, under-the-table medical abortions were common. They were discreetly performed by physicians that advertised their services using word-of-mouth to those that afford them. The women that could not afford the services took old herbal recipes and drank creative concoctions. The concoctions would be douched with substances such as Lysol while others attempted to get rid of the fetus on their own. The people that advocated for birth control had used abortion as an argument for legal contraception. How frequently women sought abortion services in the 20th century and how they succumbed to self-induced or botched abortions remains debatable. In 1942, Bureaus of the Census chief statistician noted that despite inaccurate reporting, abortion remains one of the biggest issues that are yet to be met in reducing the country’s maternal rate.

The Current Debate over Abortion

In 1967, abortion was considered a felony in almost all states. However, there was a provision for the instances where the life of the mother is in danger or pregnancies resulting from rape. However, all that changed after the 1970s. States across the United States started reconsidering their laws and eased restrictions on matters of abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court seemed to have settled the question with two renowned landmark rulings; Rose v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which made pregnancy termination a legal right across the nation. Ever since, the country has continued to debate the merits of the ruling. Fifty years later, generations of women do not know life before Rose v. Wade. The landmark ruling was a game-changer in terms of abortion availability, safety, and efficacy. Only time will tell how the abortion landscape would shift if Roe v. Wade could be overturned.


In closing, abortion has existed in many societies irrespective of whether they were legal or illegal. Women have always turned to alternative ways of eliminating pregnancies whether self-induced or those that are surgically executed. Other women have gone to the extent of creative concoctions in an attempt to induce menstruation and induce abortion. Even after 50 years of relative stability, the future of abortion remains uncertain. While some states allow abortion, others have criminalized it. The future of abortion law in the United States hangs in the balance. While it is possible for the 1973 decision in the Roe v. Wade to be overturned in the future, this shows there is a possibility that in the future, people might lose the right to terminate pregnancies across all states. Nobody knows whether abortion procedures will become illegal tomorrow or in decades to come. Even states that do not have abortion laws might in the future decide to institute abortion laws. However one thing is certain that new laws will not prevent abortions from taking place. Just like the women from centuries ago, women will continue to seek the services regardless of medical and legal risks involved. As such, it is better to come up with abortion laws that guarantee the safety of women and safeguard their sexual and reproductive health rights.


Assis, M. P., & Larrea, S. (2020). Why self-managed abortion is so much more than a provisional solution for times of pandemic. Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 28(1), 1779633.

Barkan, S. E. (2013). Social problems: Continuity and change. Boston, MA, USA: Flat World Knowledge, Incorporated.

Marcus-Delgado, J. (2022). The Politics of Abortion in Latin America. In The Politics of Abortion in Latin America. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Wilson, J. C. (2021). Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present, by Mary Ziegler.