The Fight for Abortion Rights Is a Battle Over History

This month, the world knew that the United States Supreme Court intends to attack Roe against Wade, the 1973 case that protects legal abortion in the United States. In a majority opinion poll leaked to Politico, Judge Samuel Alito argues Roe it must be revoked in part because the Constitution does not mention abortion (true: the 55 delegates who drafted it did not consider abortion, or any other specific medical procedure, or, therefore, childbirth) and also because, contrary to Roe, Alito claims that abortion was not historically considered a right in the United States. “Until the latter part of the twentieth century, this right was completely unknown in American law,” writes Alito. This is false. While the opinion is not definitive, the fact that this fundamentally erroneous statement even turns into a draft is a discouraging sign that the Supreme Court needs a lesson in reparative history.

“Abortion was not always a crime. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, abortion in early pregnancy was legal under common law,” writes historian Leslie J. Reagan in her 1996 book. When abortion was a crime: women, medicine, and law in the United States, 1867-1973. Although abortion was in fact banned for a long period of American history, this criminalization took place almost 80 years after the Constitution was written. The wife of a Reconstruction-era car park attendant would have had trouble finding a way to get a legal abortion; Meanwhile, the lover of a Founding Father could have one at the beginning of the pregnancy without the threat of state punishment.

When abortion was a crime is an essential scholarship to track the social movement to ban abortion and punish doctors, midwives and patients. From public records and archival research on how abortion laws were created, enforced, and dodged in the Chicagoland area, Reagan documents how changing attitudes and beliefs about bodily autonomy and when life begins they affected pregnant women and health workers who were trying to help them. While most of the book, as its title suggests, focuses on the century in which abortion was outlawed in the United States, it also provides a comprehensive summary of customs and policies on termination before termination. prohibition. “Abortion was only illegal after the ‘acceleration’, the point at which a pregnant woman could feel the movements of the fetus (about the fourth month of pregnancy). The attitude of the common law towards the “Pregnancy and abortion were based on an understanding of pregnancy and human development as a process rather than an absolute moment,” Reagan writes.

Then, as now, the vast majority of abortions occurred before “acceleration,” so the vast majority were legal, popularly seen as a matter of provoking a period, or “restoring menstruation.” As Reagan points out, pharmacists regularly sold branded abortions to their clients during this time, and “restoring menstruation” was not a particularly divisive issue.

At this point, reading Reagan about life during the abortion ban may seem like reading speculative fiction rather than historical fact, as his chronicle of the past increasingly seems like a vision of the future. How When abortion was a crime explains, the initial American anti-abortion movement took off in the mid-1800s, leading to a cascade of laws banning abortion between 1860 and 1880. Reagan explains how activist Dr. Horatio R. Storer making a crusade against abortion using white supremacist ideas, arguing that abortion of white babies would lead to the white population of America being replaced by other races. “Hostility toward immigrants, Catholics, and people of color fueled this campaign to criminalize abortion,” Regan writes. “White male patriotism demanded that motherhood be enforced among white Protestants.” Storer influenced much of the medical establishment with this argument. (His xenophobic diatribes seem depressingly familiar today: Storer was, in essence, an advanced propagandist for the “Replacement Theory” that now embraced the American right.) This era of Storer-led prohibition did not stop abortions, but yes it made them more dangerous.

The American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians presented a friendly letter to the Supreme Court explaining this historical context in September. The writ cites Reagan among dozens of other sources, as she is far from the only scholar who points out clearly and explicitly that abortion was not always a crime. 1978 book by historian James C. Mohr Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Politics, 1800-1900 it opens with the following lines: “In 1800 no jurisdiction of the United States had enacted any statute on the subject of abortion; most forms of abortion were not illegal, and American women who wanted to have an abortion did so. “

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