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Common Myths About the History of Abortion in America

This information was taken from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) Web Site under the Celebrating 25 Years of Reproductive Choice then go to Myths about abortion.

MYTH: In 1973, the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal for the first time in American history.

FACT: Abortion has been performed for thousands of years, and in every society that has been studied. It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived on our shores until the mid- to late 1800's, when some states began passing laws that made it illegal. This period of abortion prohibition lasted about 90 years, until the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 re-established legal abortion in America.

MYTH: The founding fathers never intended for abortion to be allowed in the United States.

FACT: At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortions before "quickening" (the stage of pregnancy when the mother can feel the fetus' movement in the womb) were openly advertised and commonly performed. Abortion was something that the founding fathers would have been aware of, and presumably, they would not have remained silent about it if they had intended for the government to involve itself in this aspect of the private lives of its citizens.

MYTH: In the 1800's, abortion was outlawed because it was so dangerous.

FACT: During this time in history, all surgical procedures, including abortion, were extremely risky. Hospitals were not common, antiseptics were unknown, and even the most respected doctors had only primitive medical educations. Without the technology that we take for granted today, maternal and infant mortality rates during childbirth were extraordinarily high. The dangers from abortion were similar to the dangers from other surgeries that were not outlawed.

As scientific methods began to dominate medical practice, and technologies were developed to prevent infection, medical care on the whole became much safer and more effective. But by this time, the vast majority of women who needed abortions had no choice but to get them from illegal practitioners without these medical advances at their disposal. The "back-alley" abortion remained a dangerous, often deadly procedure, while other areas of legally sanctioned medicine improved dramatically.

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MYTH: Abortion was outlawed because it is immoral.

FACT: The motivations for anti-abortion laws varied from state to state, and included fears that soon the population would be dominated by the children of newly arriving immigrants, whose birth rates were higher than those of "native" Anglo-Saxon women. But the strongest force behind the drive to criminalize abortion was the attempt by doctors to establish for themselves exclusive rights to practice medicine. They wanted to prevent "untrained" practitioners, including midwives, apothecaries, and homeopaths, from competing with them for patients and for patient fees.

The best way to accomplish their goal was to eliminate one of the principle procedures that kept these competitors in business. Rather than openly admitting to such motivations, the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) argued that abortion was both immoral and dangerous. This campaign was successful, and by 1910, all but one state had criminalized abortion except where necessary, in a doctor's judgement, to save the woman's life. In this way, legal abortion was successfully transformed into a "physicians-only" practice.

This prohibition of legal abortion from the 1880s until 1973 came under the same anti-obscenity or Comstock laws that prohibited the dissemination of birth control information and services. It is noteworthy that obscenity, abortion, and contraception should be so linked at a time when society deemed women incapable of making legally and socially responsible decisions and the law classified any attempts of women to make reproductive choices as unacceptable.

MYTH: During the period when abortion was illegal, abortion was effectively outlawed and the safety of pregnant women was ensured.

FACT: Criminalization of abortions did not reduce the numbers of women who sought abortions. In the years before Roe v. Wade, the estimates of illegal abortions ranged as high as 1.2 million per year, although, of course, no accurate records could be kept of illegal procedures. What is known is that between the 1880s and 1973, many thousands of women died or suffered serious medical problems after attempting to self-induce their abortions or going to untrained practitioners who performed abortions with primitive methods or in unsanitary conditions. During this time, hospital emergency room staff treated thousands of women who either died or were suffering terrible effects of abortions provided without adequate skill and care.

It should be noted that during this time some women obtained relatively safer, although still illegal, abortions from private doctors. This practice remained prevalent for the first half of the twentieth century. Later, the rate of reported abortions began to decline, partly because doctors faced increased scrutiny from their peers and hospital administrators concerned about the legality of their operations.

Today, pro-choice advocates who fight for continued access to safe, legal abortion for all women often are motivated by their understanding of the consequences of criminalized abortion. We know from history that whenever abortion has been illegal, women have still attempted and succeeded in ending unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, they have often suffered serious health problems or died in the process. While the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was an important turning point in protecting women from unsafe abortion, an understanding of the pre-Roe v. Wade years is critical for making intelligent public policy decisions regarding reproductive health care in the future.

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