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Past and Present

Past & Present: Roe v. Wade


In 1973, the US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. However, the abortion laws that Roe negated were relatively new. 

During the 19th century, four changes resulted in abortion laws. First, physicians began to enter the field of obstetrics and gynecology. Second, the medical field professionalized and developed a standard course of education. Both of these changes removed women from medical practice, even on women. Reliance on midwifes and herbal medical care fell in favor of doctors who preferred new techniques and tools, a choice that resulted in increased physician-related deaths, including during abortions.

Third, a rise in pharmacists selling cure-alls, including abortifacients, without regulation, led to more women dying from self-induced abortions. Finally, the type of women seeking abortions changed from unmarried women not wanting to have a child out of wedlock, to married women who wanted to control the size of their families. Physicians blamed this change on the women’s rights movement and supported measures to maintain women’s “natural” place as wives and mothers. While physicians blamed feminists, some feminists also supported abortion laws because they saw it as a way to protect women from risky medical procedures and unknown poisons.

While abortion never ended, by 1900 it was a felony in every state. Over the next 73 years, the risks transferred from the procedures themselves to unregulated abortions, prompting some women and physicians to advocate overturning abortion laws. The social views on these laws also changed. Once viewed as liberating because of their protections, by the 1970s, these laws seemed more paternalistic than liberating. As the women’s rights movement resurged in the 1960s and 1970s, the importance of personal autonomy became part of the movement’s message, including overturning abortion laws.