Making Abortion Illegal
In the mid-to-late 1800s states began passing laws that made abortion illegal. The motivations for anti-abortion laws varied from state to state. One of these reasons including fears that the population would be dominated by the children of newly arriving immigrants, whose birth rates were higher than those of “native” Anglo-Saxon women.
During the 1800s, all surgical procedures, including abortions, were extremely risky. Hospitals were not common, antiseptics were unknown and even the most respected doctors had only primitive medical educations. Without today’s current technology, maternal and infant mortality rates during childbirth were extraordinarily high. The dangers from abortion were similar to the dangers from others surgeries that were now 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 areas of legally sanctioned medicine improved dramatically.
The Medical Establishment
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 patient’s 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 motives, the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) argued that abortion was both immoral and dangerous. By 1910 all but one state had criminalized abortion except where necessary, in the doctor’s judgment, to save the woman’s life. In this way, legal abortion was successfully transformed into a “physicians-only” practice.
The 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.
Criminalization of abortion 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 accurate records could not be kept, it is known that between the 1880s and 1973, many thousands of women were harmed as a result of illegal abortion.
Many women died or suffered 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.
Some women were able to obtain relatively safer, although still illegal, abortions from private doctors. This practice remained prevalent for the first half of the twentieth century. The rate of reported abortions then began to decline, partly because doctors faced increased scrutiny from their peers and hospital administrators concerned about legality of their operations.