Abortion occurs when an embryo or fetus is expelled from a woman's body before viability - thus resulting in the death of the fetus. Abortions can be spontaneous or induced. In the legal context, discussions about abortions usually involve induced, or intentional, abortions. Below, you'll find an overview of abortion history.
The First One Hundred Years
Before the founding of the United States, the common law of England permitted abortions before the fetus "quickened." Quickening was the term used to describe the mother's first feeling of the fetus moving in her uterus. Typically, quickening occurs between the sixteenth and twentieth weeks of pregnancy.
In the first chapter of the United States' history, laws regarding abortions did not exist until the 1800s. At that time, women were not allowed to vote, become doctors, or join the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA and religious leaders were actively advocating the passage of laws outlawing abortion. In the nineteenth century abortions were generally unsafe, and the women who managed to survive abortions often became sterile. By the 1880s, all states had laws criminalizing abortions, and these laws stayed intact until the 1960s and 1970s.
The Twentieth Century
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, abortion history took a turn. Women's groups, along with doctors and lawyers, organized a movement to reform abortion laws. Reformers cited inequalities between men and women that were exacerbated by women's inability to adequately control their reproductive lives. The post World War II population explosion also increased awareness about the environment and the need to limit family size.
In other countries, abortions were legal and generally safe, but in the United States, women continued to undergo illegal abortions and risk permanent injury or death. In the 1960s, the anti-nausea drug thalidomide and an outbreak of German measles, or rubella, caused a rash of birth defects in babies born during that decade. The increase in birth defects brought further attention to the issue since women wishing to avoid the birth of a seriously deformed child could not seek legal abortions.
Women's rights organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), lobbied for abortion law reform and filed lawsuits when lobbying efforts failed. States responded, reforming their laws about abortion, but women's rights groups continued to fight for unfettered access to abortion services for women. Anti-abortion groups fought back, arguing that a woman's right to reproductive freedom is no greater than the right of an unborn child to be born.
Roe v. Wade
The battle ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 decided the landmark abortion case of Roe v. Wade. In Roe, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is legal and provided guidelines for the states, dividing pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters:
After Roe v. Wade
Abortion is a divisive issue in the United States, and powerful and wealthy groups regularly attempt to impact the law in their favor. Groups opposed to abortions, also called "pro-life" organizations, sponsor legislation to overturn Roe and demonstrate outside abortion clinics. Over the years, several abortion clinics have been bombed, causing many injuries and deaths.
In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a nationwide ban on partial birth abortion, a form of late term abortion. Several states have imposed abortion restrictions, requiring parental notification, mandatory disclosures of abortion risks, and restrictions on late-term abortions.
Texas Abortion Law Struck Down by Supreme Court
In the 2016 case Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that required two things:
Proponents of the law justified it as an attempt to protect women’s health, while those opposed to the law argued that it was an undue burden on women seeking abortions without sufficient medical reasons. The Court reasoned that despite arguments that the restrictions were designed to protect women's health, the laws were unconstitutional and unduly burdened women who were seeking abortions.
The ruling will likely affect similar laws in about a dozen other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Get Legal Help with Your Questions About Abortion Laws
As you can see, abortion has been a contentious issue throughout the history of the U.S., and there are ongoing legal challenges to laws relating to abortion. This can make it hard to know exactly what the laws are in your state at any given time. You can learn more about current abortion laws, as well as other reproductive rights, by speaking with a qualified family law attorney in your area.