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Abortion Is as Old as Pregnancy: 4,000 Years of Reproductive Rights History

On Roe v. Wade’s 43rd anniversary, a look at abortion history offers perspective on the current era of decreased access.

Art from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript features a herbalist preparing a concotion containing pennyroyal for a woman. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Abortion has always existed. The earliest written record of abortion is more than 4,000 years old. Pregnancy has always been accompanied by the seeking and sharing of methods for ending pregnancy.

The United States’ history with abortion is complicated and currently in flux. Up until 1821, abortion simply existed and, like pregnancy and other “woman-related” business, was entrusted to midwives and other caregivers. The transition to outright criminalization of abortion would take more than 50 years; prohibition would last a century.

Because Roe v. Wade – which turns 43 today – decriminalized abortion through a right to privacy framework, states have been allowed to enact some restrictions on later-term abortions since 1973. We are in yet another new era – one of decreased access to safe, legal abortion care, which has sparked a collaborative effort of grassroots activists and large, national organizations to reverse this dangerous trend.

Abortion in Times of Old

Instructions for inducing an abortion appear in the Bible. In Numbers 5:11-31, God is described as instructing Moses to present “The Test for an Unfaithful Wife” (NIV) – a ritual to be used by priests against women accused by their husbands of unfaithfulness. The ritual involves the drinking of “bitter water,” a potion that will abort any pregnancies that result from “having sexual relations with a man other than your husband.”

Rickie Solinger, historian and author of Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know and What Is Reproductive Justice?, which will be published next year, described the scope of methods used over time to Truthout.

“In Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, John Riddle showed, through extraordinary scholarly sleuthing, that women from ancient Egyptian times to the 15th century had relied on an extensive pharmacopoeia of herbal abortifacients and contraceptives to regulate fertility,” Solinger said.

The comprehensive timeline from 4000 Years for Choice, an organization which celebrates the reproductive roots of abortion and contraception through art and education, tracks abortion all the way back to the 3000s BCE, referencing the Royal Archives of China, which holds the earliest written record of an abortion technique.

“Women always have and always will have abortions,” Heather Ault, 4000 Years for Choice founder and graphic designer, told Truthout. “It’s fundamental to human existence, and all human societies around the world have practiced forms of controlling pregnancy, to various degrees of effectiveness with the tools and knowledge they had available at that time, whether it be toxic herbs, early surgical methods or magic and spells.”

Ault’s US timeline picks up in the 1600s when enslaved African women were using the cottonwood plant to abort fetuses in a moment when many pregnancies were the result of rape by slave owners, and colonial women used “the savin from the juniper bush, pennyroyal, tansy, ergot, and seneca snakeroot to abort pregnancies.” Until the early 1800s, abortion was legal through common law before “quickening,” when the baby’s first detectable motion in the womb indicated it was alive (approximately the fourth month). After quickening, inducing a miscarriage was a common law misdemeanor.

In 1821, however, Connecticut passed the country’s first abortion restriction to make using “poison” after quickening a crime punishable by life in prison. (The sentence would later be reduced to 10 years.) Several states followed suit and by the end of the 19th century, every state except Kentucky – which waited until 1910 – had passed anti-abortion legislation. The American Medical Association, which formed in 1857 and immediately set out to make all abortion illegal, provided legitimacy to the incremental infringement on bodily autonomy.

Then, the politician and “morality” advocate Anthony Comstock began his crusade against birth control, sex workers and eventually abortion. In 1873, the “Comstock Law” outlawed contraception and abortion with limited exceptions for health. With the passage of this law, women lost what had been their common law right.

“Anthony Comstock was the main anti-choice person who, in the late 1800s, starting burning books and made it illegal for anything to be sent through the mail having to do with sexuality,” Ault said. “He later jailed Margaret Sanger [for defying the contraception prohibition] and was on her case until he died.”

By the late 1920s, some 15,000 women a year died from abortions because safe, legal procedures were nearly impossible for most to obtain. According to 4000 Years for Choice, dangerous self-induction methods included using knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors and buttonhooks. With the death toll rising, physicians in the 1930s began providing abortion care through underground clinics and in subsequent decades individuals and doctors banded together to work around and protest the prohibition.

According to David Grimes, former chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the 1950s, approximately 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal, unsafe abortions were performed per year.

The horror stories of the pre-Roe back-alley days are well documented. Brave people have increasingly been telling their stories as they’ve watched the flurry of anti-abortion laws passing in states across the country bring back flashes of the bad old days. Their words bring the mortality statistics of the abortion prohibition days into stark focus, but our elected officials have largely brushed them aside.

Abortion After Roe v. Wade

Finally, after 100 years without access to safe, legal abortion in the United States, Dallas area resident Norma L. McCorvey’s (“Jane Roe”) case claiming a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated her constitutional rights arrived at the Supreme Court. On January 22, 1973, the court’s 7-2 decision found that the Texas law violated four separate constitutional amendments and declared an individual’s “zone of privacy” extended to their doctor’s office, thus lifting the ban on abortion. Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision stated that more narrow state laws could be constitutional after the point of viability for the fetus; this, unfortunately, has allowed the onslaught of state-level restrictions that has intensified since 2011.

The United Nations may have declared that “unnecessary restrictions on abortion should be removed and governments should provide access to safe abortion services,” but US legislators seem not to have gotten the message. The Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health and rights research and education group, reports that in just the past four years, 231 abortion restrictions have been enacted at the state level. The Population Institute’s latest “50 State Report Card” grades the US overall at a D+ in overall reproductive rights and health – a slip from 2014’s C rating. Guttmacher now ranks 27 states as either “hostile” or “extremely hostile” to abortion.

While 17 states have introduced 95 measures designed to expand access to abortion – more positive measures than in any year since 1990 – these laws aren’t passing at a rate that rivals the effectiveness of the anti-abortion movement and its legislators. As Heather D. Boonstra, Guttmacher Institute’s director of public policy, wrote at The Hill, “for many women in the United States, safe and legal abortion has long been out of reach.”

This year, reproductive rights and justice groups as well as grassroots activists are pushing for new legislation – like Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-California) Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act – to “Reclaim Roe” and begin reversing the trend of restrictions that disproportionately affect the poor and communities of color.

Reclaiming Roe

The real test for whether Roe is reclaimable comes this March when the Supreme Court hears its first abortion case in eight years: Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a case concerning a Texas law designed to close down more than 75 percent of clinics that provide abortion services in the state, which was made famous by the filibuster in the Texas Capitol in 2013. The law has been described by many opponents as a de facto abortion ban.

With a historic set of 45 amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, including expert legal, legislative and medical opinions as well as the abortion stories of a wide variety of people – attorneys, legislators, stay-at-home parents, immigrants, undocumented people and youth – the justices will have all the data ahead of arguments on March 2. This decision will determine whether reducing abortion clinic numbers into single digits for a state the size of Texas constitutes an “undue burden,” and will possibly set new precedent for the country.

“The Supreme Court has never wavered in affirming that every woman has a right to safely and legally end a pregnancy in the US – and this extreme abortion ban was a direct affront to that right,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We now look to the justices to ensure Texas women are not robbed of their health, dignity and rights under false pretenses and strike down the state’s deceptive clinic shutdown law currently under review.”

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