Abortion in the U.S.: Past, Present and Future
The women’s rights movement in the United States has changed focus several times. The first women’s rights convention, Seneca Falls, brought to the surface many issues facing women at the time. Women were not allowed to own property, have custody of their children after a divorce, limited in their career choices, pursue an education, or vote. Efforts made by activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, helped improve the lives of women around the United States. After women gained the right to vote in 1920, the women’s rights movement shifted its attention to reproductive rights.
One of the first activists in support of reproductive rights was Margaret Sanger. Sanger grew up in New York and was from a large family. She saw first-hand the struggles her mother faced while trying to raise 11 children. On top of this, her mother experienced seven miscarriages. Because of her upbringing, Sanger grew up to become a public health nurse. She advocated for the idea that women should have complete control of their own bodies, especially over their own reproduction and sexuality. Sanger also supported education on birth control methods.
Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. There, women could get information and advice about birth control. The police quickly shut down the program and arrested Sanger. The arrest further motivated Sanger to support women’s reproductive rights. In 1923, Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and also partnered with the American Birth Control League. These two programs would unite to become Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Their goal was to provide women with birth control, perform research, and collect information about the safety of birth control.
(Above) Margaret Sanger
Source: Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105458)
During the 1800s, abortion in the United States was legal as long as it was done before a baby’s kick would be felt. It was also practiced by many women. The resources for these abortions were dangerous drugs which often caused adverse health effects in women. Due to this, regulations were implemented to prevent the use of those drugs.
Even after the development of these regulations, the drugs were widely available and advertised. The rise of abortions was of concern to two parties: physicians and nativists. Physicians were concerned about the increase in their competitors, consisting of midwives and alternative medicine professionals who were also providing abortion drugs. Activists for Native Americans were concerned by the increasing rates of immigrant populations and the decreasing birth rates of American Protestant women.
In the 1850s, the American Medical Association asserted views that supported the illegalization of abortion. Their primary motivation was to remove the physicians’ competition.
Later, in 1869, the Catholic Church prohibited abortion, and in 1873, Congress constituted the Comstock law which made delivery of contraceptives and abortion pills by U.S. mail illegal. By the 1880s, abortion was illegal in most of the country. In the 1960s, the women’s rights movement had gained steam. Roe v. Wade was soon to take place.
In 1969, Norma McCorvey, a woman in the late 1920s living in Texas, wanted to have an abortion and even considered doing it illegally. Due to the black-market abortion not working, she worked with Texas attorneys, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, to argue against Henry Wade, the Dallas country district attorney, in the Roe v. Wade case to make abortion bans illegal. The case was brought before the United States Supreme Court, leading to the groundbreaking decision that abortion bans were illegal as they disregard the “constitutional right to privacy.” Additionally, in 1965, the United States Supreme Court dismissed laws prohibiting the distribution of birth control to married couples, and, in 1972, they dismissed the law which banned providing contraceptives to unmarried adults.
More recently, in 2017, President Trump’s appointments of Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh has led to a right-leaning Supreme Court. Now, many states, pro-life groups and pro-choice groups have been involved in abortion-related law-making. Since early March of 2019, ten states have passed legislation either making abortion illegal or creating a cut-off for when women are allowed to get an abortion (Milligan, 2019). The inflow of legislation is not surprising due to the newly turned conservative United States Supreme Court. Abortion-related bills passed are attempts by state governments and anti-abortion organizations to try to overturn Roe v. Wade (Rosenburg, 2019). There are definitive patterns of the states and representatives who advocated against the current federal laws about abortion.
While many states are moving to restrict access to abortion, some are choosing to protect access to abortion. In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a law making access to abortion a fundamental right, effectively solidifying Roe into state law. Rhode Island passed a similar measure, and Illinois is considering doing the same. Others, like Maine, are working to expand abortion access. Maine has increased insurance coverage for abortion under MaineCare (the state’s Medicaid program). They have also passed a separate law allowing for non-physician health professionals to perform abortions. Physician-only laws, which would prevent other health professionals from performing abortions, are also being challenged in Virginia, Maine, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Arizona (AP, 2019). Allowing non-physician health professionals to provide abortion services would increase its accessibility in rural areas. Other groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are presenting legal challenges to restrictions passed by multiple states (ACLU, 2019).
In our own state, Ohio has taken a particularly restrictive stance against the current federal abortion standards. A bill known as the Heartbeat Bill passed in April of 2019 after Governor Dewine signed it, but this was not the first time that it was brought up. It was vetoed twice by former Ohio Governor Kasich, and the bill has passed in other states (Rosenburg, 2019).
As the name implies, the bill makes it illegal to have an abortion once the heartbeat is detected. However, because a fetal heartbeat is detected at the six to seven-week mark, most women do not even know they are pregnant until after a heartbeat could be detected through robust medical devices (“Concerns Regarding Early Fetal Development,” 2019). Ohio even encouraged the use of transvaginal ultrasounds which can detect the heartbeat at the five-week mark, further limiting a woman’s time to have the procedure.
The Ohio Heartbeat Bill makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest also. It does allow an exception if there is a medical threat to the mother’s life. However, the bill was stopped by Federal Judge Michael Barnett in early July due to it being unconstitutional in its written form (“Judge Blocks Ohio,” 2019). The bill is currently at the Supreme Court. However, Ohio is not the only state to have passed a bill limiting the time for an abortion. Much of the south has passed similar or more restrictive bills.
Other Requirements that Block Women from Abortion
Despite the inflow of legislation limiting the time to have an abortion, there are other methods to limit a woman’s ability to have an abortion. These include punishments for doctors performing abortions past the time limit or making it difficult for people to find a location. Several states require excess abortion requirements that serve no purpose for the wellbeing of the mother, fetus, or doctors. There are often several requirements to ensure that doctors work at a local hospital. This becomes tedious for the doctors performing abortions as they must be technically employed by the hospital, making doctors working at a private office unable to perform abortions. This requirement is also unnecessary because the procedure does not take place at the local hospital (Higgins 2019). Other regulations for the clinics themselves have caused a severe decline in abortion clinics available, including requiring unnecessary equipment and larger hallways.
Louisiana is one example of a state that implemented these regulations. After further research into Louisiana’s regulations, it was discovered only one doctor and one clinic would be able to conform to the regulations (Milligan 2019). The regulations are not meant to help the women seeking abortions, but rather they are extra requirements that limit the number of places available for abortions to make it harder for women to get abortions. There has been a steady decline of abortions clinics in the United States.
One of the most worrisome conditions for several states, including Ohio and Alabama, is the waiting period for an abortion and the state-mandated counseling (Rosenburg, 2019). A woman could be able to go to one of the limited locations, within the restricted time period and still be subjected to mandated counseling where she is discouraged from having an abortion. Both Ohio and Alabama require a waiting period after counseling of at least twenty-four hours, thus ensuring a return trip to the clinic. Many argue that abortions are a woman’s constitutional right and that these limitations of time and location impose an undue burden on that.
Safety of Abortions
Despite claims that modern-day abortion is dangerous, research has shown that denying women abortions has harmful effects on their well-being. One in twenty women mentioned health and safety concerns for getting an abortion, but research has actually found that, in the short-term, abortion is safer than childbirth. Complications come up in abortions only 0.25% of the time. In fact, abortion is safer than a wisdom tooth extraction.
Health Concerns from Abortion Denials
A 2017 research study found that the rejection of having an abortion led to a significantly greater risk of short-term and long-term mental issues. The long-term mental health effects include anxiety symptoms, lower self-esteem and lower life satisfaction.
Along with the potential of psychological outcomes from being denied an abortion, a study done across thirty U.S. abortion clinics found the physical well-being of the women denied was significantly worse after five years compared to the women able to have an abortion. Clinics denied the women because they had been pregnant for longer than the clinic’s limit. This study also showed there was no difference between physical health outcomes between women with a first or second-trimester abortion, including chronic conditions, chronic pain, and overall self-rated health. So, current research states that abortions are safe but denying an abortion can actually harm women.
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