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The History of Abortion

Abortion laws and their enforcement have fluctuated through various eras. Learn more about the history of abortion now.

Written by

Sally Rashid

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While it’s a heavily debated topic, the facts are clear: abortion is a normal and safe medical procedure that is had in about half of unintended pregnancies. The practice has been a part of reproductive health since the dawn of time and in fact, the first written record of abortion is noted in the Royal Archives of China over 4,000 years ago!!

There are many opinions on the religious, philosophical, social, and moral schools of thought on abortion. Many scholars, religious leaders, and lawmakers agree that the decision to have an abortion is solely up to the person who is pregnant. At Hey Jane, we believe that those who are most affected should control the narrative around abortion and that they are best suited to make decisions about their reproductive health.

The public opinion on abortion has changed over time and continues to evolve. Prior to the mid-1800’s, abortion was not nearly as taboo as it is today, as abortion was considered a “woman’s issue,” and thus something that lawmakers steered away from discussing. At that time, pharmacies who provided medications used to end pregnancies advertised in newspapers and abortions were commonly performed by the local midwife. Not all women had such access, however, as enslaved Black women were often kept from abortive treatment and forced into pregnancy. These women often developed their own practices to end unwanted pregnancies through generational knowledge and by utilizing the skills of the midwives who served them, who were often enslaved themselves. These midwives had a vast knowledge of herbal remedies to regulate menstrual cycles, prevent pregnancy, and cause abortion and were an important facet in reproductive freedom.

The Criminalization of Abortion

In the mid to late 1800’s, American physicians sought to overtake the business of midwives and argued that midwifery itself was a dangerous practice. Midwives who wanted education were denied it, as the American Medical Association continued to discriminate against women and people of color. This reduced the number of practicing midwives and made access to care more difficult. The AMA also voiced concerns that abortion might encourage women to overlook “the duties imposed on her by her marriage contract” and advocated against the practice.

Around this same time, stricter sexual and social norms led to increased stigma surrounding abortion. US postal inspector turned politician, Anthony Comstock, lobbied for the creation of a set of “chastity” laws, or regulations aimed at preventing obscenity and lewdness by deeming the production of certain literature, mail, and advertisements illegal. This made it exceptionally difficult for pregnant people to find pharmacies or healthcare providers.

The Feminist Movement for Abortion Rights

Margaret Sanger, an obstetric nurse in New York City, saw some of the most difficult aspects of birthing and recognized the toll that the lack of birth control took on women, especially working-class women. She sought to challenge the Comstock laws by creating educational material and promoting access to reproductive care.

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She is responsible for the founding of Planned Parenthood, a non-profit which provides sexual healthcare to millions of Americans every year. While she believed and promoted the idea that people should only have the children they want to have, it should be noted that she was also tied to a eugenics movement popular in the 1920’s. Still, while white women tend to be the center of discussion around the suffragette movement, Black Suffragists swung a broad sword to advocate for racial and social equality as well as in laying the foundation for what we know as intersectional feminism today.

Birth Control and Abortion Access

In 1960, the FDA cleared the first birth control pill, known as enovid-10. Initially, enovid-10 was advertised as a medication for treating menstrual irregularities in part because of the Comstock laws and lingering conservative ideologies around sex. Looking back you’d likely find a spike in people suffering from menstrual irregularities many of whom were likely using enovid for it’s side effect, it stopped ovulation. It wasn’t a secret for long, however, and in 1965 Planned Parenthood of Connecticut won a case in the Supreme Court which removed restrictions on married couples from using birth control. It wasn’t until the 1970’s and 1980’s that birth control was more readily available. Access to the birth control pill gave menstruating people the power to prevent pregnancy in most cases and reduced the need for abortions. Today, widely acccesible birth control is responsible for a decline in abortion rates worldwide.

Still, abortion remains a fact of life and protecting the right to accessing safe abortion is essential in creating gender-based, racial, and social equality. Before Roe V Wade, the historic Supreme Court case which legalized abortion federally, groups like The Jane Collective counseled pregnant people in a secret location and helped them access safe-as-possible abortions. There were risks in seeking out an abortion from an unregulated market as infection-control and patient follow up care were sometimes difficult to manage or were never put in place at all. Many people suffered from infections, uncontrolled bleeding or worse. Other pregnant people attempted to end their pregnancies by themselves via unsafe methods and many people died. All of these deaths and complications were preventable had safe and accessible abortion been available. Activists and organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood recognized this injustice and fought to make abortion a federal right. In 1973, the Supreme Court weighed the case of Roe V. Wade and voted to protect a pregnant person’s right to choose abortion should they want one. Following Roe v. Wade, abortion procedures and techniques improved making abortion safer than ever before. Today, abortion continues to be one of the safest medical procedures performed.

In 2000, the FDA approved today’s very common medication abortion treatment which involves a dose of mifepristone that stops the pregnancy from developing followed by misoprostol, a medication which causes menstrual like bleeding that empties the uterus. Long before 2000, however, pregnant people in places like Brazil, where the abortion laws are still very strict, were using misoprostol to safely end their pregnancies. Originally developed to treat stomach ulcers, Brazilian women quickly adapted its use to safely manage unwanted pregnancies at risk of both legal and societal repercussions.  Because of their bravery and resilience to control their own reproductive health, we’re aware of the safety and possibility surrounding medication abortion. Once thought to be a complex medical procedure, we now know that pregnant people can safely manage their abortion at home via medication abortion.

Where is Abortion Access Today?

Unfortunately, the right to safe and accessible abortion is not available to all pregnant people. Some states have laws which criminalize doctors who perform abortions, make it illegal to have an abortion after 6 weeks in gestational age, or require medically unecessary waiting periods. State restrictions, along with poverty, racism, and immigration status, make access to abortion difficult, putting people’s lives in jeopardy. States with more abortion restrictions have higher instances of infant and maternal mortality, especially for women of color. Thankfully, organizations like the National Network of Abortion Funds and Haven Coalition help those facing these obstacles by providing funds, transportation and care to pregnant people in need of abortion treatment.

Access to information itself is also sometimes difficult for pregnant people seeking unbiased information regarding their pregnancy options. Anti-choice organizations flood the internet with false information intended to overwhelm pregnant people from making honest choices regarding their pregnancy. These organizations may make claims that abortion is harmful to your mental and physical health. However, the data around abortion is clear; abortion is very safe and has no long-term impact on your mental or physical health. Access to abortion is central to obtaining an equal society for women and studies show that 99% of women* say they “feel relief, not regret” after their abortion.

How to Get an Abortion at Home

Abortion advocates and healthcare providers have been working hard to ensure that everyone who wants an abortion, has access to one. The growing popularity of telehealth and medication abortion has made it possible to have your abortion at home or wherever you feel most comfortable eliminating a serious barrier to abortion access: finding an in-person clinic. Hey Jane offers virtual office visits for people who are over 18 years old and up to 11 weeks pregnant. To use our virtual healthcare service, verify that you live in an eligible state here and speak with a licensed abortion provider via a secure chat. A provider will review your health history and answer any of your questions about having a medication abortion. Once approved, you’ll receive your abortion medications in an unmarked box in 1-3 days.

Hey Jane offers text-support 7 days a week, from 10am to 8pm EST at (405) 342-3654. If you’re a current patient in need of urgent care, we are available 24-hours a day. If you have any questions, check out our resources for support, as well as our FAQs for more information.

Written by

Sally Rashid

Sally Rashid is a Registered Nurse and writer living in Detroit, Michigan. She has worked in reproductive care for a decade as a doula, nurse, and advocate for abortion access. Sally was a 2020 winner of Yes, And Laughter Lab's competitive incubation program for her work as writer and co-creator of Darling, a dark comedy about an abortion clinic at constant risk of closure. On top of writing for the beauty and healthcare industries, Sally is an all-around creative lady who loves music, making connections, and chilling with her two cats.

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