U.S. Abortion History Timeline & Facts

The abortion issue is a debate held not only in America and not only in this present day. Abortions weren’t always controversial, but they became illegal shortly before the 1900s. As time passed the laws eased, but an astounding 1,193 state laws still restricted the procedure. Then in 1973, Roe vs Wade made it legal across the nation. The long history of abortion is fascinating, so keep reading to learn more.

U.S. Abortion History Timeline icon

When Did Abortion Start?

Abortion isn’t a new concept. In fact, there is evidence of abortion taking place far in the past and from all around the world.

History of Abortion in the World

Scholars have spent decades studying abortion and its history. What they’ve discovered is this: women have been having abortions for as long as they’ve been giving birth.

  • Biblical Era (Old Testament): Numbers 5:11- 31 states that, if a woman strays from her husband, he must bring her to the priest, who will serve her “bitter water that brings a curse.” Essentially condemning her to miscarry.
  • Ancient Egyptians: The Kahun Papyrus outlines the use of crocodile dung in a dough that is inserted into the vagina as a spermicide and to induce a miscarriage.
  • Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Europeans: A drug called pennyroyal was used in several ways, including as a culinary herb, a low dose birth control, a pest control and more. It was so popular that Aristophanes mentioned it in his play, “Lysistrata.” Pennyroyal was also mentioned as an efficient abortifacient in a text attributed to Cleopatra. It was used for centuries and grown in common household gardens, including those of the early American settlers.
  • China (3000’s BCE): Ancient China used mercury as a method of forcing a miscarriage. Their ancient handwritten texts also include 48 volumes with prescriptions for abortion.
  • America (the 1600s): African women, brought as slaves to the United States, were using cottonwood to abort as a result of rape, typically from slave owners. They also used “the savin from the juniper bush, pennyroyal, tansy, ergot, and Seneca snakeroot to abort pregnancies.”

History of Abortion in America

From the 1600s up until the 1800s, abortion was completely legal in the United States. In fact, it was so widely practiced that it was advertised in papers and could be purchased from pharmacists, homeopaths, midwives, and even sent through the mail. In the U.S., abortion was legal before “quickening” (the point at which you can feel the fetus moving in the womb). Even the church remained unopposed to abortions at this point, believing it acceptable until “ensoulment” (also believed to be the point of quickening).

So, when did the view of abortion change from being a common, well-advertised practice into one fraught with disapproval, illegality, moral objections and stigma?

History of Abortion in the U.S.

America’s abortion history reaches back to long before it was considered illegal. It was common among slaves and settlers alike. What changed the perception of abortion wasn’t a matter of religion, but more of politics and discrimination.

Factors Leading to Abortion Illegalization

Discrimination was at the heart of the illegalization of abortion in America, as there was motivation in the medical community to gain control of and profit from such a popular procedure.

It’s complex, but there were many events that led to this. Here’s what was going on at the time:

  • Eugenics Movement (late 19th – early 20th centuries): Declining birth rate among Northern European settlers led to the government promoting the role of families and warning against “race suicide.” There was fear that incoming immigrants would soon dominate the population. In addition, capitalism relied on women’s work in lower-paying jobs (such as housemaids, fabric workers, caregivers, etc), and having a family was thought to keep them in more domestic roles.
  • Women’s Suffrage Movement (1840-1920): Starting around the 1860s, the women’s suffrage movement wasn’t just about voting, but a general push for economic and political equality for women. It resulted in an increase in the employment of women in America from 2.7 million to 7.8 million, as well as petitioning for their entry into universities, particularly Harvard for subjects such as gynecology. Denial of acceptance to top schools and programs forced women to create their own organizations and classes, which they positioned close to the Harvard campus and utilized the teachings of a few willing professors. Abortion was big business at the time and was regularly advertised in magazines, newspapers and by traveling salesmen who peddled birth control methods. However, as it was an issue directly to do with women’s bodies, it often fell to the women to act in the roles of caregivers, midwives, apothecaries, homeopaths, etc. Men (who dominated the medical community) began to worry about the rise of women’s suffrage, believing their jobs were in jeopardy.
  • The American Medical Association (AMA) (founded 1847 – present): This coalesced into the creation of the AMA (American Medical Association), which immediately set out to make abortions completely illegal in the U.S. The thought was that it kept women from dominating the medical field, since abortions would only be permitted in times of saving the life of the mother – which required the recommendation of doctor.

Key Players

  • Horatio Storer: Often noted as “the founder of modern gynecology,” the alumni of Harvard (where his father also taught) joined the new AMA and formed the Committee on Criminal Abortion. He also wrote nine medical documents on abortion, in addition to a book geared towards women that meant to shape their perspective of abortion toward one of moral objections and criminality. This general campaign started in 1856 and by 1860, twenty states had enacted laws limiting abortion.
  • Anthony Comstock: Born into a deeply religious family in 1844, Anthony embraced and carried that fervor to his grave. Throughout his life, he was gravely disconcerted by the rampant porn, prostitution, and promiscuity that he saw in Boston. He campaigned heavily against it, vowing to clean up the streets, and was supported by some of the wealthiest people of the time.  With their backing, Anthony was able to bring his devout beliefs and criticisms to the public, resulting in the Comstock Act of 1873, which forbid the use of contraception and abortifacients.

His efforts didn’t stop there, and while more people rose to oppose him, the number of supporters also rose. In general, the 1800s brought many changes to the lives of women, especially concerning their reproductive rights. Efforts were made to gain and maintain control over the medical sphere, protect capitalism and keep women in mostly domestic roles. Along with this and moving forward into America’s next century, several laws came into play over the course of over 100 years.

History of Abortion Laws

The history of abortion in the United States is somewhat of a rollercoaster, involving a host of political elements and laws, not the least of which was the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade. It’s a topic that has often been met with resistance. Here’s a history of abortion timeline of laws, beginning in 1821 Connecticut.

1821 – Connecticut: The first restrictive law on abortion was passed, making it illegal for a pregnant woman to receive or take any type of “poison” intended for miscarriage. Contributing to this was the popularity of pennyroyal and other such drugs, which taken incorrectly or at too high a dose, caused death.

1860: 20 states had laws against abortion.

1873: The Comstock Law criminalized contraception and abortion, except in cases deemed absolutely necessary by a licensed doctor.

1890: More statutes restricting abortion unless medically necessary cropped up around the U.S., advocated by the American Medical Association.

1896: The Chicago Health Department enforced rules on their midwives that disallowed them to own any instrument used in abortion procedures. There was also a growing trend in facilities, organizations, and even newspapers to diminish the reputations of abortionists. It became a long campaign of changing public opinion on abortion.

1965: Griswold v. Connecticut (a court case about contraception) ruled in favor of a woman’s privacy.

1967: Colorado relaxed its abortion laws.

1970-74: More states relaxed their abortion laws (including Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington).

1972: Eisenstadt v. Baird determined that married couples have the right to information involving contraception.

1973: Elected and voluntary abortions remained illegal until the Roe v. Wade case when it was ruled that women had the right to privacy, which included their decision to terminate.

1976: The Hyde Amendment passed, preventing the funding of abortion through Medicaid.

2000: Stenberg v. Carhart ruled against the ban on partial-birth abortions by Nebraska law. The ruling on this case by the Supreme Court eliminated 29 other statewide bans.

2003: After passed by Congress, President Bush signed into law a federal ban on all abortion procedures, which was immediately struck down by the National Abortion Federation in court.

History of Abortion Methods

Throughout history, cultures relied heavily on herbal and seemingly harsh and obscure methods to force miscarriages, including the use of pennyroyal and crocodile dung, starvation, the tightening of one’s girdle, and physical abuse. How and when did these transition into the methods we know and use today?

1600’s: By this point, syphilis had become a problem. Condoms were created using linen or animal intestines and were often coated with a type of spermicide.

1800’s: The use of herbs and other dangerous methods continued until the 1800s, which saw the rise of more science-based medicines. Dr. Bronson’s Female Pills were advertised with the words, “remove difficulties arising from obstruction.”

1830’s: Madame Restell became the most notable abortionist for more than 35 years. She advertised pills and powders through magazines and traveling saleswomen. When those methods didn’t work, women were directed to her clinic for a surgical procedure.

1866: Syringes were advertised to “destroy the life properties” of sperm.

1900’s: By now, abortion was illegal. Women forced miscarriages through back-alley abortions or self-harm, which included the use of “knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, and button hooks to induce miscarriage and terminate pregnancies, often causing serious injuries to themselves or death” (source).

Pre-1930: Until about 1930, surgical abortions were more about forcing a miscarriage. Surgical (“back alley”) abortions created a death and trauma toll much higher than that of childbirth, though statistics are vague. The number of back-alley abortions rose during the Great Depression, skyrocketing the number of female deaths, infections, and sterilization through infection.

1965: The abortion pill was put on the market, but could only be taken by married women who were prescribed the pills by a doctor.

Abortion methods have evolved and transitioned over the course of U.S. history from being more dangerous than childbirth to one of the safest producers you can get. We arrived at this point with the aid of dozens of significant women, such as Madame Restell and Margaret Sanger, along with the women who stood for change in court and founded such organizations as The Feminist Women’s Health Center and The American Birth Control League.

Abortion in America Today

Abortion today is safe, effective and has limited, if any, side effects. By remaining legal and accessible, the development and improvement of procedures and medications can remain strong in safety and effectiveness.

The health and safety of women and their right to receive abortion care will always remain a priority of Eastside Gynecology. To learn more abortion history facts and about our abortion services, contact us.