By Katya Derevo
In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Roe v. Wade that the right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a person’s decision to have an abortion. It was a monumental victory for proponents of reproductive rights, paving the way for people to have an abortion early in pregnancy without having to justify their reasons to the state.
The plaintiff in the case, “Jane Roe,” was an unmarried woman who became pregnant in 1970 and wished to terminate the pregnancy. Under the law in Texas, where she lived, it was a felony to abort a fetus unless “on medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.” She filed a suit against the district attorney in her county, arguing that the abortion ban violated the guarantee of personal liberty and the right to privacy implicitly guaranteed in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and 14th Amendments.
There had been other significant court cases that dealt with abortion in the United States in the years leading up to Roe. One included People v. Belous in 1969, which struck down an anti-abortion law in California and placed doctors at the center of the abortion debate instead of lawmakers. Another was Doe v. Scott in 1971, which declared Illinois’ anti-abortion law unconstitutional. Cases like these helped pave the way for what would become the most important decision in the fight for reproductive rights.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade wasn’t just a win for Texas residents; it overruled all state laws that prohibited first trimester abortions.
Abortion at the time was a controversial topic and the decision made in the Roe case galvanized anti-abortion activists into extremists willing to resort to anything, including terrorism, to fight against reproductive rights. Forty-six years later, the United States is still divided on the topic of abortion. In more recent years, there has been a surge of anti-abortion legislation, aimed at restricting bodily autonomy under the guise of “protecting children,” but at its core, the goal of the anti-abortion movement is gender oppression and keeping people in a cycle of poverty. It’s never really been about protecting “life.”
The “pro-life” movement’s history of violence
Following the decision of Roe, there were many people on the so-called “pro-life” (anti-abortion) side of the argument who began protesting and picketing at the clinics of abortion providers. These peaceful demonstrations quickly moved to harassment and, eventually, blocking clinic entrances altogether with the hopes of turning patients away.
The first reported clinic arson occurred in 1976 and a series of bombings followed in 1978. These were some of the first reported instances of violence, but the violence has continued through present day. Anti-abortion extremists have even been known to use butyric acid, a corrosive chemical, and anthrax against clinics and staff. Some clinics have even been the target of gun violence.
It was in the early 1990s that anti-abortion extremists became emboldened enough to resort to murdering abortion providers, with the first occurring in 1993. So far, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders that have occurred due to anti-abortion violence. Several doctors have been attacked in their own homes.
One of the most well-known stories is that of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the United States who would be willing to perform late-term abortions. On a Sunday in 2009, an anti-abortion extremist who would become his killer waited in the pews of the church that Dr. Tiller attended and waited until he had finished ushering people in. When Dr. Tiller made it to the foyer, the extremist pressed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Tightening abortion restrictions around the U.S.
Donald Trump ran for president in the 2016 election under the promise that he would appoint “pro-life justices [to] the [Supreme Court].” Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh was appointed, with great controversy over sexual assault allegations, in 2018. It’s believed that both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh would help to tip the scales of the Supreme Court in favor of more “pro-life” policy should the topic of abortion ever reach the Supreme Court in the future.
It seems that what Republican lawmakers are trying to do is pass laws that patients will try to challenge in court. If an abortion case were to make it to the Supreme Court in the future, there is a chance that Roe could be struck down, which would be disastrous for people who seek to have abortions in the future.
Georgia has become one of the most recent states to criminalize abortion. On May 7, Governor Brian Kemp signed a law that would effectively ban abortion in the state starting in 2020. The law is one of a number of “heartbeat bills” that have been pushed through around the country. It would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can begin between five and six weeks of gestation, even though people don’t even realize that they are pregnant until this time.
Similar heartbeat bills have recently been passed in Ohio, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa and Kentucky, though some have been struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional. There have already been challenges to some of these laws. Politicians in Texas have threatened the death penalty for patients who have abortions and, recently, the state’s Senate passed a law that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases where the fetus is not expected to survive after birth.
On May 16, Alabama went a step further and passed the most restrictive abortion legislation in the U.S. It’s a near-complete ban on abortion, allowing exceptions “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother” (including ectopic pregnancy) and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly.” There are no exceptions for rape or incest and doctors who perform abortions under this legislation could face life imprisonment.
Abortions are as old as pregnancy itself
Though anti-abortion activists generally seem to ignore this fact, abortion has been a part of life for all of human history. The earliest written record of abortion is from 4,000 years ago, and up until the mid-19th century, abortion was not only legal in the United States, it was just a way of life. Even the Bible talks about abortion.
Heather Ault, the founder of 4,000 Years for Choice said that humans will always have abortions: “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.”
Some of the earliest methods of abortion most often included the use of different herbs and plants, with pennyroyal being one of the most notable, but also one of the most dangerous. Catnip, rue, sage, savory, cypress, hellebore, parsley, lavender, thyme and savin juniper are others that have been mentioned as both abortifacients, which induce abortion, and emmenagogues, which stimulates menstruation. Since the most common cause of a late menstrual cycle is pregnancy, it would make sense to use both.
Another plant called the worm fern was even nicknamed “prostitute’s root” for its ability to induce abortion, proving just how important some of these abortifacients were in society.
Even Hippocrates, who was a Greek physician and one of the most prominent figures in the history of medicine, offered abortion options to his patients, though his methods tended to avoid pessaries and potions that others offered as he felt they were too dangerous for his patients.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people in the United States began to push for abortion restrictions. Before obstetrics and gynecology became an important field in medicine, midwifery was considered the standard of care for pregnancy and delivery. The American Medical Association (AMA), only ten years after it was founded, began a crusade against abortion in 1857. It was mostly about control of the medical field and restricting their competitors, namely midwives and homeopaths. There was also backlash against women of the time period, who were lobbying for entrance into Harvard Medical School to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynecology themselves.
Additionally, there was significant anti-immigrant sentiment among people in the United States in the mid-1800s as well. Many of the people seeking abortions were married, white, native-born Protestant women from the upper and middle classes. Abortion, as well as efforts to prevent pregnancy, were lowering birth rates among white people in the country. White male patriotism demanded that Protestant women have more children.
The AMA’s anti-abortion campaign was led mostly by Dr. Horatio Storer, who believed that native-born white people needed to continue populating the country, especially the south and the west. This belief led him to ask the question, “Shall [these regions] be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”
The campaign was successful. Abortion was criminalized around the U.S. by 1880 except in cases where the patient’s life is in danger. It wasn’t until 1967 that Colorado became the first state to legalize abortion.
The poor working class is most often the target of these laws
Though it’s important that abortions remain accessible, legal and safe for all who wish to obtain them, there are ways to lower abortion rates through other means. The first would include comprehensive sexual education in our schools; it’s been well documented that states which focus on abstinence-only education have higher rates of teenage pregnancy.
It’s also been proven that access to free contraception can help to lower abortion rates as well. The state of Colorado proved this during a period in which they handed out free intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants to teens and poor women. Between 2009 and 2013, the teenage birth rate in the state dropped 40 percent and the abortion rate dropped 42 percent.
A couple of the biggest reasons that people choose abortion include financial difficulties and interference with work or school. In the U.S., the federal minimum wage is $7.25, which works out to just over $15,000 a year. That’s not enough to cover monthly rent in many places, nor does it include the cost of food, gas, clothing or health coverage needed to survive. Approximately 49 million people struggle to put food on the table for their families. Health care can cost people thousands of dollars a year. There’s also the cost of child care to think about, which can cost $9,000 a year or more, depending on the area.
Abortions can cost several hundred dollars, which can present a barrier for low-income people, but the price pales in comparison to the costs that come along with pregnancy and raising children.
These restrictions are meant to target poor people; while the cost of abortion itself is already a barrier, there are many states in which abortion is performed at only a handful of clinics, meaning that patients sometimes have to travel a significant distance in order to find a doctor who can perform one for them. As laws are passed that continue to restrict where and how abortions can be performed, fewer options become available for these people as more abortion clinics close.
Additionally, programs that offer free contraception not only help lower abortion rates, but also save states money. With free IUDs offered in 75 public health clinics across Colorado, the state spent approximately $28 million but it’s estimated that they saved around $70 million on labor and delivery costs, well-baby check-ups, food stamps and child care assistance for low-income people. Access to family planning not only benefits the individuals who use them by potentially raising them out of poverty, it also benefits society as a whole.
Access to family planning is essential
There is so much that we can do as a society to try to lower abortion rates. We can start with the source by ensuring that everyone is given comprehensive sexual education and free contraception. We should fight for living wages, free health care, free child care and expansions to federal welfare programs that help to feed and shelter people if we truly want to lower abortion rates. People who choose to carry their pregnancies to term have a right to have healthy children, and the best way to ensure that right is to fight for these things as well.
For example, Georgia, which has recently criminalized abortion, already has very few abortion clinics in the state: 96 percent of its counties have no abortion provider available, despite the fact that 58 percent of people of reproductive age in Georgia live in those counties. In other areas of the country, as of 2014, there were 25 states that had five abortion clinics or fewer; five of those states had just one abortion clinic. People may have to travel many miles in order to obtain an abortion, and these travel costs can add up on top of the cost of the abortions themselves.
Before abortion was officially legalized in the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions were performed in the 1950s and 1960s. Hundreds of people were dying every year because of illegal abortions. Since Roe, deaths due to complications from abortion are rare, showing the importance of making sure that abortion remains safe and accessible for those that need them.
The “pro-life” movement is not about being pro-life at all and doesn’t take into account the effects of anti-abortion legislation, nor does the movement itself push for solutions that would prevent some people from needing abortion in the first place. It’s not “pro-life,” it’s forced birth; it’s cruel to continue to push for restrictions against patients’ access to abortion. “Pro-life” policies don’t save lives, they harm them.
Just as the case was 150 years ago, the anti-abortion movement is filled to the brim with both misogyny and racism. It’s a project that’s been taken up by those with conservative business interests for the purposes of undermining public health and reinforcing gender oppression, since these people generally assume that anyone with a uterus must be a woman. The movement keeps people in a cycle of poverty, which benefits the richest among us by making sure that there are always low-income workers for capitalism to use and abuse. There is also a fear among many conservative white people that immigrants are taking over the country; with the birth rate falling to its lowest point in 30 years, there are people who will support anti-abortion efforts in an attempt to ensure that “real Americans” continue to populate the U.S.
Safe abortions will always be available to the elite who can afford them, but as restrictions tighten around the United States, it will become increasingly difficult for poor working-class people to obtain them. We have to continue to push forward and fight against those who wish to unfairly legislate our bodies for their own personal gain.