The anti-abortion rhetoric that has spread around the world might make it seem like this issue has always been controversial. However, abortion has been a well-accepted and natural part of human life for thousands of years. The history of abortion regulation is tied up in issues of racism, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, and religion.
Abortions in Ancient History
The first records we have of induced abortions are from Ancient Egypt. Other ancient civilisations such as the Greeks, Romans, and Assyrians also allowed abortions, and they were even encouraged for those who had too many children. In Roman times, more than two hundred
abortifacients had already been discovered. In Ancient Greece, the foetus was not considered as anything other than an extension of the mother until 40 days after conception for boys and 80 days for girls. The catholic church initially used this idea of 40 days as well, arguing that this was when the soul entered the body. This was around the time when pregnant people felt the foetus
‘quick’ or move for the first time. Islamic countries believed that abortion was morally wrong, but some allowed abortion as a ‘lesser evil’ to save the mother’s life.
Abortions were also a central part of life in the Middle Ages. In Europe, a village typically has a “wise” or “cunning” woman who knew which herbal remedies to give a person who wanted an abortion. At the start of the Early Modern Period, these women were often accused of witchcraft, and apothecaries took over the role of providing abortion drugs. The knowledge of the cunning women was lost, but other parts of the world continued to use herbal remedies to control fertility.
Abortion in the USA
The USA has not only had one of the most complex relationships with abortions, but they have also had a massive effect on regulation in other countries, be it through media, the ‘pro-life’ movement, or the lingering effect on territories and protectorates. It is also the most documented history and forms the basis for worldwide social and legal opinions on abortions.
Abortions were spoken of as ‘restoring menstruation’ and home remedies were often included in family recipe books. Whilst there was some religious taboo, most people did not consider abortions sinful.
Abortions became a profitable business. ‘Female pills’ were advertised openly, tonics and poultices were sold, and new midwives were trained.
Western doctors were seeking a ‘standardization’ of medicine. Male doctors claimed to have superior knowledge of the body, medicine, and sanitation than the female midwives and homoeopaths, and they lobbied the government to create new laws that would give them a monopoly over abortions. These medicalised abortions were only available for those who could pay, leaving poor women to continue to use poisons.
Contraceptive devices including the diaphragm and condoms started to enter the market.
Pope Pious 9 declared that foetuses were full humans with a soul from conception.
The ‘Comstock Laws’ which made it illegal to send ‘obscene materials that promoted lust’,
including contraceptives, sexual education pamphlets, and abortion medication, through the mail were introduced.
Therapeutic abortions which aimed to save the pregnant person’s life were still available to the rich.
‘White fright’ spread across the USA, as ideas of eugenics become more popular. Scientists argued that it was possible to weed out ‘bad traits’ spread by genetics. These traits included poverty, disability, and mental health problems.
Eugenicists started to push for the forced sterilisation of millions of poor and mentally ill people in America at the same time as advocating for a blanket ban on abortions. They were worried that those with ‘bad’ traits were having more babies than those with ‘good’ traits.
A new papal decree condemned therapeutic abortions. The combination of the societal pressure from ‘white fright’, and the church speaking out led to abortions being redefined as immoral.
Abortions were criminalised across the US except when the mother’s life was at risk. In fact, abortion was legally restricted in almost every country, with the imperial countries in Europe also imposing these anti-abortion laws on their colonies.
Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for opening a birth control centre in Brooklyn. She won her appeal, and the law was changed so that doctors were able to talk to their patients about contraception.
The American Birth Control League (1921) and the Clinical Research Bureau (1923), both established by Sanger, merged under the new name Planned Parenthood, providing counselling and contraceptives as well as conducting research into reproduction.
An underground abortion service called Jane was established. Doctors were willing to provide abortions to patients in secret, and soon a network of women was connecting those in need to these services. Jane provided safe abortions to over 11000 patients and established a training programme where volunteers were taught how to perform abortions safely themselves.
After the acquittal of Dr Alex Bourne in 1938, the UK instates The Abortion Act. Dr Bourne performed an illegal abortion on a suicidal 14-year-old girl who had been gang-raped. He argued that the law should be changed to allow abortions in life-threatening situations and he won. The new law in England, Wales, and Scotland allowed abortion to be carried out under any circumstances before 24 weeks of pregnancy, or after if the pregnant person’s life was at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.
The road to Roe vs Wade
The American Law Institute called for abortions to be legal in cases of rape or incest.
The Supreme Court abolished the Comstock laws, arguing that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right.
President Nixon signed Title 10 which made contraceptives available to everyone and funded contraceptive research and education programs. Planned Parenthood for money from Title 10 to subsidise birth control and other services for patients that couldn’t afford health insurance or other healthcare services.
Hawaii became the first state to decriminalise abortion through 20 weeks for residents. New York adopted similar rules except there was no requirement for the pregnant person to be a resident. Within the first year, 60% of women seeking abortions came from outside New York.
The Supreme Court allowed birth control to be used by unmarried women.
The landmark case Roe vs Wade legalised abortion across the US. Pregnancies were split into three: during the first trimester, the government could not prohibit abortions in any case, during the second they could regulate abortions in the interest of the mother’s health, and during the third, each state could choose whether to regulate or outlaw abortions, except when necessary to preserve the life of the mother.
The 1970s. Trumpism, and abortions today
The Hyde amendment prohibited federal funds for free or subsidised abortions. Abortions once again became available only to the rich.
Abortions became part of political platforms, and the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ movements emerged. Planned Parenthood also experienced its first arson attacks and bombings.
States no longer had to fund abortions in any situation. Anti-abortion and anti-sexual education rhetoric started to pick up, and violence against clinics massively increased.
Planned Parenthood vs Casey upheld restrictive laws around consent and waiting periods, allowing states to limit access to abortions as long as there was no “undue burden” on those seeking them. The term “undue burden” continues to be unspecified.
1977 to 2015
There were more than 7,200 reported attacks on abortion providers. This included 42 bombings, 185 arson attacks, and innumerable death threats, bioterrorism threats, and other assaults.
There were more than 234,000 acts of disruption including bomb threats, hate mail, and harassing phone calls.
The violence continues as abortion providers have been forced to take on defensive measures such as wearing bulletproof vests to work, hiring private security, and having their homes fitted with bulletproof glass.
President Donald Trump’s harsh stance against abortion and policies for a near-total ban across the USA polarised the issue even further. Trump’s presidency is also still affecting abortion policy today, both because he changed the make-up of the Supreme Court to be more
conservative-leaning, and because of the anti-abortion culture that has been re-established across the USA.
Around the world
The USA is not the only country that still has harsh abortion laws today. 25 countries and territories still ban abortion under all circumstances, and the majority have restrictions or regulations of some kind. Even those with more favourable abortion laws might have other roadblocks in place such as societal or religious stigma, lack of patient aftercare, and lack of abortion facilities.
Alternatively, Canada has no criminal law against abortion, and Sweden allows abortions up to 18 weeks. The World Health Organisation argues that first-trimester abortions can be provided safely at the community level after some low-level training, and websites such as safe2choose show there isn’t a need for a clinic if the patient uses abortion pills.
Note: Here we provide more information about abortion worldwide.
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 Ervin, C., & Conger, C. (2021). SMNTY Classics: A Revisionist History of Abortion, Part 2. Stuff Mom Never Told You [Podcast]. Retrieved 2 June 2022, from.
 H, Y., A, Z., A, V., E, A., & S, A. (2013). An investigation into the ancient abortion laws: comparing ancient Persia with ancient Greece and Rome. PubMed. Retrieved 2 June 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24304111/.
 Holland, J. (2016). Abolishing Abortion: The History of the Pro-Life Movement in America | The American Historian. Oah.org. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2016/november/abolishing-abortion-the-history-of-the-pro-life- movement-in-america/.
 Naral. (2022). Anti-Abortion Violence. NARAL Pro-Choice America. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/issue/anti-abortion-violence/.
 Reese, A., & McVey, S. (2021). SMNTY Classics: A Revisionist History of Abortion, Part 1. Stuff Mom Never Told You [Podcast]. Retrieved 2 June 2022, from.