Women Have Always Had AbortionsRoundup
tags: abortion, womens history, reproductive rights
Lauren MacIvor Thompson, a historian at Georgia State University, is the author of the forthcoming “Battle for Birth Control: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger and the Rivalry That Shaped a Movement.”
Over the course of American history, women of all classes, races, ages and statuses have ended their pregnancies, both before there were any laws about abortion and after a raft of 19th-century laws restricted it. Our ignorance of this history, however, equips those in the anti-abortion movement with the power to create dangerous narratives. They peddle myths about the past where wayward women sought abortions out of desperation, pathetic victims of predatory abortionists. They wrongly argue that we have long thought about fetuses as people with rights. And they improperly frame Roe v. Wade as an anomaly, saying it liberalized a practice that Americans had always opposed.
But the historical record shows a far different set of conclusions.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, abortion was legal under common law before “quickening,” or when the pregnant woman could feel the fetus move, beginning around 16 weeks. The birth rate steadily dropped in the decades after the American Revolution, as couples sought to control the size of their families for a variety of reasons.
Abortion in the early stages of a pregnancy was common and generally not considered immoral or murderous. Along with breastfeeding, abstinence, the use of the rhythm method, vaginal douching and the use of herbs like pennyroyal or savin, which were believed to stimulate menstruation, abortion was considered part of the universe of what we now call “birth control.” By the 1820s, abortion services and contraceptive devices were advertised in newspapers with coded language.
Although 19th-century contraceptive and abortion practices were largely unregulated and often dangerous, the ubiquity of the advertisements indicates just how necessary women found them. They also talked about family planning in private diaries and letters, as well as in public lectures and tracts, using different words, of course. But the conversations were omnipresent.
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