A Look Back at the History of Illegal Abortion
Before the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade that protected a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy without government intervention, many women found themselves in a desperate position. If a woman, especially a low-income woman, wanted an abortion, she often had to risk her life to get one.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortion was so dangerous that in 1965, roughly 17% of deaths relating to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortions. The shocking statistic is unsurprising given that in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of illegal procedures ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year.
For Americans, Abortion Is More Controversial Than Same-Sex Marriage
Women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and women of color were disproportionately affected by strict regulations as many couldn’t afford to travel to places where they could obtain a legal abortion. The levels of morbidity and mortality among this demographic were astounding. While childbirth-related deaths among white women as a result of abortion stood at one in four in New York City in the early 1960s, the number was one in two for nonwhite and Puerto Rican women.
Born out of this predicament was the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, also known as the Jane Collective, founded by Heather Booth as an underground service headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. The main goal of the “Service,” as it became known, was to assist women in gaining access to safe and affordable abortions. Many women who were part of Jane were taught to perform abortions for others in need and did so successfully without a medical license.
Laura Kaplan, a member of Jane and author of “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service,” was not surprised when Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law one of the country’s strictest abortion rules, banning the procedure from as early as six weeks into pregnancy, but she was angry: “I am outraged by this, but even more than Texas, I am the most angry at the Supreme Court’s decision to let this blatantly unconstitutional ruling stand.”
The six-week mark stipulated by the new legislation means that many women will be barred from accessing abortion services before they even realize they are pregnant. The legislators went a step further by incentivizing private citizens to report and sue providers or anyone helping a woman get an abortion for $10,000.
Under the new law, the government doesn’t enforce the bill — the private citizens of Texas do. This provision was designed to make the law harder to contest in court, but lawsuits are expected. The US Department of Justice has already mounted a legal challenge, positing that it stands “in open defiance of the Constitution.”
At the same time, several Latin American countries are loosening their restrictions on abortions. “Predominantly Catholic countries like Argentina and Mexico are making progress, while we are moving backwards,” says Kaplan.
Could there be a return of Jane in Texas now that abortion rights are being curtailed? “Women are not going to let women suffer,” says Kaplan. “We didn’t back then.” Starting in 1969, Jane groups popped up all over the country, with women finding their way to one of the services when they were in need.
After New York state legalized abortion, it changed the landscape. White middle-class women could get on a plane and get to New York, but it meant that many young, poor and many women of color were left behind. Kaplan thinks history may repeat itself: “Women with the most need didn’t have access to abortion and that will happen again.”
It’s important to note that after abortion was legalized, less than 0.3% of women, regardless of age, experienced serious complications post-procedure. If the real debate is about the preservation of life — and, indeed, the sanctity of life — we have to look beyond the life of the developing fetus and to the life of the mother as well.
Any rational policy should look at promoting access to birth control and prioritizing the health of the mother by assuring that she has access to safe procedures. Outlawing abortion doesn’t work — the story of the Jane Collective has shown that. It won’t change people’s motivation to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
As a democratic society, we don’t want to throw ourselves back to an underworld that offers subpar care, creates a greater public health problem and endangers the health of women.
*[The Wider Lens provides commentary on trending stories in the world of health, covering a wide variety of topics in medicine and health care.]