History of Abortion in the US: From Consensus to Divisive Social Issue

As Texas legislators seek to severely restrict abortion rights, Boston College Historian Heather Cox Richardson recalls the mixed history of the movement to restrict abortion. “Abortion had been a part of American life since its inception, but states began to criminalize abortion in the 1870s. By 1960, an observer estimated that there were between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal U.S. abortions a year, endangering women, primarily poor ones who could not afford a workaround,” she wrote. “To stem this public health crisis, doctors wanted to decriminalize abortion and keep it between a woman and her doctor. In the 1960s, states began to decriminalize abortion on this medical model, and support for abortion rights grew.

“The rising women’s movement wanted women to have control over their lives. Its leaders were latecomers to the reproductive rights movement, but they came to see reproductive rights as key to self-determination.” In 1971, “even the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention agreed that abortion should be legal in some cases, and vowed to work for modernization.” In the context of consensus public opinion in both U.S. political parties in favor of abortion rights, a Republican-dominated US Supreme Court in 1973 ruled in Roe V. Wade that abortion in the first-trimester was clearly constitutional. Since then, politicians have used the issue to mobilize base constituences without changing the law of the land regarding abortion. Texas, with the silent consent of the US Supreme Court, may have just changed that, making history and implementing what has been an unpopular political position, even in states like Texas. More.  

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