Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on abortion

Part 1 of my thoughts on the history of abortion, law, politics, and faith in America is here.

So, with the whole debate on the table again because the election is near, I'm driven back to my research, this time on public opinion and policy on abortion in America. How did we get to where we are today? I read several articles (see here and here and here and here), and two of the sources did most of their their research in a book on the topic by Marvin Olavsky.

Early America:
In early American history (much as in church history), abortion certainly happened at times, but there were no methods for women to be sure they were pregnant until quickening (the movement of the baby felt by the mother), which was pretty far into pregnancy.  Lack of medical knowledge at the time meant a high death rate for women who did attempt abortions, so abortion was rare.

Public Opinion and Law:
As medical knowledge and the population of America grew, the practice and public knowledge of abortion grew with it. Especially in the biggest cities where prostitution thrive with little access to birth control, abortion doctors began to make a business out of the practice.  Surprisingly by modern day standards, the practice was condemned not only by the church, but also by an outright campaign in the press, and eventually by state laws. By 1860, "Eight-five percent of the then-present U.S. states had laws that made all abortions a felony." (source) Because it was illegal, abortions were still a very medically risky procedure for women who quietly sought them out.

60's and Social Change
Doing this research really made it hit home how much of a "revolution" the sixties really were in terms of an incredibly fast change of culture and public opinion. The civil rights movement, women's lib, the sexual revolution, hippies, war protests. So much shifted in our society. Of course, these changes blew in with some things happening in the decades before, but it's striking how quickly it all rolled in.

With the women's lib movement, the development and promotion of contraception, and a sea change in sexual behavior,  much changed in attitudes towards pregnancy and women. The emphasis on the ability of a woman to control her own story was on the rise. Initially even Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) touted birth control as a way to do away with the evil of abortion.

Public opinion began to shift from seeing abortion as evil to seeing illegal abortion as evil. Media reports on the horrors of botched back-room procedures and the deaths that resulted began to have an impact. In 1967, Colorado and California both became the first states to formally legalize abortion in the cases of incest or rape or medical emergencies. Other states followed.

Legalization and Roe v. Wade
From 1967 above, things moved faster than I ever realized. There was a build-up of protest against the criminalization of abortion, saying the policies resulted in terrible back-room abortions, humiliation of women, and discriminatory effect on minority women.  In 1970 New York was the first state to allow unrestricted abortion in the first 24 weeks.  This same year, two lawyers filed a lawsuit in Dallas on behalf of a woman who had sought and failed to find a legal abortion. In '73 the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Texas's law on abortion on the grounds that:
"Right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the district court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

This is what shocked me. The first step for one state to allow unrestricted abortion in the first trimester was only three years before the US not only legalized abortion but effectively made it illegal for any state to not allow abortion.

Dang. Within 10 years we went from nearly completely condemning abortion to nearly completely condemning all opposition to abortion.

Maybe it's just me, but I found that really shocking.

And the language in Roe v. Wade talks all about the mother and the rights of women, but on the other side only talks about the "potentiality of life" and "viability". There was zero discussion that the fetus might already be alive.

Where does this leave me?  Final post coming.


Jen said...

Thank you for doing the research and sharing it. Todd and I were just saying that we need to study more about abortion because we have opinions without having much knowledge (the same can be said for so many political issues!). I look forward to reading more of your findings.

Melissa said...

Just so you know, in early america there were early abortions going on regularly. You can see them advertised in the newspapers of the day as "herbs to keep one's cycle regular" also, native americans understood the body's cycle and also used herbal remedies to induce early abortions during times of drought and starvation.

Jaimie said...

The suddenness of this change makes me think this is why it's such a huge issue today. Rip the bandaid off, the painful memory lingers. Whereas if, say, over the course of 10-15 years gay marriage is slowly integrated, I doubt people will be campaigning about that in 30-45 years.

People get bitter if they feel they didn't have a say.

Jaimie said...

Two other things:

1. I was going to say, I didn't know any of this stuff either! The suddenness of it. Thanks for the research.

2. I'm glad you find Texas beautiful. I do too. I drove across the state (I almost said across the country) to see Big Bend National Park a few weekends ago. I'm going to put pictures on my blog soon. It was GORGEOUS.

Kacie said...

Yes, Melissa, I think abortificants have always been present in every culture, but their effectiveness and the range of their use was probably not that high. But yeah, all of those types of things are detailed on the links I put in there that have more detail on the history. Some of those sites are clearly conservative, at least one is clearly liberal. :)

Leslie said...

Thanks for doing all this research and sharing your perspective! My thoughts on the topic are right now shaped by the experiences of two good friends.

One friend found out her baby had a really severe congenital health defect, and after much thought, terminated the pregnancy at five months. She's writing a book about the experience.

A classmate got pregnant in college, from a make-up fling with her ex. Her daughter is now four, an adorable blonde with a guinea pig she calls by a long and technical name. And my friend has had to grow up really fast. She's become super responsible and independent (characteristics that don't describe every 26-year-old Chilean girl) and totally loves her daughter. She's also had to deal with lots of financial, legal, and logistical challenges. She's done well, but it clearly hasn't been easy.

Both of these examples have shown me that it's always complicated. Every person's situation and life is different. These are very personal and important decisions, that depend on so many medical, financial, logistical, and all sorts of other considerations.

I think it's important to have options.