Representative Todd Akin (R-Missouri) caused a political firestorm this August when he told a television reporter that he opposes abortion in all circumstances because "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly distanced his own pro-life views from Akin's, and President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to not make "health care decisions on behalf of women."
Politicians frequently use their stances on abortion to elicit electoral support, and this election year is no different. Abortion is again a major point of divisive debate in presidential and congressional races. And state legislative efforts to restrict abortion access are currently under way in twelve states.
The 2012 Republican Party platform calls for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions but makes no explicit mention of whether exceptions would be made for cases of rape and incest. Romney has indicated in several interviews that he supports the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
Across the Atlantic, the abortion issue seldom garners such rapt attention. As members of national health insurance plans, most Western European women enjoy access to elective abortion services—also called abortion on demand. While there are significant regional differences in abortion policies and political discourse, abortion is rarely a point of contention during elections.
Abortion practices, debates, and laws initially developed quite similarly in Europe and the U.S., but at the turn of the twentieth century, cultural attitudes began to diverge. While Europeans continued to believe that abortion was a desperate act of unfortunate women, some powerful Americans began to argue that abortion was an immoral act of sinful women. These divergent perceptions of abortion and the women who have them still affect abortion debates and legislation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Historically, abortion policy has revolved around three main players: government officials, women, and medical practitioners.
The historical record also shows that, for thousands of years, women have limited the number of the children they bore through pregnancy prevention, abortion, and infanticide. Abortion was only recently outlawed, and then only for a period of roughly 100 years. When women did not have legal access to abortion services they still found ways (albeit often unsafe ways) to end unwanted pregnancies.
Abortion at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
For most of Western history, aborting an early pregnancy was considered a private matter controlled by women and was not a crime.
At the turn of the nineteenth century most people in Western Europe and the United States did not believe human life was present until a pregnant woman felt the first fetal movements, a phenomenon referred to as quickening.
Before quickening, women thought about pregnancy in terms of a lack of something (menstruation) rather than the presence of something (a fetus). In an effort to restore their monthly periods, they took herbal abortifacients such as savin, pennyroyal, and ergot, which they often found in their own gardens.
They did not consider such practices abortion. In fact, the word abortion was confined to miscarriages that occurred after quickening. Medical doctors had trouble even verifying a pregnancy until the woman reported that quickening had occurred.
Religious authorities such as the Roman Catholic Church also supported the idea that the soul was not present until a later stage of pregnancy. Although not official church doctrine, this belief was based on St. Augustine's fifth-century interpretation of Aristotle, that the soul enters the body only after the body is fully formed—some 40 days after conception for males and 80 days for females.
Laws reflected this distinction between the quick and the nonquick fetus. In the United States and England, abortion was legal in the early 1800s as long as it was performed prior to quickening. During later stages of pregnancy, abortion was a crime, but distinct from other forms of murder and punished less harshly.