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.
It was very difficult to prove that a woman accused of abortion had ever felt the fetus move. Even in infanticide cases, the court often had to rely on the accused woman's testimony to know whether the child had died in utero or had been born full-term and alive.
When Margaret Rauch was put on trial in Pennsylvania in 1772 for a suspected infanticide, she testified that the baby "used to move before, but did not move after [she fell during the pregnancy]." Rauch was acquitted.
At this time, the pregnant woman had significant power in defining pregnancy and the law was based on her bodily experience.
By the mid-1800s women from all walks of life aborted pregnancies, and abortion services had grown more widely available. As the professionalization and commercialization of medicine began, more abortion options became available to the women who could afford to pay for them.
Poor women—especially unmarried ones—continued to use herbs to abort unwanted pregnancies, and could purchase abortifacients from pharmacists through the mail. If those drugs failed they could go to the growing number of practices that used medical instruments to induce abortions. Costing anywhere between $5 and $500, most women who could pay skilled professionals for such services were married members of the middle and upper classes.
The Road to Criminalization
In the late nineteenth century, American and European doctors, social reformers, clergy members, and politicians made abortion into a social, political, and religious issue. Women's experiences of quickening were discredited as unscientific and medical doctors became the recognized experts on pregnancy and fetal development.
Quickening lost credibility as a valid indication of fetal life when doctors lobbied state governments to change laws to reflect their new way of thinking. By 1900, Western European countries and the United States had outlawed abortion during all stages of pregnancy.
The U.S. and England, where quickening had carried the most legal weight, criminalized abortion during all stages of pregnancy by the late 1880s. British criminalization began with Lord Ellenborough's act of 1803 and was fully realized when Parliament passed the Offenses Against the Person Act in 1861.
Abortion was outlawed state-by-state in the U.S. between 1860 and 1880. Abortion was also considered a criminal act in most of Western Europe, with many of the laws originating in the 1810 Napoleonic legal code.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, social scientists began to publish statistics comparing birth rates among nations. As nationalism and imperialism intensified tensions between European countries, these numbers took on new significance. Statesmen feared that if women chose to have fewer children then this would decrease their nation's ability to compete in modernized warfare.
Anxiety racked French politicians when they learned France's birth rate had fallen nearly a third between 1870 and 1914, while its neighbor (and recent and future enemy) Germany's had barely changed at all. The idea that women needed to give birth to as many children as possible spread contagiously.
Ludwig Quessel captured the dire essence of this worry when he said: "A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of a birth-strike." In this climate, women's control of their fertility represented a threat to national interests.
Concerns arose in Europe and the U.S. not only over women's refusal to bear more children, but over which women were limiting their family size. The visible use of abortion by white, middle-class women seemed to threaten the status of their male counterparts and "white" positions of power.
As Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1894, women of "good stock" who refused to have children were "race criminals."
The Criminalization of Abortion
Increased scrutiny of pregnancy and childbirth coincided with a push by medical doctors to increase their professional influence. Because of the variety of abortion methods available to women, trained physicians had little control over this area of what they considered medical science.
In the United States, the newly created American Medical Association (AMA) initiated an antiabortion campaign in 1857 as part of its efforts to professionalize and to restrict competition from homeopaths and midwives. They lobbied for the criminalization of abortion, capitalizing on fears that not enough white, native-born women were having children.
Doctors claimed there was little difference between a quick and a nonquick fetus and that earlier and later stages of pregnancy were not distinct. In doing so, they redefined the meaning of abortion to include early stages of pregnancy.
AMA doctors discredited women's experiences of quickening as unscientific and emotional. Noted AMA physician and antiabortion advocate Dr. Horatio Storer quipped in his 1868 book Why Not?: "Many women never quicken at all, though their children are born living."
American doctors joined forces with religious authorities to pass antiabortion laws. While doctors spearheaded the movement to discredit quickening and criminalize abortion, their ideas about fetal development also led to important changes in Roman Catholic Church doctrine.
Pope Pius IX declared in 1869 that an embryo was a human being with a soul from the time of conception. This declaration challenged existing beliefs that an ensouled, animated fetus was different from an inanimate one. Pius also stated that abortions performed at any stage of pregnancy warranted excommunication. In 1895, a papal decree condemned therapeutic (life-saving) abortions as well.
These changes inspired many Catholics to support the AMA's antiabortion campaign. Protestant churches, with their doctrinal emphasis on individual reason and responsibility, remained more open to abortion and more accepting of therapeutic abortion.
American and most European abortion laws included an exemption allowing doctors to perform abortions if a woman's life was in danger. These exemptions further solidified the alliance between the state and doctors, however, by allowing doctors to adjudicate the legality of abortions. Doctors took the lead in having abortion criminalized, and the state, in turn, recognized them as the only legitimate providers of abortion services.
By 1900, then, abortion had been culturally and politically redefined as the taking of a human life—an immoral and illegal act. The shift in attitudes toward pregnancy and abortion that had been championed by doctors and church officials led politicians in most Western countries to enact antiabortion legislation.
What had once been considered a private matter minimally legislated by the state had become a public concern worthy of punishment. Women's bodily experiences were viewed with distrust and their efforts to control their fertility often deemed criminal.
"When Abortion was a Crime"
Abortion was illegal in Western Europe and the United States for much of the twentieth century. Women did not, however, stop having abortions.
Though the legal status of abortion had changed dramatically, the general public in both the United States and Europe still widely accepted the practice. Most women continued to see abortion as an acceptable method of ridding their bodies of unwanted pregnancies and restoring their menstrual cycles. They did not feel a moral obligation to carry the pregnancy to term until they felt the fetus move
Many medical practitioners actually continued to perform illegal abortions, often charging substantial amounts of money. Doctors, midwives, and others offered abortion services in walk-up offices, clinics, and even hospitals.
Women quietly informed one another who could be counted on to help them. While midwives and homeopaths faced the greatest risk of imprisonment for performing abortions, doctors were largely able to avoid prosecution by claiming they were merely performing the therapeutic abortions allowed by law.
Abortion businesses boomed, mainly because most women stopped using herbs to induce abortions and increasingly sought surgical abortions to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Medical abortions, especially those performed with surgical tools, had garnered a reputation as a more effective and safer means of inducing miscarriage. Practitioners most often used dilation and curettage—a procedure in which a woman's cervix is dilated and a spoon-shaped instrument is inserted into the uterus to scrape out the fetal and placental tissue—to terminate pregnancies. As a result, abortion in the twentieth century ceased to be a secret kept among women and became a publicly available service.
In the United States, the AMA reacted to the continued widespread acceptance, and use, of abortion in the early twentieth century with a renewal of their antiabortion campaign. Prominent AMA doctors were appalled that women still believed that having an abortion prior to quickening was a perfectly acceptable and moral act.
Dr. Storer's hope in 1868 that "Women in every rank and condition of life may be made sensible of the value of the fætus, and of the high responsibility which rests upon its parents" had not been fulfilled. They blamed a lack of enforcement for the persistence of high rates of illegal abortion.
In order to convince the general public that abortion was wrong, some American doctors, along with moral crusaders like Anthony Comstock, waged a cultural campaign against abortion. The Comstock Act outlawed the circulation of "obscene" materials including contraceptives and information about contraceptives or abortion. Many birth control advocates, including Margaret Sanger, were prosecuted under the law for sending such materials through the mail.
The Parting of Ways
In the late nineteenth century, American attitudes toward abortion began to diverge from those in Europe. People in both Europe and the U.S. had long expressed sympathy for women who had abortions and many believed abortions helped unfortunate women in difficult situations.
American antiabortionists instead put forth an image of women who procured abortions as frivolous and promiscuous.
The AMA argued that abortion was a moral issue and insisted it was doctors' Christian duty to educate others about the immorality of abortion. Chairman of the AMA Section on Obstetrics, J. Milton Duff, described abortion in 1893 as "a pernicious crime against God and society." In 1915, Chicago circuit court Judge John P. McGoorty echoed these views, "A woman who would destroy life in that manner is not fit for decent society."