The idea that only disreputable women sought abortions gained less traction in Europe, where the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was gaining popular support.

The growth of a party focused on socialist goals lent credibility to the notion that women who had abortions were desperate and destitute. So when it became evident that criminalization had not stopped abortion, European Social Democrats and women's rights activists argued that the best way to solve the abortion problem was to resolve socioeconomic issues.

Meanwhile, the global economic crisis of the 1930s led more married women than ever before to demand (illegal) abortion services.

The Seeds of Abortion Law Reform

The Great Depression led to a sharp increase in both legal and illegal abortion rates, further widening the divide between European and American attitudes.

Some doctors stretched their definitions of therapeutic abortion to include social criteria, but many did not. Desperation led many women to accept unsafe abortion methods.

Dr. Frederick J. Taussig and the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research estimated that in the United States alone 17,000 women died each year from abortion-related complications during the 1930s. These deaths became visible evidence of the consequences of illegal abortions and created an opportunity for public debate on abortion reform.

European political efforts to legalize abortion in the 1930s drew upon the already prevailing idea that women were driven to abortion by poverty and desperation. Birth control advocates often led these reform movements and used anecdotal evidence to emphasize women's desperation.

Ordinary women like Astrid Knudsen, a poor Norwegian woman, beseeched birth control advocates to help her end her pregnancy as "our situation is such that we cannot manage the two children we already have … and to bring more children into this horrible world [would be] impossible."

As the SDP achieved more political success in this period, especially in Northwestern Europe, governments were increasingly persuaded by these heart-wrenching stories. Many European countries subsequently expanded the therapeutic conditions for legal abortions, but abortions performed at a woman's request remained illegal.

In the United States, birth control became more widely accepted for married couples in the 1930s, but no popular movement to reform abortion laws emerged in the interwar years due in part to American fears of Soviet communism. While the Soviets had been the first in the world to legalize abortion on demand in 1920, Stalin recriminalized abortion in 1936 to stimulate population growth.

Still, Americans continued to link abortion with Soviet socialism throughout the 1930s, hindering public discussion of decriminalization.

So, while the dramatic increase in abortion-related deaths during the 1930s had inspired decriminalization debates in Europe, Americans responded by intensifying enforcement. Police and prosecutors began to arrest and prosecute abortion providers.

The police also stepped up their interrogations of hospitalized women who were dying from abortion-related complications, sometimes under threat of withholding access to medical treatment.

As a result, hospitals defensively set up committees to legitimate medical reasons for abortions. These efforts served to heighten the focus on the criminality of abortion and the women who sought abortion services. This, coupled with the lack of an abortion reform movement, served to keep abortion a closeted issue in the U.S.

The (Re)Legalization of Abortion

The severe repression of abortion in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s created a discriminatory system with deadly results. Women and physicians who had seen the results of "back alley" abortions grew increasingly frustrated.

Abortion had always carried a high risk. Over time, many women had died from home remedies like ingesting large doses of abortifacients, being kicked in the abdomen, throwing oneself down a flight of stairs, or having unskilled surgical procedures. But by the 1930s, deaths and complications from abortions sought outside the home rendered these dangers public and seemingly epidemic.

When large numbers of women were hospitalized with abortion-related complications, people couldn't help but witness the tragic results of criminalization.

As a result, women and some reform-minded physicians formed abortion reform movements in the 1950s and 1960s that would eventually succeed in legalizing abortion in the United States and stimulate the repeal of abortion laws around the world.

Medical professionals joined forces with lawyers to expand the conditions under which women could legally procure abortions. A few highly publicized abortion cases in the 1960s captured public attention.

When Sherri Finkbine found out her sleeping pills contained thalidomide—a drug that causes birth defects—she scheduled an abortion at an Arizona hospital. After she went public with her story to warn other women about the dangers of thalidomide, the hospital refused to treat her because they were worried about bad publicity. She eventually had to go to Sweden to obtain an abortion.

The public focus on women's abortion needs in the 1960s went hand-in-hand with the emergence of the second-wave feminist movement. Feminists in Europe and the United States began to mobilize around the abortion issue. In Europe, where reform movements had been present since the 1930s, feminists shifted the focus from reform to repeal.

American and European feminists wanted women to be able to freely choose whether to have an abortion instead of having to rely on a doctor's interpretation of legitimate reasons. To these feminists the criminal status of abortion represented men's subordination of women and the medical establishment's control of women's bodies. They claimed that the repeal of all antiabortion laws was a cornerstone of women's liberation.

Feminists in the U.S. and Europe employed different strategies that had the most resonance with existing cultural beliefs.

American feminists often based their arguments on abstract principles of individual rights. American feminists never directly challenged the belief that women obtained abortions frivolously. Instead they emphasized women's right to control their bodies without state interference.

Many European feminists framed their demands for legalized abortion in terms of public health and humanitarianism. They reasoned that until the state ensured that all women could bear children without suffering economic or social consequences, women should have access to legal abortion services.

They drew upon the established belief that most women only had abortions out of legitimate need. Feminists argued that these self-identified welfare states were obliged to protect women, especially poor women, from the burdens of unwanted pregnancy.

The (re)legalization of abortion that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s was informed by the ideas put forward by feminists and physicians.

In 1967, Britain significantly expanded the conditions for legal abortion. The Abortion Act stated that abortions were legal as long as two medical professionals agreed that pregnancy endangered the life, mental or physical health of the woman or her children, and in cases of fetal deformity and handicap. While this law did not completely decriminalize abortion it represented an important step toward the legalization of abortion in Western Europe and the United States.

The American legalization of abortion stemmed from two Supreme Court cases. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that the nineteenth-century antiabortion laws were unconstitutional violations of women's rights and doctors' rights.

The Roe v. Wade decision found that "a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy" was constitutionally protected under the right to privacy. This ruling also found that medical doctors had the right to treat patients without undue interference.

In Doe v. Bolton the Supreme Court declared that hospital committees set up to legitimate therapeutic abortions were unconstitutional. They determined that these restrictions on abortion infringed on a woman's right to health care and a physician's right to practice medicine.

Neither Roe v. Wade nor Doe v. Bolton gave women the unconditional right to abort. Instead these decisions built on a fairly new idea that fetal development could be divided into trimesters. A woman's constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy was only protected during the first trimester. This legal recognition of trimesters harkened back to when quickening was a legal marker of fetal viability.

But the Supreme Court did not deem later-stage abortion criminal. Instead individual states could—but did not have to—regulate abortions during the second and third trimesters of a woman's pregnancy as long as such laws did not interfere with maternal health.

Demands for abortion reform gained ground in nearly all Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1980s, abortion was legal in most Western European countries, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

In general, Protestant countries repealed their abortion laws earlier than predominantly Catholic countries. Ireland is currently the only Western European country to ban abortions in all cases.

Abortion in Europe and the U.S. Today

Following the legalization of abortion, a backlash crystallized on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, and the New Right joined forces in the 1980s and 1990s to form antiabortion movements. This intense minority opposition to the legalization of abortion has been able to achieve some success in the United States. In comparison, the size and influence of antiabortion protests in Europe have been negligible.

The American movement mobilized around Roe v. Wade. The Court's finding discredited the belief that human life began at conception and undermined the idea that mothers should put their children's needs ahead of their own.

Since the 1970s, antiabortion activists have worked to create a discourse about abortion that portrays the fetus as innocent and the woman as a murderer. They have frequently quoted Mother Theresa as saying, "By abortion the Mother does not learn to love, but kills her own child to solve her problems." This conjures the image of a self-indulgent woman who rejects her natural calling as a mother and murders her own child.

While many of these ideas had been present in American antiabortion discourse since the late nineteenth century, the fetus has become important in a way that it never was before. Antiabortionists often refer to the fetus as a baby and emphasize its human characteristics. They have been particularly good at using images to try and get their message across to the American public.

"Prolife Across America" billboards on nearly every interstate include a color photo of what this group describes as a "winsome baby" who reveals a fact about fetal development such as, "My heart started beating 24 days after conception."

Antiabortionists also use enlarged pictures of aborted fetuses to argue that abortion is the murder of a human being. These are often pasted on the sides of trucks that drive through university campuses and in shopping malls.

The aim of these campaigns has been to overturn Roe v. Wade. They have not succeeded but have chipped away at the full impact of the law.

The 1977 Hyde Amendment stipulated funding restrictions, waiting periods, parental consent clauses, and counseling requirements. Antiabortion activists have also tried to prevent abortions by picketing clinics, harassing doctors and patients, and in some cases bombing clinics and assassinating physicians.

Since the 1980s, opposition to abortion has become a core tenet of conservative politics. In their struggles to control women's reproductive and sexual freedom, right-wing politicians have tried to restrict women's access to legal abortion services.

Many of their current efforts focus on the idea of fetal life. The Ohio Heartbeat Bill would prohibit abortion from the first detection of a heartbeat. Recently the Arizona state legislature passed a law that counts gestational age as beginning two weeks prior to conception in order to ban abortions after the 18th week of pregnancy.

Paradoxically, this climate of political antagonism toward legal abortion takes place at a time when most Americans (77%) believe abortion should be legal. In fact, a May 2012 Gallup Poll found that more Americans think abortion should be legal for any reason (25%) than illegal in all circumstances (20%).

The political strength of the antiabortion movement and their association with the Republican Party obscures the presence of this acceptance towards abortion. The political conflict over abortion in the United States has had no real equivalent in Western Europe, and as a result abortion laws remain largely intact. Antiabortion movements do exist, but have not succeeded at recasting abortion as an issue of fetal rights.

Religious arguments typically do not have as much sway in secularized Western Europe as they do in the United States and as a result it is more difficult to make moralistic arguments about abortion.

In many European countries legal abortion is restricted to the first trimester of pregnancy, and antiabortion activists have a hard time convincing the public that these abortions constitute murder. For many Europeans abortion is simply another service that the welfare state provides in order to ensure equal access to safe and affordable health care.

European laws have not been diluted by restrictive legislation that limits access to abortion services. In the predominantly Catholic Western European countries—where the strictest abortion restrictions have been in place—efforts to loosen these regulations have recently been under way. Portugal legalized abortion in 2007 and now allows women to have abortions for any reason during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Even in those Catholic countries where abortion access is severely restricted, women still have abortions.

In Ireland, this often means traveling to nearby England. In one case from 2010, Michelle Harte, who was dying of cancer, was told by doctors at Cork University Hospital that she should terminate her pregnancy for medical reasons, but the same doctors refused to perform the illegal procedure. Weak and prone to vomiting, she hired a nurse to fly with her to England so she could obtain the necessary abortion services. Cases like these have been the driving force behind abortion reform discussions in Ireland.

The history of abortion practices and policies reminds us that while people will likely continue to debate the origins of human life and the right a woman has to end her pregnancy, women will continue to have abortions. The legal status of abortion will not determine whether a woman will abort an unwanted pregnancy but rather whether she will have access to safe abortion services.