Life Before Roe vs. Wade: A Historian Shares How Abortion Laws Looked Before 1973

The Supreme Court cited history when striking down Roe v. Wade. But what did abortion laws look like before Roe v. Wade? A historian shares her perspective.

Millions of people's lives changed Friday, June 24th. The Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

That means there's no more constitutional guarantee of abortion rights and it's up to each individual state to decide the legality of abortions. 

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The reasoning behind it: our country's "history and traditions," according to the Supreme Court.

So what exactly does that history look like?

LX News Storyteller Jalyn Henderson talked with Leslie Jean Reagan to find out. Reagan teaches Women and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champagne and authored "When Abortion Was a Crime." 

Jalyn Henderson: There was a time in U.S. history when abortion was completely legal. That was in the early 19th century, right? What changed? [Editor's note: During this time, abortion was legal before what was known as the "quickening," which was at around four to six months pregnant.]

Leslie Jean Reagan: A few physicians pushed legislation to pass that was rooted in racism, nativism and misogyny, to be completely frank. The language they used was that "women are not doing the duty to the country and the nation," specifically talking about the white, Yankee, Anglo-Saxon middle class women. They could see the family size was getting smaller and [the women] could be seen going to abortion clinics that were pretty openly advertised. So they aren't having as many children and they [the physicians] blame it on abortion.

Horatio Storer, who led this movement, did his own little studies and collected data. He produced this report that showed that the immigrant family size was much larger. They had many more children and they were going to outnumber the class of people in power like him. And so that's what drove that movement.

Henderson: Abortion was illegal for decades. What did people who needed one do?

Reagan: So in the 1950s and 60s, some people could go to a doctor and were able to get a legal, therapeutic abortion in a hospital that they knew would be safe. But there were studies that showed the only people who are able to get these legal, therapeutic, open abortions were people with insurance, people who had money, who could pay for a private doctor and a private room and a private hospital. And that meant they were almost all white women.

So for everybody else — all classes, all races, all religious groups and ages — people decide and recognize, 'Oh, they need an abortion.' And the law frightened and made it harder, it made people feel like they were criminals. But they still, even in cases where they were not at all sure who they were seeing, they still went and got abortions. So there were people who were very good practitioners, if you could find them there. There were people who were not so good and not competent and people ended up injured or died as a result.

Henderson: What is Roe v. Wade and how did the decision impact the healthcare system?

Reagan: It is a decision about the Constitution and the rights of women and the rights of doctors. The rights of women to privacy and bodily autonomy and the rights of doctors to practice medicine in their good judgment. A lot of what was driving the movement to decriminalize abortion was that doctors saw the deaths and the injuries in the hospitals, and they were holding people's hands while they were dying, knowing that this does not have to happen and seeing how completely inequitable it was. You know, it was poor women who were the ones in the hospitals, who are injured and dying. It was Black women and women of color who died at rates four times higher than white women. And so [doctors wanted] to address this complete inequity in terms of healthcare and safety and preserving doctors' own rights to practice what they consider to be good medicine.

Henderson: Why is abortion such a contested topic in the U.S.?

Reagan: I think there's real moral questions for everybody about how you have a family, what you do around reproduction, what you do around a specific pregnancy. Those are things everyone has to think about. The thing is, is whether this is something that the law makes a decision about. That's what the battles are about, is turning this into a legal question that the American legal system will decide for everybody rather than leaving it private. This is about medical care, it's about privacy, it's about your own moral thinking. And it really isn't about anybody else's.