From Comstock to Roe – Abortion in American history – David Zuther, Germany / USA

(NOTE: this is a secondary article tied to “The War on Planned Parenthood”)

The battle for abortion rights has a long and eventful history in the United States.

Up to the 19th century, abortion was essentially legal in the U.S. In 1821, Connecticut was the first state to restrict abortion; outlawing the use of a toxic substance to induce a miscarriage after “quickening“. A few states followed, and in 1873, the Comstock Act restricted access to information about birth control and abortion. During the 1930s and the Great Depression, the number of – then illegal – abortions skyrocketed, with many families being unable to afford another child. Dangerous abortion practices caused many maternal deaths. Two decades later, hospitals set up therapeutic abortion boards, in which doctors can approve abortions on a case-by-case basis if the mother’s life is in danger. In 1969, women in Chicago formed “Jane“, an underground network offering safe and affordable illegal abortions. In four years, according to one study, 12,000 abortions were completed by “Jane“. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court declares abortion laws to be unconstitutional in two rulings, and more and more states passed abortion reform laws.

In 1973, the Supreme Courts settled two landmark cases – one of which will eventually become the symbol for the abortion struggle: Roe v. Wade – a historical synonym today – and the equally important Doe v. Bolton. Abortion is a right-to-privacy issue, the court concluded, and therapeutic abortion boards are unconstitutional, as well as ruling that restrictions on abortion violated women’s rights to health care. Three years later, the Supreme Court holds that regulations requiring parental and spousal consent to abortions are unconstitutional. In the same year, Congress passed the Hyde amendment, outlawing the use of federal funds for abortions with three exceptions: in cases of incest, rape or endangerment of the mother’s life. However, the conflicts and debates about abortion are not yet settled. The controversy between pro-choice activists – in favor of abortion – and pro-life groups has intensely continued ever since in courtroom battles, elections and on the streets of the United States of America. This issue has divided the USA like no other – politically, religiously, culturally and socially. In an ironic turn of events, Norma McCorvey, the historical Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, will later befriend a radical anti-abortion activist and regret her role in the landmark ruling.

Birth Control Review, a newspaper published by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger

The history of the abortion and women’s rights struggle is closely connected to the story of Planned Parenthood. In 1916,  nurse and feminist Margaret Sanger, her sister and a friend opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Sanger was a pioneer, and she faced arrest and trial for providing information about birth control. In 1936, she and her supporters won a court of appeals orders review of the strict Comstock laws. Sanger’s organisation, later to be named Planned Parenthood, becomes one of the nation’s leading voices in the fight for reproductive justice and progressive birth control.

“This issue has divided America like no other – politically, religiously, culturally and socially”

Violence, truth trucks and fake clinics: the tactics of the anti-abortion movement

The anti-abortion movement gradually radicalised after Roe. The epidemic of anti-abortion violence – threatening, stalking or even murdering abortion doctors and their patients, arson attacks and bombings of abortion clinics – became so extreme that in 1994, American President Bill Clinton had to introduce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) to ensure women could enter those facilities without being harassed. Other anti-abortionists print pictures of aborted fetuses and drive them around the country in what they call “truth trucks“.

Since 1993, eight abortion providers have been murdered in the United States

Throughout the US, anti-abortion activists have opened so-called crisis pregnancy centres, who officially are neutral, non-judgmental places for pregnant women to seek counsel on abortion. In reality, however, the staff in those centres always tries to convince pregnant women not to abort, oftentimes using misinformation and scare tactics: women are told that abortions are more dangerous than having the child or that abortion procedures increase the possibility of breast cancer –  despite sound scientific research proving the opposite. When Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, he directed state funds to those fake clinics.

Republicans and women’s rights


Pro-life activists on a rally

The right-wing Republican Party has become what one might call the political representation of the pro-life movement over the years.

In 2013, the Republican majority in the Michigan Senate passed a bill under which almost all health insurance policies in the country would not cover abortions anymore, forcing women to buy additional policies. The Michigan law, and similar regulations in seven other states, did not even allow for exceptions for rape victims. In 2013, Texan legislators passed an outright ban on abortions (a ban that exists in ten more states) and restrictions on how abortion clinics have to be equipped. The bill was passed, despite an eleven-hour filibuster by Democrat senator Wendy Davis, who tried to block the vote. Since 2013, half of Texan abortion clinics had to shut down, forcing women to travel much further to find abortion providers and leaving those who cannot afford the journey without access to abortions. In June 2015,  the Supreme Court halted the implementation of the law temporarily after abortion activists filed an emergency lawsuit. The activists had moved because in that week, half of the state’s remaining 19 abortion centres would have faced closure as well. However, the stay order is only in place as long as the parties prepare their legal cases, and the ultimate fate of the bill is unclear.

Since 2010, more than two-hundred provisions restricting access to abortions have been passed in thirty states.

In the summer of 2015, a House committee in Washington voted to scrap funding for Title X, a federal subsidy for contraceptives; leaving nearly five million Americans in trouble. In Alabama, a law was passed, which called for appointing lawyers for fetuses in abortion lawsuits. In Ohio, a law passed by the House might illegalize abortions after the fetus has a detectable heartbeat – which is usually after six weeks, even before most women know they are pregnant. In Arkansas and North Dakota, heartbeat provisions were enacted, then struck down by federal judges.  All these restrictions constitute a silent war on Roe v. Wade, undermining the historical ruling that legalised abortion, state by state, law by law.


A graph on the number of abortion restrictions over time: evidence of a ‘war on women’?

Republican attempts to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood can only be understood in the context of what liberals call a “war on women“.

2 responses to “From Comstock to Roe – Abortion in American history – David Zuther, Germany / USA

  1. Pingback: The War on Planned Parenthood – David Zuther, Germany/USA·

  2. Pingback: The War on Planned Parenthood – David Zuther, Germany – USA | United Youth Journalists·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s