The History of Abortion Law in the United States

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  • 0:00 Abortion in the United States
  • 0:35 Abortion Pre-Roe
  • 1:34 Roe v. Wade
  • 2:35 Status in Contemporary America
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Once illegal in every state, abortions are now legal everywhere in the United States. However, abortion is a controversial political issue, and abortion laws differ greatly depending on what part of the country in which a woman is located.

Abortion in the United States

Perhaps no other topic in American discourse has proven to be so divisive in recent years as abortion. On one side of the issue are people who feel that to have an abortion is to destroy a human life. On the other hand, those who support abortion claim that anything else is meddling in a woman's most basic rights, namely control over her own body. In this lesson, we'll examine how access to abortion has evolved throughout American history, ending up in the court battles of contemporary America. Along the way, we'll see how the issue has become one that defines the morality of the United States.

Abortion Pre-Roe

Abortion has long been a tricky subject in the American consciousness. For much of American history, it was simply banned without much fanfare - every state had banned the procedure at one point or another. By the late 1960s, positions were slowly changing, but most states outlawed the practice no matter what.

Only a handful allowed an abortion in case of rape, incest, or danger to the woman's health between 1970 and 1973. Only Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington allowed abortion without such a reason by 1973. This led to a significant number of illegal abortions, most notably by a group in Chicago that called itself simply Jane. Jane was an underground group that offered abortions from rented apartments. While the techniques used were largely what would be adopted by birth control clinics after the legalization of abortion, it was still highly unregulated. However, all of that was very quickly about to change.

Roe v. Wade

All of that changed in 1973. In that year, a case three years in the making reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1969, Norma McCorvey found out she was expecting. However, she wanted an abortion, and, despite efforts to get one through an underground agency, she ended up going to two attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. They agreed to take up the suit against the state of Texas for limiting her access to an abortion. McCorvey used the alias, Jane Roe, while Texas was represented by its Attorney General Henry Wade.

The resulting case of Roe v. Wade would take years to snake through the legal system, with a decision only coming in 1973. There, in a 7-2 split, the high court decided that McCorvey did indeed have a right to an abortion, but only insofar as it was balanced with the state's responsibilities to protect women's health and protect the potential of a human life. In placing those qualifications on abortion, the Supreme Court left plenty of room for latitude to develop over the last few decades.

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