The last thing I ever want to write about is abortion. That’s because I’m conflicted on it as most of us are. But with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a case on a Mississippi law that could have an impact on Roe v, Wade, here we are. So, here I go.
Abortion wasn’t such a big issue when decided in January 1973.
Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had achieved a “breakthrough” in the Paris Peace Accords, the bombing of North Vietnam ended, Lyndon Johnson died, Nixon announced, “peace with honor,” and the war began its meander to a 1975 conclusion.
But, yes, I was aware the Supreme Court ruling on Roe overturned our West Virginia law banning abortions, which is still the law of our state today. It just didn’t seem like a landmark event.
What I didn’t know was that abortion had been practiced since ancient times. In his “Theaetetus,” Plato mentions a midwife’s ability to induce abortion and it is said the ancient Greeks relied upon the herb silphium as an abortifacient (abortion drug).
In the 1800s, social attitudes led by physicians shifted, and the English-speaking world passed laws against abortion at all stages.
Practical reasons also influenced anti-abortion laws. Abortion providers tended to be untrained, nonmembers of medical societies, unlike today. In an age where doctors were standardizing heath care, these irregulars were a nuisance and, most often, cheap competition.
Anti-abortion statutes first appeared in the 1820s at a time when abortion drug advertising was rampant. Contemporary estimates suggest up to 25% of all pregnancies back then ended in abortion.
In 1873, the Comstock Law prohibited any publication pertaining to abortion, conception prevention or prevention of venereal disease even to students of medicine.
By 1910 nearly every state had anti-abortion laws, but these were unevenly enforced, at best.
A movement to liberalize the laws emerged in the 1920s-1930s, birth control clinics were established and family planning and contraceptive advice spread.
By the 1960s, an abortion reform movement emerged, and organizations formed to mobilize both for and against the right to choose to have an abortion.
In 1967, Colorado became the first state to decriminalize a doctor performing an abortion in cases of rape, incest or in which pregnancy would lead to permanent physical disability of the mother.
In June of that year, a bipartisan majority passed the California “Therapeutic Abortion Act.” Catholic clergy strongly opposed it, Catholic lay people were divided, non-Catholics strongly supported it, and then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law.
It was expected that abortions would lessen.
They grew from some 5,000 in-state to about 100,000 yearly by the 1970s. In 1980, Reagan reversed his position saying he was “too new as governor to make a wise decision.”
In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortions at a woman’s request, New York allowed abortions up to the 24th week, and, in 1971, the Supreme Court upheld a Washington, D.C. law defining “health” as “psychological” as well as “physical well-being.”
Then the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling held unconstitutional a Texas statute forbidding abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother. That overturned all state laws to the contrary, like West Virginia’s.
Opponents of Roe have long argued this was a stretch of “not specified” constitutional rights.
Supporters argued that many such rights are not constitutionally specified such as the right to vote, travel and marry among others.
Today, the Pew Research Center says few take the extreme position that abortion should be legal in all cases (25%) or entirely illegal (13%).
Rather, 62% of us are in the middle with certain leanings. In all, 59% of us are inclined to keep abortion legal in most or all cases while 39% lean the other way.
I wish those between the ages of 18 and 44 would just decide. After all, the rest of us are mostly imposing our will on them.
But that’s not how it works. The six men and three women, aged 49 to 83, on our Supreme Court will decide. Although I doubt it will be the final word.