Is my body none of my business? Women in the US are seriously threatened by the loss of the right to abortion – how did it come to this

Recent events in the United States have become another reminder that no results of the struggle for women's rights can be called final. The history of abortion bans in the United States begins in the middle of the 19th century, but, unlike today's conflict, its main participants were representatives of the medical professional community.

Affordable abortion and women's monopoly on knowledge

Until the middle of the 19th century, abortion was a common and unstigmatized procedure. At this time, 20 to 35% of pregnancies ended in the so-called "restoration of menstrual regularity." The main means for performing an abortion were herbs grown in their own gardens, or drugs that were dispensed in pharmacies without a prescription. For wealthy white women and middle-class white women, abortion was a reproductive health issue. The decision to terminate the pregnancy was made personally by the woman, not by the doctors. However, the situation was quite different for enslaved women, whose bodies were controlled, since their children were considered the property of the slave owner.

The decision to terminate the pregnancy was made personally by the woman, not by the doctors.

Before the professionalization of the medical community, women also had a monopoly on reproductive knowledge and often turned to other midwives for help.

In accordance with British common law, in the 19th century, abortion was allowed until the moment of fetal movement, which could be noticed and confirmed only by the woman herself. This usually occurs between the fourth and sixth month of pregnancy. This made it virtually impossible to prove forensically that the abortion was performed after the fetus had begun to move. In addition, an abortion after this point was considered a crime of only minor gravity.

Historians believe that the ban on abortion after the onset of fetal movement existed in order to save the woman's life. Termination of pregnancy at a later date was performed with the help of special tools and carried more risks to the woman's life.

Anti-abortion struggle and monopoly on expertise

The first anti-abortion activists in the United States were representatives of the professional medical community. They said that pregnant women should be assisted by licensed doctors, not midwives.

Gynecologist Horatio Storer was involved in anti-abortion lobbying and even organized a real " Doctors' Crusade Against Abortion " within the framework of the American Medical Association. According to historians , for many of the doctors who advocated regulation of abortion, the main goal of the campaign was to eliminate competition from female midwives.

For many doctors who advocated regulation of abortion, the main goal of the campaign was to eliminate competition from midwives.

By the beginning of the 20th century, abortion was banned in all states. However, almost all laws passed at that time included exceptions when the termination of a pregnancy was necessary to save a woman's life. This decision was made exclusively by licensed doctors.

Women's knowledge of the reproductive sphere was significantly limited by an 1873 law prohibiting the forwarding of obscene material. These included information about abortion and contraception. In 1906, a ban was also introduced on the sale of mislabeled and "harmful" drugs and preparations. Making a safe abortion with medication has become even more difficult.

The adopted laws gave doctors a monopoly on expertise and the exclusive right to decide on the need to terminate a pregnancy. The prohibitions also led to the emergence of a black market for abortions and, as a result, to an increase in female mortality as a result of clandestine procedures. The criminalization of this market has dealt a particularly severe blow to African American and Puerto Rican women. It was they who died more often than others as a result of illegal termination of pregnancy.

"My body, my choice": the struggle to legalize abortion in the United States

But not all doctors supported the ban on abortion. Many of them performed illegal abortions, citing risks to the woman's health and life. However, since the middle of the 20th century, with the development of medicine and the emergence of more accurate and effective methods of gynecological and obstetric care, it has become increasingly difficult to use such rhetoric of justification.

In the 1960s, the need to liberalize the abortion law found increasing support in society. This was primarily due to the severe effects of pregnant women taking thalidomide , a sedative-hypnotic drug. With the help of it, women struggled with morning sickness and anxiety. As it turned out later , as a result of taking the drug, children were born with serious birth defects. Many of them did not live even up to a year.

Attitudes towards abortion were also affected by the rubella epidemic, which resulted in the birth of tens of thousands of children with deafness, blindness, heart defects and mental problems. The outbreak of this disease showed that it is not only minorities and the poor who need abortion, but also wealthy white women.

The transition from demands for reform of the law prohibiting abortion to a demand for its complete abolition occurred in the late 60s. This was due to the significant growth in the influence of the second wave feminist movement. As Betty Friedan, leader of the National Women's Organization in the United States and author of The Womanly Mystery (1963), stated : "A woman's right to control her reproductive process must be established as a fundamental, inalienable, human, civil right."

A branch of the environmental movement, whose activists dealt with issues of sexual freedom and population control, also advocated the abolition of the ban on abortion. A particularly important role in the struggle for the right to abortion within this direction was played by the group " Zero population growth ", formed in 1968.

As a result of public pressure, fourteen states reformed, and four more (New York, Hawaii, Alaska and Washington) repealed the law prohibiting abortion.

As a result of public pressure, fourteen states reformed and four more repealed the law that banned abortion.

In response to the emergence of social movements fighting for the right to abortion, opposition also formed . It included the Catholic Church, doctors and housewives who fought for the rights of the embryo.

In the early 1970s, the Republican Party deliberately escalated the conflict over abortion. Richard Nixon, a presidential candidate in 1972, used the theme of abortion in his campaign to win the support of Catholics, residents of the traditionally conservative southern states, and all those who usually voted Democratic but held anti-abortion views. Thus, the polarization of society occurred even several years before the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade court verdict, which legalized abortion nationwide.

In the late 1960s, Norma McCorvey (who went by the name Jane Rowe) became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion. To do this, she went to Texas, because the laws of this state allowed termination of pregnancy in case of rape and incest. However, the woman could not prove the fact of violence. Then, on her behalf, a lawsuit was filed in the federal district court of the state. The defendant was District Attorney Henry Wade. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff on the merits of the case, but refused to ban the relevant abortion laws. On appeal, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court , which ruled in Rowe's favor and held that a woman's constitutional right to privacy includes a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy of her own free will. Thus, the verdict of the highest judicial body in the United States legalized abortion throughout the country. Supreme Court Justice Gary Blackman called the decision "a step that needed to be taken if we were to follow the path of women's full emancipation."

As a result of legalization, the number of clandestine abortions decreased from 130,000 in 1972 to 17,000 in 1974. The number of deaths as a result of illegal termination of pregnancy also decreased significantly: from 39 cases in 1972 to 5 in 1974.

The New Right and the Birth of the Pro-Life Movement

The Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion was followed almost immediately by restrictions. In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortion. As a result, low-income women suffered because they were the most likely to use public health insurance systems.

In the decade that followed the legalization of abortion, there was an unprecedented politicization of it. Abortion became a theme that united the New Right , led by religious activist Paul Weirich. They set themselves against mainstream forces within the Republican Party and the religious right. Weirich, following Nixon , used abortion to garner more evangelical support. According to the New Right, the possibility of artificial termination of pregnancy threatened the existence of the American family, and the decision in the Roe case was presented as a symbol of sexual promiscuity, the departure of women from the family, and the decline of religion.

The New Right funded organizations specifically designed to politically mobilize evangelicals and unite them with like-minded constituencies. One of the most famous organizations of this kind is the "Moral Majority ", created by the Baptist Jerry Falwell in 1979 and directed against liberalism and feminism. Abortion is an important component of the general ideology of this movement.

The New Right identified abortion as one of the main threats to the existence of the American family.

The New Right also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which was lobbied for by feminists. One of the main forces in the conservative anti-feminist movement was Phyllis Schlafly . She argued that there was no need for women to "descend to equal rights" as they already had a "status of special privilege". Schlaffli's arguments about the need to protect the traditional family resonated with evangelical, Mormon, Jewish, and Catholic views on women's emancipation.

It was the combined forces of the New Right and the legal religious movement that led to the victory of Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. As part of the campaign, he openly declared his position "for life", and the Republican Party supported the idea of ​​the need for a constitutional amendment to protect the right to life of unborn children. The radicalization of the position of the Republican Party on the issue of abortion in order to attract new supporters and votes occurred in parallel with the consolidation of opposing views among the Democrats. In 1980, the party supported the Roe v. Wade decision and opposed the Fetal Life Protection Amendment.

Struggle for Life: Violence and Restrictive Laws

The 1980s and 1990s saw an increase in violent acts by pro-life activists in the United States. From 1980 to 1993, 153 acts of explosion or arson were recorded in American clinics. Anti-abortion activists began resorting to threats, chemical attacks and hacking.

The members of the extremist group "God's Army" behaved most radically. They came to the conclusion that killing the doctors who perform these abortions would help stop abortions. Their first victim was Dr. David Gunn. He was killed in Florida in 1993.

New tactics to prevent abortions have also appeared in the arsenal of the movement's participants. For example, "sidewalk counseling" or blocking access to clinics. As a result, more and more doctors refused to perform abortions for their own safety.

More and more doctors began to refuse to perform abortions for reasons of their own safety.

In contrast to the violent methods of the radicals, the mainstream right fought abortion with the help of prohibitions. Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey passed a law requiring women to give their "informed consent" before terminating a pregnancy. To do this, it was necessary to familiarize themselves with information about the development of the embryo and the risks of abortion. Moreover, if she was a minor, then she had to obtain the consent of her parents, and if she was married, she had to notify her husband of her intention. At the same time, a mandatory waiting period was introduced : at least 24 hours had to pass from the moment of contacting the clinic to the abortion.

The state's Planned Parenthood Center sued the governor. It came to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld all provisions of the law, except for the requirement to notify the spouse. Thus the highest judicial body in the United States supported the work of anti-abortion activists and significantly limited access to abortion at the country level. Once again, it hit the most vulnerable groups the hardest.

"Defender of the Unborn" Donald Trump

The real radicalization of the strategy of anti-abortion forces occurred after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. It's hard to believe, but back in 1999, Trump claimed that he was "for the choice." However, during his presidential campaign, he promised to appoint opponents of abortion to the Supreme Court - with the aim of overturning the verdict in Roe v. Wade. This gave Trump the support of conservative evangelicals and Christians, and played a significant role in his subsequent election. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, took the opposite stance during her campaign and advocated the repeal of the Hyde Amendment.

In 2020, Trump became the first sitting president in US history to attend the March for Life, the premier anti-abortion event. "Unborn children have never had a stronger advocate in the White House," he assured the marchers.


It is thanks to Trump that a stable conservative majority has developed in the highest judicial body of the United States. And while he lost the 2020 presidential election, the legacies of his rule — a right-wing bias in the judiciary — made possible the passing of the Texas Heartbeat Act and even the likely overturning of the Roe v. Wade verdict.

"Heartbeat Law"

In September 2021, the state of Texas passed the so-called "Heartbeat Law". It forbids termination of pregnancy after the sixth week, with no exceptions for cases of violence and incest. According to the authors of the law, it is during this week that a recognizable “pulse” appears in the embryo. However, many women are not even aware of the fetus at such an early stage. Experts estimate that only 10 to 15% of all abortions are performed before the sixth week of pregnancy.

Experts estimate that only 10 to 15% of all abortions are performed before the sixth week of pregnancy.

Similar attempts to almost completely limit access to abortion have been made in conservative states before. But such they were overturned by the Supreme Court as contrary to the historic decision in the case of Roe v. Wade.

According to the rules, to challenge the adopted law, you need to file a lawsuit against the representative of the authorities responsible for its implementation. However, the new Texas anti-abortion law was designed to get around this obstacle. Now the execution of the law is monitored not by officials, but by the citizens themselves. Anyone can sue anyone who assists in any way in an illegal abortion. Defendant, in the event of a loss in legal proceedings. must pay at least $10,000 to each applicant. Attempts to challenge the law in the Supreme Court were unsuccessful . As a result, in early May, a similar law was passed in the neighboring state of Oklahoma.

Texas law poses a serious threat to the health and life of pregnant women, especially those in critical situations. This was proved by the case of Anna, who found out about her pregnancy after the entry into force of the law and decided to keep the child. However, at 19 weeks pregnant, her water suddenly broke. The ambulance doctors told Anna that the child was underdeveloped and would definitely not be able to survive, while the woman herself had a high risk of developing sepsis and bleeding with a possible fatal outcome. Doctors recommended an abortion, but according to Texas law, they did not have the right to do it at that time.

Anna could get to the neighboring state either by car, which is 8-9 hours on the way, or by plane. The woman chose the second option, and it cost her several thousand dollars. On NPR, Anna said that for the first time in her life she felt like a consumable:

“I have a savings account and a job that has allowed me to do all of this. But there are many other people on this planet with a womb who would not be able to do all this. And what would they do? Would they just die? I think about it all the time."

Democratic vote as "last line of defense"

If the Supreme Court overturns the Roe ruling, then conservative states will be able to completely ban abortion. According to a study by the Center for Reproductive Rights, termination of pregnancy may be prohibited in half of the states - almost all of them are traditionally conservative and are located in the south and in the central part of the country. So the Texas authorities announced their intention to introduce a complete ban on abortion if the 1973 verdict was overturned.

Abortion may be completely banned in half of the states - almost all of them are traditionally conservative.

Already, many women are forced to go to clinics in states where abortion is legal. And these medical institutions are heavily overloaded due to the increase in the number of patients. The reversal of the decision in the Roe case could lead to a real crisis within the country. Millions of women will be forced to travel hundreds and thousands of kilometers to get the opportunity to have an abortion. Some clinics are already preparing for a critical influx of clients, others are warning that they will not be able to cope with a sharp increase in demand. In addition, some experts fear that conservatives may want to ban women from leaving the state to have an abortion.

Following the publication of a draft Supreme Court decision, left-wing politician Bernie Sanders urged Congress to urgently enshrine the Roe verdict into law:

"Congress should pass legislation that immediately codifies the Roe v. Wade decision nationwide."

In February 2022, the Democrats already tried to pass a law on the right to abortion, but were unsuccessful. The bill was blocked by Republicans and failed to win 60 votes in the Senate. The second attempt to legislate the right to abortion in May of the same year was also unsuccessful . According to The Guardian, this action was rather symbolic - it was intended to unite the citizens of the country in the fight against the likely overturning of the Roe case at the end of June.

The reaction of the Americans: "We will not go back"

In response to the publication of the draft decision of the Supreme Court, more than 380 actions took place in the country on May 14, including the most massive protests in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The protests under the general slogan "Remove the inhibitions from our bodies" were organized by a group of associations and organizations, including Women's March, Planned Parenthood, UltraViolet and MoveOn. Protesters in Washington marched to the Supreme Court building. “I can’t believe that at my age I still have to protest about this,” said the 64-year-old federal government employee.

Demonstrators carried placards with the slogans "Reproductive Justice for All" and "We Won't Go Back" and a picture of a hanger, a symbol of dangerous clandestine abortions. Participants of the processions shared their personal stories about the illegal termination of pregnancy experienced. Gloria Allred, a women's rights lawyer, said she was left in a pool of her own blood:

“The nurse said to me: “I hope this will serve you as a lesson.” It did teach me a lesson, but not the one she had in mind. Abortion has to be safe, it has to be legal, it has to be affordable, it has to be affordable.”

A 2022 study shows that the majority of US citizens believe that abortion should be legal: 61% believe that abortion should be allowed in all or most cases, while only 37% oppose it.

The protesters on May 14 also talked about the fact that if abortion is banned, then the rights of immigrants, minorities and other vulnerable categories of people will also be infringed over time. Amy Ashleman, wife of Chicago Mayor Laurie Lightfoot , stated about the possibility of revoking the right to gay marriage:

“It was never just about abortion. It's about control. My marriage is “on the menu” and we cannot and will not allow this to happen.”

Unsafe abortions and further restrictions on minority rights

If the Roe case is overturned, as has happened in the past, the hardest hit will be on the most vulnerable populations: people of color, LGBT+ and poor people, as well as rural residents.

Historian Gillian Frank is certain that abortion, whether illegal or legal, will not go away one way or another:

“Women in America have always been looking for ways to get an abortion. What has changed is the context, safety, economic and general accessibility, but abortion itself has been a fact of America's reproductive life since the founding of the country."

The futility of the fight against abortion, which brings nothing but increased risks to the health and lives of women, is also pointed out by Canadian health policy researcher Ahmedur Ali, whose tweet got 228.5 thousand likes and almost 60 thousand retweets:

“You can never ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortions. Read it again."

Before the May Senate vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a warning: "If we don't stand up for women's right to choose now, mark my words, it's going to be a real hunting season, hunting our God-given freedoms."

Activists and experts do fear that the actions of the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion may lead to further restrictions on freedoms, and first of all they may affect access to contraception and the rights of LGBT+ people. Thus, the radicalization of the political anti-abortion struggle may only be the beginning of a real right turn that will jeopardize many other works of previous generations.

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