Abortion occurs when an embryo or fetus is expelled from a woman’s body. Abortions can be spontaneous or induced. In the legal context, discussions about abortions usually involve induced, or intentional, abortions.
Before the United States became a country, the common law of England permitted abortions before the fetus “quickened.” Quickening was the term used to describe the mother’s first feeling of the fetus moving in her uterus. Typically, quickening occurs between the sixteenth and eighteenth weeks of pregnancy.
After the founding of the United States, laws regarding abortions did not exist until the 1800s. Women at that time were not allowed to vote and were not allowed to be doctors or members of the American Medical Association, which, along with religious leaders, advocated the passage of laws outlawing abortion. Abortions in the nineteenth century were generally unsafe, and women who survived abortions frequently were left sterile. By the 1880s, all states had laws criminalizing abortions. These laws stayed on the books until the 1960s and 1970s.
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, women’s groups, along with doctors and lawyers, organized a movement to reform abortion laws. Reformers cited inequalities between men and women that were exacerbated by women’s inability to adequately control their reproductive lives. The post World War II population explosion also increased awareness about the environment and the need to limit family size. In other countries, abortions were legal and generally safe, but in the United States, women continued to undergo illegal abortions and risk permanent injury or death. In the 1960s, the anti-nausea drug thalidomide and an outbreak of German measles caused a rash of birth defects in babies born during that decade. The increase in birth defects brought further attention to the issue since women wishing to avoid the birth of a seriously deformed child could not seek legal abortions.
Women’s rights organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), lobbied for abortion law reform and filed lawsuits when lobbying efforts failed. States responded, reforming their laws about abortion, but women’s rights groups continued to fight for unfettered access to abortion services for women. Anti-abortion groups fought back, arguing that a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is no greater than the right of an unborn child to be born. The battle ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 decided the landmark abortion case of Roe v. Wade.