At the time of the Civil War, a coalition of male doctors — with the support of the Catholic Church and others who wanted to control women`s bodies — led a movement to push state governments to ban abortion at all levels. The male-dominated medical profession wanted to take over the authority of the female-dominated midwifery profession, including the power to offer abortion. In reality, the Puritans were much lighter than was generally believed, and in some ways they were quite progressive when it came to sexual behavior. The Puritans believed that marital sex was important for pleasure and that marriage was a contract of love, not just an economic one. Although premarital and extramarital sex is illegal, it is so common that enforcement is never very strict. The legal documents of the time are full of registered “sexual offenses,” and the proportion of firstborn children born prematurely or out of wedlock was about 40% during the colonial period. Since the Puritans believed that one could fear God without children and that life began when a mother felt her baby kick, their strict religious code did not need to prohibit abortion before the acceleration. After abortion was criminalized in the late Victorian era, it did not become legal again until 1973, when the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade said all women have the right to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus is viable outside the womb. The decision was made after years of legal, political and religious advocacy on behalf of women and their reproductive health and rights. In the nearly 100 years that abortion was illegal in the United States, women suffered and died from botched abortions, with up to 5,000 women dying each year in the decades before the decision.
According to Roe v. Wade, deaths and hospitalizations resulting from unsafe abortions have effectively ended in this country. When abortion was legal in early America, it was considered at least as safe as giving birth to a child during pregnancy, and today, abortion is considered an extremely safe procedure. But if a woman`s right to abortion is restricted, the operation becomes risky: today, about 68,000 women around the world die each year from unsafe abortions. Together, a coalition of male doctors, supported by the American Medical Association, the Catholic Church and sensationalist newspapers, began campaigning for the criminalization of abortion. By the turn of the century, this coalition had largely succeeded in limiting women`s medical choices. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg in his book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, restricting abortion was a way for male doctors to exercise “clear authority” over their patients. The Victorian anti-abortion movement portrayed women who terminated their pregnancies as unnatural and selfish, undermining the expected, patriotic, and divine role of the American woman – that of wife and mother.
President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Clinic Access Act on May 26, 1994. The law makes it a federal crime to physically obstruct the entrance to a clinic or to use violence, threat of violence, or a physical disability such as a sit-in to disrupt, injure, or intimidate clinic workers or women seeking abortions or other reproductive health services. She filed a federal lawsuit under the pseudonym “Jane Roe” to have the Texas law declared unconstitutional. Roe argued that a law prohibiting her from having an abortion violates her constitutional right to privacy. The legal advocacy group If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice has launched a campaign to advance the decriminalization of self-directed abortion. If/When/How also provides legal information to people with questions about self-administered abortion and their rights.