Abortion has been practiced in many societies throughout history; in fact, there are few large-scale societies in which it has not been practiced (see Chapter 1). Aristotle argued that abortion was necessary as a backup to contraception. He believed that a fetus was not alive until certain organs had been formed; for males, at 40 days after conception, and for females, 90 days. In early Roman society, abortions were also allowed, but husbands had the power to determine whether or not their wives would undergo abortion.
For most of Western history, religion determined general attitudes toward abortion, and both Judaism and Christianity have generally condemned abortion and punished those who used it. Still, throughout recorded history, abortions were performed. Many women died or were severely injured by illegal surgical abortions performed by semiskilled practitioners. Although it was little discussed publicly, abortion was apparently quite common; the Michigan Board of Health estimated in 1878 that one-third of all pregnancies in that state ended in abortion (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988).
In 1965 all 50 states banned abortion, although there were exceptions that varied by state (for instance, to save the mother’s life, in cases of rape or incest, or fetal deformity). Those who could not have a legal abortion either had the baby or had to acquire an illegal abortion. These illegal abortions, known as back-alley abortions, were very dangerous because they were often performed under unsanitary conditions and often resulted in multiple complications, sometimes ending in death. See the accompanying Personal Voices, “An Illegal Abortion,” for one woman’s account. In 1967 abortion laws in England were liberalized and many American women traveled to England for an abortion. By 1970, “package deals” appeared in the popular media advertising round-trip airfare, airport transfers, passport assistance, lodging, meals, and the procedure itself (Gold, 2003).
In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in the Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. In the first trimester of pregnancy, a woman can choose abortion without the state interfering. In the second trimester, a state can regulate abortion to protect a woman’s health; and, in the third trimester, the potential fetal life enables the state to limit or ban abortion except in cases in which a woman’s life or health would be at risk. This decision was enacted to help limit government from controlling a woman’s body and ensure the right to privacy.
In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld the right to an abortion in the Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey decision but also gave states the right to design re-