Protections and regulations around contraception and abortion have been subject to laws and legislation in the U.S. since the 1800s.
Prior to 1821, abortions were generally accessible and were often performed by midwives, as well as doctors. That changed as women’s reproductive rights in the United States became more contentious. A 1873 case established federal control over contraception distribution. By 1960, women's access to contraception broadened with FDA approval of "the Pill."
Below is a timeline of court cases and more, from the nation’s first statutory abortion regulation in 1821 to efforts to control the distribution and use of contraception, to the Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade.
19th Century - Bans on Abortion, Contraception
1821: The Connecticut General Assembly passes the first U.S. law banning medicinal abortion after the “quickening” stage (when fetal movement is detected, generally around the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy). Punishment is a life sentence for the provider of the poison administered to perform the procedure.
1857: Led by Horatio Storer, the American Medical Association campaigns to make abortion illegal in the United States. “We are the physical guardians of women,” the group’s 1859 report on “criminal abortion” stated. “The case is here of life or death—and it depends, almost wholly, upon ourselves.” By 1860, more than 20 states had criminalized the procedure.
1869: The Catholic Church’s Pope Pius IX declares abortions at any stage of pregnancy punishable by excommunication.
March 3, 1873: The Comstock Act is passed by the U.S. Congress, making it a federal crime to sell or distribute contraception through the mail or across state lines. Drafted by Anthony Comstock, a devout Christian known for his crusade against prostitution, pornography and birth control, the statute terms birth control as “obscene.”
Soon after the federal act is passed, 24 states enact their own laws to restrict access to contraception at a state level. In Connecticut, the act of using birth control becomes prohibited by law. The law is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965.
Early 20th Century - Planned Parenthood Launches
October 16, 1916: Margaret Sanger opens the country’s first birth control clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Nine days later police shut down the clinic and arrest Sanger, her sister, Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, and Fania Mindell, an interpreter.
After serving 30 days in prison, Sanger goes on to launch the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York and the American Birth Control League, which later merge to form Planned Parenthood. One of 11 children, Sanger, a nurse, blamed her mother’s death on the toll of those pregnancies.
“Sanger strongly believed that the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty,” according to the National Women’s History Museum.
December 7, 1936: A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of an amendment to the Comstock laws in United States v. One Package, making it legal for doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines. Sanger had worked behind the scenes to ensure the amendment reached the court. The ruling paves the way for new advances in contraception since physicians can now mail contraceptives to patients throughout the country.
1960s - ‘The Pill’ Approved, The San Francisco Nine Sued
May 9, 1960: Enovid, better known as “The Pill,” gains FDA approval, making it the nation’s first oral contraceptive. The IUD is granted similar approval in 1968. The advances offer U.S. women female-controlled birth control methods.
June 7, 1965: In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court rules in Griswold v. Connecticut that the U.S. Constitution protects marital privacy rights, striking down Connecticut’s contraception ban for married people. The decision introduces the right to privacy argument, which will later be applied in Roe v. Wade.
1966: In what becomes known as the case of the San Francisco Nine, nine San Francisco doctors are sued by the California State Board of Medical Examiners for performing abortions on women exposed to rubella, known to cause miscarriage, stillbirth and severe birth defects. Doctors nationwide and California’s medical school deans rally in defense of the doctors, and the cases are dropped in 1970.
April 25, 1967: Colorado becomes the first state to loosen abortion restrictions, allowing the procedure if a woman’s physical or mental health are at risk, in the cases of rape (including statutory) or incest and if the pregnancy is likely to result in birth defects. Eleven states soon follow suit.
1970s - States Legalize Abortion, Roe v. Wade Established
1970: Four states–Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington–legalize abortion. Health officials estimate that more than 400,000 abortions are performed in New York in the first two years after the practice was legalized. Hawaii, Alaska and Washington restrict abortions to women from out of state by requiring a minimum period of residency within their state's borders to qualify.
March 22, 1972: In Eisenstadt v. Baird, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, strikes down a Massachusetts law against distributing contraceptives to unmarried women or men, citing the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
"If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child," Justice William J. Brennan Jr. writes in the ruling.
January 22, 1973: In the landmark case Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court rules 7-2 that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. It strikes down a Texas law banning abortions, effectively making the procedure legal nationwide. The decision finds a woman has full rights to an abortion in the first trimester, that states can regulate the procedure in the second trimester and that states can ban abortion in the third trimester, after fetal viability or when a woman’s health is in danger.
September 30, 1976: The bipartisan Hyde Amendment is passed by Congress, blocking the use of federal Medicaid dollars to be used for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or to protect a woman’s life. Amended versions of the amendment have been included in the federal government’s annual appropriations legislation ever since.
July 1, 1976: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, strikes down parts of a Missouri statute requiring consent of a married woman’s husband or a minor’s parent before she can receive an abortion.
1980s - Abortion Provisions Struck Down
June 15, 1983: In City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, the Supreme Court rules 6-3 to strike down abortion provisions in an Akron, Ohio ordinance requiring a 24-hour waiting period, procedures in the first trimester to take place in hospitals and informed consent.
''It is fair to say that much of the information required is designed not to inform the woman's consent but rather to persuade her to withhold it altogether,''Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in the decision.
August 1984: The Ronald Reagan administration institutes the Mexico City Policy, better known as the global gag rule, barring foreign non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, who receive U.S. funding from performing or promoting abortion. “[T]he United States does not consider abortion an acceptable element of family planning programs and will no longer contribute to those of which it is a part,” the original policy stated.
It is subsequently rescinded and reinstated, most recently rescinded by President Joe Biden in 2021. In 1991, in Rust v. Sullivan, the rule was upheld by the Supreme Court.
1990s - Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ‘Morning After Pill’ Approved
June 29, 1992: In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Supreme Court upholds its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, reaffirming a woman’s right to an abortion. But the contentious 5-4 decision alters Roe, and also upholds abortion restrictions in the Pennsylvania law, giving states more authority to regulate the procedure. “The woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy before viability is the most central principle of Roe v. Wade,” the majority authors wrote. “It is a rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce.″
September 2, 1998: The FDA approves Preven, better known as the “morning after pill,” emergency contraception that, when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, causes a 75 percent reduction in the risk of pregnancy. In 1999, it approves the prescription-only oral emergency contraception Plan B. In 2006, Plan B is approved over-the-counter to those 18 and older.
2000s - States Restrict Abortions, Roe v. Wade Overturned
January 18, 2006: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court finds in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England that a New Hampshire statute requiring parental consent prior to an abortion is unconstitutional as it lacks a medical emergency exception.
April 18, 2007: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America to uphold the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, effectively giving Congress the right to ban abortions after the first trimester without exception for a woman’s health.
March 23, 2010: The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is enacted. It includes a mandate that any FDA-approved birth control method be available to those with insurance with no copay or deductible.
June 27, 2016: In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court cites undue burden in striking down a Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic and that facilities offering abortion services meet strict ambulatory surgical center building standards.
September 1, 2021: Texas enacts SB 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, banning abortions after six weeks, or when an embryo’s heartbeat can be detected, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The act includes the right for any private citizen to sue any person who “aids or abets” an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
June 24, 2022: The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturns Roe v. Wade (reaffirmed in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey) that had provided a constitutional right to an abortion since 1973. The ruling leaves abortion laws up to the states. The case surrounded a Mississippi abortion ban at 15 weeks for medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormalities only.
July 13, 2023: The FDA approves a birth control pill, called Opill, to be sold without a prescription for the first time in the United States. The contraceptive pill is considered more effective than other over-the-counter options, such as condoms and spermicide, and its approval stands to broaden access to contraception, as it removes the requirement for a physician-issued prescription.
- “Timeline of Legal History of Women in the United States,” National Women’s History Alliance.
- “Timeline of Important Reproductive Freedom Cases Decided by the Supreme Court,” American Civil Liberties Union.
- “Reproductive Rights in History,” Duke University.
- “Reproductive Rights at the U.S. Supreme Court,” American Bar Association.