Roe v. Wade was a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion.
The Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was protected by the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The legal precedent for the decision was rooted in the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, which established the right to privacy involving medical procedures.
Despite opponents’ characterization of the decision, it was not the first time that abortion became a legal procedure in the United States. In fact, for most of the country’s first 100 years, abortion as we know it today was not only not a criminal offense, it was also not considered immoral.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, the word “abortion” referred only to the termination of a pregnancy after “quickening,” the time when the fetus first began to make noticeable movements. The induced ending of a pregnancy before this point did not even have a name–but not because it was uncommon. Women in the 1700s often took drugs to end their unwanted pregnancies.
In 1827, though, Illinois passed a law that made the use of abortion drugs punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Although other states followed the Illinois example, advertising for “Female Monthly Pills,” as they were known, was still common through the middle of the 19th century.
Abortion itself only became a serious criminal offense in the period between 1860 and 1880. And the criminalization of abortion did not result from moral outrage. The roots of the new law came from the newly established physicians’ trade organization, the American Medical Association. Doctors decided that abortion practitioners were unwanted competition and went about eliminating that competition. The Catholic Church joined the doctors in condemning the practice.
By the turn of the century, all states had laws against abortion, but for the most part they were rarely enforced and women with money had no problem terminating pregnancies if they wished. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that abortion laws were enforced. Subsequent crackdowns led to a reform movement that succeeded in lifting abortion restrictions in California and New York even before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.
The fight over whether to criminalize abortion has grown increasingly fierce in recent years, but opinion polls suggest that most Americans prefer that women be able to have abortions in the early stages of pregnancy, free of any government interference.