Abortion without Apology: A Radical History for the 1990s

By Ninia Baehr | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

For the past two years I have been running "Abortion Rap" workshops with young women in the reproductive freedom movement. Abortion Without Apology grows out of this work. It uses history to encourage a new generation of activists to envision what they really want, and to empower them to take action to get it.

The stories of the women in this pamphlet are in danger of being lost to history. If their stories are hidden, contemporary activists will be left without an understanding of how we arrived at this critical moment in history, and will be forced to reinvent the wheel. Knowledge of the history of abortion policies and politics is critical to today's reproductive freedom movement.

Until the early 1880s, when most states passed severe anti-abortion laws for the first time, abortion was not illegal in this country. The evolution of anti-abortion policy was shaped primarily by the developing medical profession. With the establishment in 1847 of the American Medical Association (AMA), doctors gained an organizational and lobbying vehicle through which to mount effective legislative pressure. They succeeded eventually in outlawing most abortions, a situation that remained unchanged and virtually unchallenged for nearly a century.

Their even more ambitious crusade to monopolize the female health care market is well documented in books on the history of women and medicine (see Bibliography). In the early decades of the 19th century, "regular" physicians (the elite who had been to even a few months of medical school) had begun to perceive female patients as the gateway to family practice—and they saw "irregular" physicians (homeophaths and others critical of the European-trained "regulars") and midwives as obstacles in their paths. Discrediting these practitioners, who had traditionally provided obstetrical and gynecological care—including abortion—was their ticket to the higher status (and incomes) delivered by professionalization.

At the same time, the developing white middle class elaborated a "cult of domesticity." This set of ideas about gender's place in social life specified that men and women inhabited separate spheres: women were in charge of the private sphere of household and family while men controlled the rest. For women, this division of labor encouraged quality

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