When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

Synopsis

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's crucial to look back to the time when abortion was illegal. Leslie Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion, which although illegal was nonetheless widely available, but always with threats for both doctor and patient. In a time when many young women don't even know that there was a period when abortion was a crime, this work offers chilling and vital lessons of importance to everyone.

The linking of the words "abortion" and "crime" emphasizes the difficult and painful history that is the focus of Leslie J. Reagan's important book. Her study is the first to examine the entire period during which abortion was illegal in the United States, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Although illegal, millions of abortions were provided during these years to women of every class, race, and marital status. The experiences and perspectives of these women, as well as their physicians and midwives, are movingly portrayed here.

Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion. While abortions have been typically portrayed as grim "back alley" operations, she finds that abortion providers often practiced openly and safely. Moreover, numerous physicians performed abortions, despite prohibitions by the state and the American Medical Association. Women often found cooperative practioners, but prosecution, public humiliation, loss of privacy, and inferior medical care were a constant threat.

Reagan's analysis of previously untapped sources, including inquest records and trial transcripts, shows the fragility of patient rights and raises provocative questions about the relationship between medicine and law. With the right to abortion again under attack in the United States, this book offers vital lessons for every American concerned with health care, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom.

Excerpt

There would be no history of illegal abortion to tell without the continuing demand for abortion from women, regardless of law. Generations of women persisted in controlling their reproduction through abortion and made abortion an issue for legal and medical authorities. Those women, their lives, and their perspectives are central in this book. Their demand for abortions, generally hidden from public view and rarely spoken of in public, transformed medical practice and law over the course of the twentieth century.

This book analyzes the triangle of interactions among the medical profession, state authorities, and women in the practice, policing, and politics of abortion during the era when abortion was a crime. As individual women consulted with doctors, they made them understand their needs. Sympathy for their female patients drew physicians into the world of abortion in spite of legal and professional prohibitions. Indeed, it was physicians and lawyers who initiated the earliest efforts to rewrite the abortion laws. Ultimately, women’s pressing need for abortion fueled a mass movement that succeeded in reversing public policy toward abortion in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Public policy made at the national and state levels deserves to be examined where it was carried out: at the local level, in one-on-one interactions and on a day-to-day basis. Understanding the impact of abortion law requires analyzing the actual practice of abortion and the state’s enforcement of the criminal laws. The stunning transformation in law and public policy regarding abortion and women’s rights was rooted in . . .

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