On June 24, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority voted to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, almost 50 years after the opinion came down. The ruling sparked intense debate across the United States and is expected to lead to abortion bans in nearly half of states in the country. Considering the fraught and deeply political ways in which abortion is discussed and legislated in the U.S. today, it’s easy to forget the issue was not always a partisan, or even a moral, one. Rather, attitudes toward abortion have changed over the centuries, often evolving alongside political and historical moments that reflect shifts in power and privilege.
In Colonial times, abortion was not a matter of federal or ethical significance, but a common decision made and acted upon by pregnant people and their midwives. Two centuries later, abortions were outlawed in every state. The matter of who gets to make decisions about abortion—whether it be the federal government, state legislators, or individuals—has historically been tied up in changing philosophies about bodily autonomy, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, the advent of the medical industry, and, eventually, the merging of religion and politics to form the party system we know today.
The question of who has access to abortion is also closely connected with race, socioeconomic status, and proximity to power. Because history has shown that the legal status of abortions does not deter people from having them, the criminalization of abortion most directly impacts those without access to financial resources; in other words, wealthy Americans have always had better and safer access to abortions, regardless of whether abortions are legal or not.
In order to trace the history of attitudes and policies around abortion in the U.S.—starting in colonial times and ending in the present—Stacker consulted historical records, scholarly research, court documents, medical journals, news reports, and data from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and advocacy organization.
A note on the use of gendered language in this article: In recent years, the language used to talk about gender has shifted to meet the understanding that gender is a spectrum. Likewise, matters historically categorized as “women’s issues,” such as pregnancy and abortion, don’t only impact cisgender women, but also trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.
In an effort to stay true to the language used in historical accounts cited in this article, we have employed language as it was used during those times. However, for the parts of this article that refer to present-day issues, we have used more expansive terminology.
Related: Abortion laws around the world