The Anti-Abortion Movement's Pre-Roe RootsHistorians in the News
The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973, saying that access to abortion was protected in the United States.
The decision fueled the anti-abortion movement and congealed it, too. Prior to Roe, anti-abortion activists were operating on a state level, but the Supreme Court's ruling turned the movement into a national one.
In the decades before the decision, opposition to abortion was a fairly bipartisan issue. In fact, many Democrats in elected positions were likely to oppose unrestricting abortion access because many represented Catholics, who were largely opposed to abortion. But even then, it wasn't a politically charged topic.
Now, the Court appears to be on the verge of overturning the right to an abortion, bringing a movement that transformed American politics over the past half century to its apex.
In the past decade, Donald Trump was able to win the White House in no small part because he galvinized conservative evangelicals by pledging to appoint Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe. It was a promise he fulfilled, even though Trump had previously supported abortion rights.
But the history of organized opposition to abortion access started more than a century before Roe v. Wade, with roots in British common law.
In the early days of the country, laws often reflected British common law, and when it came to abortion, the process was determined by quickening. Quickening meant the moment the pregnant person could feel the fetus move, which typically happened between the fourth and six month of pregnancy. At that time, it was the only way to truly confirm the pregnancy, so the thought of life beginning at conception wasn't a factor at all.
Ending the pregnancy after the quickening period was considered illegal, but was just a misdemeanor. And even then, it was hard to prosecute because it was only the pregnant person who could attest to whether or not the fetus had moved. Abortions were accessible and largely without stigma at this time.
But close to the mid 1800s, some doctors, who at the time were a mostly unorganized profession, sought to separate themselves from the healers and midwives who were also performing abortions. Doctors didn't have as much medical or institutional authority as they do today, and some in the profession pushed states to pass anti-abortion laws in order to tamp down on competition. These physicians, all of whom were men and who were backed by the newly founded American Medical Association, argued that they had more knowledge on embryos and that the heightened medical knowledge was necessary to determine when life began.
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