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What Alito Got Wrong about the History of Abortion

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tags: abortion, Samuel Alito



Leslie J. Reagan is a professor of history and law at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and author of When Abortion Was a Crime and Dangerous Pregnancies.

If it were possible to eavesdrop on conversations among women and some doctors in early America, you might overhear the phrase “bringing on the menses.” If a woman didn’t menstruate when expected, she was considered to be sick and action was required to bring her back to health. Women who had “a common cold” — a euphemism for “obstructed” menses — used a variety of methods, teas and concoctions to bring “their menses back.”

In other words, returning menstruation to its normal cycle was within the purview of a woman’s own self-health care and was not regulated by the state until after “quickening” — the moment during a pregnancy when a woman could feel a fetus kick and recognized a life “stirring” within her. Quickening occurred between the fourth and sixth month of pregnancy. Only after quickening was an induced miscarriage, an abortion, considered immoral and banned by law.

The truth is that abortion is deeply rooted in our nation’s history — in practice, in morality and in law. Abortion was not always a crime — although Justice Samuel Alito speciously claims otherwise in his recently disclosed draft majority opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“An unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973,” Alito asserts in the draft opinion.

The logic that Alito uses in the draft opinion leans heavily on history — history that he gets egregiously wrong. Alito explicitly dismisses the distinction between ending a pregnancy before or after quickening, a distinction that my research has found was critical to the way American women and American physicians traditionally thought about pregnancy. In early America as in early modern England, abortion before “quickening” was legal under common law and widely accepted in practice.

Read entire article at Politico

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