A concise history of the US abortion debate

On Nov. 14, 1972, a controversial two-part episode of the groundbreaking television show, “Maude” aired.

Titled “Maude’s Dilemma,” the episodes chronicled the decision by the main character to have an abortion.

The landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade was issued two months after these episodes. The ruling affirmed the right to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. “Maude’s Dilemma” brought the battle over abortion from the streets and courthouses to prime-time television.

Responses to the episodes ranged from celebration to fury, which mirrored contemporary attitudes about abortion.

In the almost 50 years since Roe v. Wade, the debate over abortion has pervaded politics in the U.S.

While many may think that the political arguments over abortion now are fresh and new, scholars of women’s, medical and legal history note that this debate has a long history in the U.S.

It began at more than a century before Roe v. Wade.

The era of ‘The Pill’

Less than 10 years before “Maude’s Dilemma” aired, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first commercially produced birth control pill, Envoid-10.

Although various forms of birth control predate the birth control pill, the FDA’s approval of Envoid-10 was a watershed in the national debate around family planning and reproductive choice.

Commonly known as “The Pill,” the wider accessibility of birth control is seen as an early victory of the nascent women’s liberation movement.

Abortion also emerged as a prominent issue within this burgeoning movement. For many feminist activists of the 1960s and 1970s, women’s right to control their own reproductive lives became inextricable from the larger platform of gender equality.

19th-century advertisements for abortion-inducing items and abortion services. The Library Company of Philadelphia, CC BY-NC

From unregulated to criminalized

From the nation’s founding through the early 1800s, pre-quickening abortions – that is, abortions before a pregnant person feels fetal movement – were fairly common and even advertised.

Women from various backgrounds sought to end unwanted pregnancies before and during this period both in the U.S. and across the world. For example, enslaved black women in the U.S. developed abortifacients – drugs that induce abortions – and abortion practices as means to stop pregnancies after rapes by, and coerced sexual encounters with, white male slave owners.

In the mid- to late-1800s, an increasing number of states passed anti-abortion laws sparked by both moral and safety concerns. Primarily motivated by fears about high risks for injury or death, medical practitioners in particular led the charge for anti-abortion laws during this era.

By 1860, the American Medical Association sought to end legal abortion. The Comstock Law of 1873 criminalized attaining, producing or publishing information about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and how to procure an abortion.

A spike in fears about new immigrants and newly emancipated black people reproducing at higher rates than the white population also prompted more opposition to legal abortion.