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What Abortion Was Like In The U.S. Before Roe V. Wade


Over the weekend, hundreds of people marched on Alabama's state capitol in Montgomery, protesting what is now the nation's most restrictive abortion law.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Alabama women matter. Alabama women matter. Alabama women matter. Alabama women matter.

KELLY: Abortion rights groups are calling for a national day of action tomorrow in response to new abortion bans in several Southern and Midwestern states. Supporters of these bills welcome the challenge if it will take them all the way to the Supreme Court.


TERRI COLLINS: My goal with this bill - and I think all of our goal - is to have Roe versus Wade turned over.

KELLY: That's Alabama State Representative Terri Collins.

So if the ultimate goal of these abortion bans is to overturn Roe and go back to the way it was before that landmark decision, let's paint a picture of what it meant to get an abortion back then. Karissa Haugeberg is here to help us do that. She teaches history at Tulane University, and she joins me now. Professor Haugeberg, welcome.

KARISSA HAUGEBERG: Delighted to be with you.

KELLY: Start with the numbers. Before the Roe versus Wade decision 1973, how many American women got abortions?

HAUGEBERG: Scholars will probably never be able to answer that question with precision precisely because the procedure was illegal. But scholars estimate that between 20% and 25% of all pregnancies ended in abortion before Roe v. Wade.

KELLY: Well, that prompts me to the next thing I want to ask you about, which is, how risky was it when a woman did decide that she wanted to get an abortion in those days pre-Roe versus Wade - because I think the picture a lot of people maybe have in their head is of back-alley abortions or of women using coat hangers or drinking rat poison to induce abortions.

HAUGEBERG: Immediately before Roe v. Wade, officially approximately 200 women died per year. Historically, the most commonplace method that women have used when they haven't been able to obtain legal abortions is self-induction. Those are the horror stories that you hear of women trying to fall down stairs or ingesting poisons or using instruments to try to induce an abortion.

Another method that women commonly used was turning to the unregulated market. And some women were able to find providers who were willing to perform abortions safely but criminally at great risk to their professional careers and at risk of being imprisoned themselves.

KELLY: Stay with the question of providers for a moment. As you know, the new Alabama law would make performing abortions a felony. But you are describing that there were, pre-Roe versus Wade, competent doctors and midwives and others who were performing abortions. How did that work?

HAUGEBERG: So one thing that's kind of interesting is that throughout the period when abortion was criminalized beginning in the mid-19th century - for the most part, physicians were the people who were providing it as well as midwives. And as long as a physician was offering the service, until about the 1930s, they were less vulnerable to being prosecuted or having a police raid their practice. And so there was a vibrant word-of-mouth network that enabled many women to find safe providers. But again, they were always operating in a gray area.

KELLY: So big picture, what aspects of history might repeat should today's Supreme Court overturn Roe versus Wade?

HAUGEBERG: So when we look at the provision of abortion in the immediate pre-Roe period, I think it's actually very instructive. We had a patchwork system where women in certain places, like New York, and in certain areas - for example, cities - had much better ability to be able to get to a licensed provider and to afford a provider than women who lived in rural areas. So even in 1971, a woman who lived in rural Louisiana had very little ability, often, to be able to afford to get to New York.

And I think that's one thing that I see coming back - is that we're returning to this period where geography matters tremendously, that women in certain states will have the ability to exercise the right to abortion while it's quickly disappearing and diminishing for women in rural states and in states that have a higher proportion of African-Americans.

KELLY: Let me flip the question around and ask what might look quite different in 2019 from the way things looked in 1971, 1972?

HAUGEBERG: Well, among the differences are some of the technologies. And there are concerted efforts to try to get abortion pills into states that are passing these criminal prohibitions on abortion.

KELLY: So options to terminate a pregnancy chemically, which may not have been available and certainly weren't widely available in the early '70s.

HAUGEBERG: Precisely. But if the recent history on contraception and these states' reluctance to cover contraception is any guide, it wouldn't be surprising if next there will be a crackdown even on these other chemical options.

KELLY: Karissa Haugeberg - she is an assistant professor of history at Tulane University. Professor Haugeberg, thanks very much.

HAUGEBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.