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Listeners Ask About The History Of U.S. Abortion Laws


It was big news that January day, back in 1973.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Supreme Court today ruled that abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy. The 7-to-2 ruling to that effect will probably result in a drastic overhaul of state laws on abortion.

MARTIN: In fact, the Roe v. Wade decision did lead to a drastic overhaul of state laws. Now, though, some states are enacting restrictive abortion laws that many say are aimed at convincing the court to reverse that 1973 ruling. The history of abortion law is our subject this week for commentator Cokie Roberts. She joins us every week to talk about how government and politics work.

Cokie, thanks for being with us.


MARTIN: Let's get right to the first question.

MARJORY MORFORD: Hi. I'm Marjory Morford from Portland, Ore. Before Roe v. Wade, how many states had legal abortion? And secondly, if SCOTUS shuts down Roe, how many states will have legal abortion?

ROBERTS: Well, by 1973, 17 states had made abortion legal under a range of circumstances. But, Rachel, for most of our history, from about the middle of the 19th century on, abortion had been illegal, mainly because the medical profession wanted to rein in midwives and home remedy folks who had been performing abortions. Now, we don't know, if Roe were overturned, what the states would do. We do know that in 2019 alone, 10 states have enacted antiabortion laws.

MARTIN: OK. Our next listener wants to know what happened to change the views on abortion to allow legalization.

JIM CONTRERAS: My name is Jim Contreras, and I'm from Seattle, Wash. How and when did the abortion rights movement get started?

ROBERTS: The movement really started in the 1960s with what's known as women's liberation gaining force, and one of the demands was women's control of their own bodies. Among other things, the women argued that throughout much of history, women had been the decision-makers in the matter of pregnancy, with abortion outlawed only after quickening or when the woman herself could feel a fetus moving.

MARTIN: Here is a question about the other side of the debate - the antiabortion movement.

DANIEL RUSSELL: Hi, Cokie. This is Daniel Russell from Los Angeles, Calif. Where did the religious ideology for the opposition to abortion come from? And how prominent was it in America before Roe v. Wade?

ROBERTS: Well, that history is fraught as well. But there's one date we can point to. In 1869, Pope Pius IX issued a dictum that abortion was wrong at any stage of pregnancy. Before that, the general rule in the church had been that what was called ensoulment was the moment when abortion was prescribed - same thing as quickening. Some Protestant ministers in this country worried that immigrants and Catholics would have all the babies, so they opposed abortion.

But the strong stance of evangelical groups didn't start until after Roe, and you didn't hear about it in the Catholic Church. I can tell you, growing up in the '50s and '60s as a Catholic, I never heard the word abortion.

MARTIN: And lastly, we've got this question.

ROBIN CORVI: Hello. My name is Robin Corvi from Everett, Wash. Have women in government ever made choices about men's bodies the same way men decide about women's bodies?

ROBERTS: No (laughter). But some women in state legislatures have jokingly tried - making vasectomy a felony, for instance.

MARTIN: Cokie Roberts - you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thank you.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel.


Corrected: June 4, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this report, Cokie Roberts said she had not found any advertisements for abortion providers in 19th century newspapers. There are in fact examples of abortion providers advertising at that time.