Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Abortion and LIFE: What Life was Like Before Roe v. Wade

by Nomad

On Feb 27, 1970, LIFE magazine featured an article on the subject of abortion. What's interesting about the article is that it gives us a snapshot of what life was like for women before abortion became legal. 

The Revolution in Paradise

In 1970, after a little over ten years as a state, Hawaii started a revolution. It became the first state to legalize abortions at the request of the woman. A short time later, New York soon followed, allowing abortions up to the 24th week of the pregnancy. 
Prior to that time, Colorado, California, Oregon and North Carolina had abortion laws that allowed for the procedure only in cases of rape, incest "or in which the pregnancy would lead to a permanent physical disability of the woman." (Presumably, that would include a lethal risk to the mother.)

At a time when, as a LIFE magazine article in that year points out, 20 out of every 100,000 American women died of complications. One of those women, Geraldine "Gerri" Santoro, became a symbol for the pro-choice movement. (A graphic police photo of her body "naked, kneeling, collapsed upon the floor, with a bloody towel between her legs" after a self-administered abortion was published in 1973 and outraged a nation against the abortion laws.)

LIFE magazine article also gives other interesting information about abortion before the reforms. For example, most women who sought abortions were, contrary to conventional wisdom, married. Although the Catholic Church strictly forbade the procedure, more than 20% of the women who had abortions were Roman Catholic. Religious prohibitions did not seem to discourage the procedure. It only made it a shameful and more dangerous act.

Compared to today, the Church back then apparently had a different take on the abortion law. Boston's Archbishop Richard Cushing, was quoted as saying: 
Catholics do not need the support of civil law to be faithful to there religious convictions and they do not seek to impose their moral views on other members of society."
Given the controversy that followed, led by Christians and anti-abortion groups, that's a breathtaking statement.

Ideological Shifts

As Rosalind Rosenberg, an American historian and professor at Barnard College, explains in an essay, there were a few wider social reasons for the realignment of attitudes on abortion. It had been a long time in coming.

Firstly there were concerns about overpopulation, particularly among the poor. 
The American Birth Control League (ABCL) was founded by Margaret Sanger in 1921 in order to promote the founding of birth control clinics. These clinics would enable women to control their own fertility (mostly through contraceptives and not abortion). 

The founding precepts of the ABCL were as follows:
We hold that children should be
(1) Conceived in love;
(2) Born of the mother's conscious desire;
(3) And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health.
Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.
This idea, unfortunately, became tainted with darker principles of eugenics and the general movement to "improve" the human race by encouraging the healthy and well-off to have many children and persuading, pressuring or coercing others to have few or none at all. Sauger herself advocated the idea that some people were "unfit" to breed.

Secondly, as medical science progressed, there was also a question, Rosenberg suggests, about the quality of life of the individual.
Abortion no longer seemed to involve a choice between absolutes- life and death- but rather a choice about what kind of life was worth living.
Thirdly, there had been a change in the status of women over the century and the right to control their own lives had become an increasingly important demand for most women. 
For example, American journalist, David Goodman Croly, in 1888, had predicted a coming century with a new freedom for women:
"Women throughout the world will enjoy increased opportunities and privileges. Along with this new freedom will come social tolerance of sexual conduct formerly condoned only in men. In addition, because of the greater availability of jobs, more women will choose not to have children."
Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948. In that document, the concept of individual liberty became codified as a right that could not be given or taken away by governments. 
It was a powerful idea. Indeed, this idea has become a revolution in the history of humanity. 
However, with acceptance of the concepts of human rights, it was immediately apparent that human rights could not be separate from the rights of a woman to control her own body and especially in terms of her reproductive rights. 
How can one have individual liberty without being free to make personal decisions about reproduction?

And finally, says, Rosenberg, the long-standing argument that abortions had to be criminalized because they were dangerous was now seen as a fatuous and out-dated idea. 
In the modern era, abortions were significantly more of a risk when they were obtained illegally and conducted by unqualified practitioners. under threat of punishment. 

A Question of Class

And yet, in 1970, abortion was still a crime. The laws were "supported as much by a lingering sense of Puritanism as by formal church pressure." Nevertheless, the laws did not stop women from having abortions. In history, this has always been the case. The rich woman in 1970 who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy had options, such as flying to Japan. the UK, Mexico or Puerto Rico, where safe abortions could be arranged for a price. 

A woman who preferred to stay in country would have a trickier time of it but it could still be covertly arranged. The fee varied from $200 to $1500 or more, depending on the patient's ability to pay. It depended very much on who you knew and how much you were willing to pay. Hardly an ideal situation.

In this case, doctors took the risk, performing an abortion was a felony in most states and a conviction could cost a doctor his or her license. Many doctors, according to the article, found themselves morally torn. 
As one sympathetic doctor put it, if a woman was determined to end her pregnancy, she "may as well survive."

After all, a woman could always find a way to terminate a pregnancy. For a desperate woman, a quack doctor in unsanitary conditions without antiseptic might seem like a risk worth taking. Many women took the risk and paid for it with their lives. This appalling situation had become a fact of life for women, something women had always been taught was the price they had to pay for their gender. In 1959, a generation earlier deaths from illegal abortions accounted for a full one-third of all maternal deaths
And that doesn't include the women whose deaths were attributed to other causes. 

As we proceed down the class scale, the risks became greater to the mother. In 1969, more than 350,000 women landed in the hospital after botched abortions and more than 8,000 died. 

As the book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood point out that
There are several reasons why the deaths of these women came to be seen as a tragic and pressing social problem. First, deaths from criminal abortion were unevenly distributed: poor women died more often. When there is a demand for a product or a service that is nominally illegal but morally acceptable to some "patrons." a black market emerges.
The Prohibition era is a perfect example of this effect. As the book also points out, a black market has no compunction to provide a safe product to its patrons. (During the 20s, the number of deaths caused by illegally produced alcohol- called bathtub gin- became a major objection by reformers.) 

In any case, the rich tend to get a better or, at least, safer product. Because black markets operated in secret they are also impossible to regulate and when it comes to medical procedures, this fact can make any black market service or product exceedingly risky. That is just as true for bathtub gin or a backstreet abortion.

Past attempts at reform of the abortion laws had mixed results, as the LIFE article observes. Colorado's 1967 law allowed abortions to preserve the physical and mental health of the mother. Yet getting the proper permission to qualify required expensive sessions with a panel of doctors and psychiatrists. The reform was dismissed as "a rich lady's law.
Even when the reform process for abortion worked it only had a limited type of success.

Even with the proper paperwork, most Colorado hospitals are turning down 13 of 13 abortion requests, and in the first two years after the law's passage, fewer than 800 lawful abortions were performed. During that same period, 9000 women underwent illegal abortions in Colorado.
The law, said one of its original sponsors, was a failure. Nationwide repeal of  laws restricting abortions, it seemed, was the only suitable solution.
That answer, handed down from the highest court in the land, would come three years after the Life magazine article was written.

The Court Decision that Shook the Nation

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down what would prove to be one of its most controversial decisions. 

In the case of Roe v. Wade, the high ruled that a Texas statute against abortion was unconstitutional. It based that decision that the issue of abortion contravened laws protecting privacy. In support, the court listed several landmark cases in which the Constitution implied a citizen's right to privacy.

However, as controversial as the ruling was, it did come with some conditions. The right to an abortion was balanced, the Courts said, by the concept of the viability of the fetus. 
If a fetus could not survive independently of the mother, then State regulation had no justification to interfere with the private decision of the mother. The state had no valid reason for interference. 
In other words, a mother had a right to have an abortion until the point in which a child reach the stage of biological independence. (This is the reason why anti-abortion groups have targeted the point where life begins and have sought to apply human rights- and constitutional protections- to a non-viable fetus.) 

According to the Supreme Court decision, after viability, the only possible legal justification could be health reasons. Even then,  the health of the mother was very broadly defined to include psychological well-being.
*   *   *
Forty years later and despite the unending outrage and the political grandstanding by conservative politicians, a recent Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans still support that decision. By a margin of 53% to 29%. more Americans want the landmark abortion decision kept in place rather than overturned. 
Although many conservative may not like it, and may try to make it difficult to obtain a medically safe abortion, it is still the law of the land. It is still a woman's right.

The LIFE article gives us a glimpse back in time but also, it gives us a peek into what some lawmakers in some states would like to return to. In thinking they can criminalize abortion and in attempting to close all reproductive health services in their states, these misguided legislators are, in fact, putting the lives of young women in danger. 
All in the name of saving lives and a so-called higher morality.