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History of the Pro-Choice Movement

QUESTION: What is the history of the pro-choice movement?


The pro-choice movement promotes the idea that a woman and her doctor can decide to terminate the life of the woman's unborn baby. In a sense, the history of the pro-choice movement goes back to the first abortions. Hypocrites (c. 450 BC) condemned the practice, indicating that the practice existed in his day. However, as early as the fourth century AD, we find writers supporting abortions if performed during the first 90 days of pregnancy. This time frame for abortion was based on the idea that the baby was not alive until the mother could feel the child move. This was the prevailing standard through the Middle Ages and was codified into the old English Common Law. Later in 1869 the British Parliament passed the Offences Against the Persons Act, making all abortions illegal.

In the modern era, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the first country to legalize abortions in 1920. Over a decade later the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases was passed by Adolf Hitler on July 25, 1933. This law allowed for and even encouraged the abortion of unborn babies who were not "racially valuable." However, after World War II, the War Crimes Tribunal found that encouraging and compelling abortions was "a crime against humanity." Japan became the next country to make abortions legal in 1948 followed by several Easter European countries in the 1950s. The Abortion Act of 1967 legalized the practice in the United Kingdom.

The pro-choice movement started more slowly in the United States. The early women's rights movement, which started in the 1850s, did not support abortions at all. In fact, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), the leading proponent of women's rights, condemned abortions. Nevertheless, the practice was a well-known but unspoken secret until the late nineteenth century. Then, in 1888, a Chicago Times exposé brought the subject to the public's awareness. Although focusing mostly on contraception, Margaret Sanger (1883-1966) and her American Birth Control League (c. 1921) did support certain abortions. In the 1930s three books written by doctors started the medical community to begin discussing a change in the abortion laws. The 1950s saw two psychiatric conferences and a Planned Parenthood conference dealing with the issue. Then, in 1959 the American Law Institute suggested broadening the definition of legal abortion to include maternal physical and mental reasons, fetal defects, and cases of rape and incest.

Up until the late 1960's, most states had laws on the books prohibiting abortion. However, though illegal, no women were ever prosecuted for having an abortion and few doctors who performed abortions were ever prosecuted. In 1966, Mississippi became the first state to legalize abortion for cases of rape. California and Colorado followed in 1967. By mid-1970, 16 states had passed laws to legalize at least some form of abortion. During the next two years, however, many of these laws were challenged and some were struck down. Then, on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down the Roe vs. Wade decision, making abortion legal throughout the United States. Since then, many organizations have been established to protect a woman's choice to terminate the life of her unborn baby, and the issue has loomed large on the political landscape.

Learn about Pro-Choice Abortion

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