A Brief History of Reproductive Rights

The ability to control fertility is greatly dependent on access to accurate information about reproductive health - knowledge is power. Women and men around the world have possessed a basic knowledge of reproductive health and a strong desire to control fertility as evidenced by the widespread use of various contraceptive methods and abortifacients. Periodic abstinence, withdrawal, condoms, pessaries, and intrauterine devices have been used for thousands of years to prevent pregnancy. Herbal formulations and poisons have been ingested by women for thousands of years to terminate pregnancy, sometimes resulting in lifelong health complications or even death.

Abortion was legal in America until the 2nd half of the 19th century. The first statutory abortion regulation, passed in Connecticut in 1821, was a poison control measure designed to protect women – not to criminalize abortion or to restrict abortion access. A campaign to outlaw abortion, led by the leader of the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA), began in the 1850s. The AMA campaign made reproductive rights a political issue. Doctors, politicians, and religious leaders sought to restrict reproductive rights for various reasons. First, members of the AMA sought to “professionalize” medicine. They used legislation to put midwives, herbalists, and healers out of business. Second, some members of the government felt that outlawing contraceptives would lead to a decrease in immoral activity. The Comstock Act, passed in 1873, made it illegal to send anything related to birth control or abortion through the mail. Third, some Protestant leaders feared losing control of the government to Catholic immigrants. Protestant women were having far fewer children than their Catholic counterparts. This alarmed some legislators and led to the passage of laws outlawing contraceptives and abortion. 40 states and territories passed anti-abortion laws between 1860 and 1880. By 1899, contraceptives and abortion were illegal nationwide.

Though contraceptives and abortion were illegal, the desire and determination of women to control their fertility drove an underground market. Contraceptives were widely available in many areas and herbal formulations for “bringing on the menses” could be found in home medical texts. In addition, abortionists ran highly successful, well-respected businesses in many areas. Ann Trow, “Madame Restell”, was the most famous abortion provider of 19th-century America. She was well-known for her skills and her discretion. Madame Restell performed abortions until 1878 when she was indicted for violating the Comstock Act. On April 1st, 1878, she decided to end her life of 67 years rather than face the charges. Ruth Barnett performed abortions between 1918 and 1968. Well-known for her exceptional skills, Barnett performed over 40,000 abortions and never lost a patient. She performed abortions for decades with little trouble from authorities. Enforcement of abortion laws increased in the 1950s resulting in the 120 day incarceration of Barnett in 1954 followed by a year-long incarceration in 1956. In 1968, at the age of 73, Ruth Barnett went to prison for the last time. She was released in 1969 and died a few months later.

Many women who fought for reproductive freedom spent time in prison as a result. Emma Goldman came to the US from Russia at the age of 15 and began working in sweatshops to support herself. Soon she joined the social justice movement and regularly spoke out on issues of personal freedom including a strong desire for reproductive freedom. Margaret Sanger, who saw Emma Goldman as a mentor, grew up in an Irish-Catholic family and bore witness to the hardships of her Mother who gave birth to 11 children, had numerous miscarriages, and died at the age of 49. As a nurse, Sanger witnessed firsthand the desperation and determination of women to control their fertility at any cost. She established the American Birth Control League, now Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Public outrage at abortion laws began to grow in the 1960s and the movement to decriminalize abortion became one of the fastest growing movements in American history. Knowledge and experience gained working on other social justice movements were critical to the reproductive rights movement. Colorado became the first state to decriminalize abortion in 1967 followed by Hawaii, New York, Washington, and California. On January 22nd, 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Roe v. Wade that women have a right to terminate pregnancy based on the constitutional right to privacy established in the 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut.

Since 1973, hundreds of state laws have been passed restricting access to abortion services. Federal and state legislatures are currently considering bills that would further restrict access to abortion AND contraceptives. Politicians are promoting and passing bills that restrict funding for reproductive health education. Worse than not having access to reproductive health information, our children are being given inaccurate and misleading information by the government.

Knowledge is power. Let us not forget the history of the reproductive rights movement and all of the amazing women who came before us. Let us stand up for the right of our children to accurate information about their reproductive health. We will NEVER go back!

~Jessica, a volunteer at Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City, Iowa
January 2006

-Brodie, Janet. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell Univ. Press, 1994.
-Kaplan, Laura. The Story of Jane. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995.
-Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion was a Crime. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California
Press, 1997.
-Schoen, Johanna. Choice and Coercion. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of NC Press, 2005.
-Solinger, Rickie. The Abortionist. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994.
-Tone, Andrea. Devices & Desires. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2001

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