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The New Struggle for Abortion Rights

We often think of abortion rights as a significant advancement in the feminist movement for equality. And it is — but only if you start measuring progress from the late 1800s, when women lost their assumed right to abort.

Women healers in many parts of Western Europe and the U.S. provided abortions without legal prohibition until the late 1800s. The first anti-abortion law was passed by Britain in 1803. The law was then expanded and became stricter throughout the century in Britain.

Many states in the U.S. followed Britains example. By 1880, most abortions were illegal in the U.S. except in order to "save the life of the woman." But because of the strong tradition, and the obvious necessity, of womens right to abortion, abortionists continued for a long time to practice openly, with public support, despite the legal prohibitions.

Some theorize that abortion became a "sin" in the 1800s as a reactionary response to the growing strength of the womens movement for suffrage and against womens gradual gains of a host of other basic rights — adding up, in essence, to freedom from slavery. By criminalizing a womans right to determine her reproductive fate — and doing so in the name of fetuss rights — was a way in which men and the state could keep womens bodies under their control.

Women continued to abort before 1973 when the Supreme Courts ruling on Roe vs Wade made it legal, but abortion during this time was dangerous and sometimes deadly. In the late 1890, doctors estimated that there were two million abortions a year in the U.S. (compared to one and a half million today). Women often resorted to inserting knitting needles or coat hangers into their vagina and uterus, or douching with dangerous solutions like lye, or taking dangerous chemicals in order to induce abortion.

source of info: Our Bodies, Ourselves For the New Century's chapter on "Abortion," online at http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/abortion.htm

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