Family Planning/Abortion/Birth Control
Family Planning/Abortion/Birth Control
Sections within this essay:Background
Roe v. Wade
After Roe v. Wade
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL)
National Right to Life Committee
Feminists for Life
Family planning involves decisions made by women and men concerning their reproductive lives and whether, when, and under what circumstances they have children. Family planning most often involves the decisions of whether to engage in sexual activity that could lead to pregnancy, whether to use birth control, and whether to terminate a pregnancy. Individuals faced with these decisions often rely on moral or religious beliefs. Because moral and religious beliefs vary widely in the United States, family planning laws are frequently controversial.
During the nineteenth century in the United States, birth rates began to decline, in part due to an increase in scientific information about conception and contraception, or birth control. The average white woman in 1800 gave birth seven times; by 1900, that number dropped to an average of three-and-a-half. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, early stage abortions generally were legal. The use of birth control and abortion, however, declined as growing public opinion considered information about birth control methods to be obscene and abortion to be unsafe.
Birth control is any method used to protect a woman from getting pregnant. Beginning in the 1800s, laws in the United States prohibited birth control, when temperance and anti-vice groups advocated outlawing birth control devices and information about birth control devices. These groups considered birth control information to be obscene, a belief that was popular enough that in 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act outlawing the dissemination of birth control devices or information through the mail. Most states followed suit by passing their own laws outlawing the advertising, sale, and distribution, of contraception.
The turn of the century brought increasing attention to issues involving women's rights. Margaret Sanger, a strong advocate of birth control, opened the country's first birth control clinic in New York City in 1916 and was prosecuted for violating New York's version of the Comstock Act. She served a 30-day sentence in a workhouse but later established the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control. Sanger proposed a federal bill that outlined the health and death risks to women who underwent illegal abortions or who completed unwanted pregnancies. The bill sought to reverse the federal position prohibiting birth control, but under pressure from religious groups such as the Catholic Church, Congress did not pass Sanger's bill.
Sanger then sought to challenge the Comstock Act by sending contraception through the mail to a doctor. Her actions were prosecuted, but she achieved her goal when a federal district court deemed that the Comstock Act did not prohibit the mailing of contraceptives when such an act could save a life or promote the health of a doctor's patients. Sanger continued to lead a growing national movement advocating more information and access to birth control, and in 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League.
In 1942, the American Birth Control League became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, still in existence today. Planned Parenthood advocates for a range of safe, legal, and accessible birth control options. In the 1950s, Sanger and Planned Parenthood supported the research efforts of Dr. Gregory Pincus that led to the development of the birth control pill. The birth control pill revolutionized family planning, and by the 1960s popular opinion was shifting in favor of making contraception and information about contraception readily available.
By the 1950s and 1960s, most states had legalized birth control, but many state laws still prohibited the dissemination of information about contraception, and some states still prohibited the possession of contraception. A 1965 landmark Supreme Court decision further eroded these laws sanctioning birth control. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court addressed the prosecution of a Planned Parenthood executive director charged with violating a Connecticut state law that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives, information about contraceptives, and prohibited the possession of contraceptives. The Court found that although the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly offer a right to privacy, that right can be inferred from the language in various sections of the Bill of Rights. The Constitution therefore does contain what the Court called a "zone of privacy." Connecticut's statute violated that zone of privacy in the realm of marriage because it permitted police officers to search the bedroom of a married couple for evidence of contraception. The Court deemed this action to be overly intrusive and an unconstitutional violation of the right to marital privacy, and it threw out the Connecticut law insofar as it applied to married couples.
In 1966, the federal government, with an endorsement by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, began public funding of contraception services for low-income families. President Richard M. Nixon in 1970 signed into law an act promoting research of population and family planning issues. Finally, in 1971, Congress repealed the key elements of the Comstock Act.
Some states, however, kept birth control laws despite the repeal of the federal Comstock Act. In 1972, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional a Massachusetts law that only permitted married couples to receive contraception. The Court found this law to violate the equal protection rights of single persons. In 1977, the Court addressed a New York state law that permitted only physicians to distribute contraceptives to minors under the age of sixteen, and only physicians or pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to adults. The Court struck down this law as well. It became clear that the Supreme Court viewed as constitutionally protected the right of an individual, married or unmarried, to make personal decisions regarding whether to have children.
Abortion occurs when an embryo or fetus is expelled from a woman's body. Abortions can be spontaneous or induced. In the legal context, discussions about abortions usually involve induced, or intentional, abortions.
Before the United States became a country, the common law of England permitted abortions before the fetus "quickened." Quickening was the term used to describe the mother's first feeling of the fetus moving in her uterus. Typically, quickening occurs between the sixteenth and eighteenth weeks of pregnancy.
After the founding of the United States, laws regarding abortions did not exist until the 1800s. Women at that time were not allowed to vote and were not allowed to be doctors or members of the American Medical Association, which, along with religious leaders, advocated the passage of laws outlawing abortion. Abortions in the nineteenth century were generally unsafe, and women who survived abortions frequently were left sterile. By the 1880s, all states had laws criminalizing abortions. These laws stayed on the books until the 1960s and 1970s.
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, women's groups, along with doctors and lawyers, organized a movement to reform abortion laws. Reformers cited inequalities between men and women that were exacerbated by women's inability to adequately control their reproductive lives. The post World War II population explosion also increased awareness about the environment and the need to limit family size. In other countries, abortions were legal and generally safe, but in the United States, women continued to undergo illegal abortions and risk permanent injury or death. In the 1960s, the anti-nausea drug thalidomide and an outbreak of German measles caused a rash of birth defects in babies born during that decade. The increase in birth defects brought further attention to the issue since women wishing to avoid the birth of a seriously deformed child could not seek legal abortions.
Women's rights organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), lobbied for abortion law reform and filed lawsuits when lobbying efforts failed. States responded, reforming their laws about abortion, but women's rights groups continued to fight for unfettered access to abortion services for women. Anti-abortion groups fought back, arguing that a woman's right to reproductive freedom is no greater than the right of an unborn child to be born. The battle ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1973 decided the landmark abortion case of Roe v. Wade.
Jane Roe was a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, an unmarried pregnant Texas woman who sought an abortion but was denied under Texas law. Roe, with the help of attorneys, filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the Texas law thrown out as unconstitutional. She argued that a law prohibiting her from obtaining an abortion violated her constitutional right to privacy. The Supreme Court, voting 7-2, agreed with Roe that the law criminalizing abortion violated her right to privacy. But the Court held that states do have an interest in ensuring the safety and well-being of pregnant women as well as the potential of human life. Acknowledging that the rights of pregnant women may conflict with the rights of the state to protect potential human life, the Court defined the rights of each party by dividing the pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters. During a pregnant woman's first trimester, the Court held, a state cannot regulate abortion beyond requiring that the procedure be performed by a licensed doctor in medically safe conditions. During the second trimester, the Court held, a state may regulate abortion if the regulations are reasonably related to the health of the pregnant woman. During the third trimester of pregnancy, the state's interest in protecting the potential human life outweighs the woman's right to privacy, and the state may prohibit abortions unless abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the mother. The Court further held that a fetus is not a person protected by the constitution.
Roe v. Wade established the limited right of a woman to have an abortion. Recognizing that fact, states liberalized their abortion laws following the Supreme Court's decision, but abortion soon became an even more divisive issue in the United States. Groups opposed to abortion, including the Catholic Church, became organized and politically powerful. The issue of abortion became a platform issue for all candidates for federal office, including the office of the U.S. president. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, an opponent of abortion, used his presidency to argue for a reversal of Roe v. Wade. He appointed C. Everett Koop, another abortion opponent, to the position of surgeon general and referred to abortion as a "silent holocaust." Reagan believed that abortion caused pain to the fetus and that the rights of the fetus were not outweighed by the rights of the pregnant woman.
Groups opposed to abortion, known as pro-life groups, have worked in various ways to reduce or eliminate entirely abortions in the United States. These groups have sponsored legislation limiting access to abortion and have attempted unsuccessfully to reverse Roe v. Wade by way of a constitutional amendment. Some groups opposed to abortion attempt to persuade patients not to undergo abortions by demonstrating outside of abortion clinics. In some extreme cases, individuals and groups opposed to abortion have bombed abortion clinics, injuring and killing patients and staff members, or have murdered doctors who provide abortions. Because of these extreme actions, many doctors are unwilling to perform abortions and many abortion clinics have shut down, making access to abortion difficult in some regions.
Other attempts to reduce the number of abortions have involved eliminating public funding of abortions and even prohibiting health care clinics that receive public funding from counseling women about the option of abortion. Soon after taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton effectively reversed federal regulations that prohibited staff members at health care clinics that receive public funding from dispersing information about abortions or referring women to abortion providers. Once this so-called "gag rule" was lifted, these clinics once again were able to give women information about abortion.
Also complicating the issue of abortion rights are rules requiring a woman to get informed consent or parental consent. Informed consent involves a requirement that before undergoing an abortion, the abortion provider must give the woman information about the risks of abortion, alternatives to abortion, the age of the fetus, and the availability of government assistance for carrying the pregnancy to term. Parental consent involves a requirement that a minor wishing to undergo an abortion first obtain consent from her parent or guardian. The Supreme Court generally has upheld parental consent laws provided the laws allow a minor the ability to obtain permission to have an abortion from a judge rather than a parent and provided that the judge's decision take into account the minor's best interests, maturity, and ability to make decisions. The Supreme Court generally has upheld laws requiring the notification, as opposed to consent, of parents of minors seeking to undergo an abortion. The Supreme Court generally has upheld informed consent laws so long as the laws do not create an undue burden on the woman seeking an abortion. The Supreme Court has not upheld laws requiring a woman to obtain her spouse's permission before undergoing an abortion.
Laws regarding the right to undergo an abortion continue to evolve. The pro-choice movement and the anti-abortion movement battle aggressively to protect their causes, and the issue remains deeply mired in differing opinions about ethics, religion, and medical science. There is little question that abortion will remain a divisive and powerful political issue in decades to come.
Reproductive Health Online Johns Hopkins University, 2001. Available at: www.reproline.jhu.edu.
West's Encyclopedia of American Law. West Group, 1998.
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