The abortion debate in the United States connects to wide-ranging cultural arguments about civil liberties and gender. Legal abortion raises questions concerning the role of women in society, the place of motherhood in meanings of womanhood and family, the biological and social status of the fetus, the separation of church and state, and the legal understanding of privacy. Diverse views on these issues have come to be polarized into absolutist positions named pro-choice (supporting legal elective abortion) and pro-life (opposing legal abortion), politicized terms that do little to characterize the complex experiences of women who face inopportune or otherwise compromised pregnancies.
In the nineteenth century, American women of all social classes could legally procure an abortion, which often entailed using herbal abortifacients. However, as “regular” physicians distinguished themselves from midwives and homeopaths, many lobbied state legislatures to criminalize induced abortion. Shortly after its formation in 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) declared human life to begin at conception and not, as midwives and lay women held, at “quickening,” midway through gestation when a woman first feels fetal movement in the womb. In taking an anti-abortion stance, physicians professionalized and also moralized their practice through association with saving lives. By the end of the century, abortion was defined as a medical issue and was criminalized at the state level throughout the United States.
Following legislation in several states relaxing abortion restrictions, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade decriminalized elective abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, allowing abortion in the second trimester given cause that “reasonably relates to the preservation and protection of maternal health,” and in the third “when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” In Roe the court interpreted women’s right to terminate pregnancies and physicians’ right to perform abortions as within constitutional rights to privacy; abortion in the United States is thus framed as a “negative” right to act without government interference, rather than an “affirmative” right guaranteed by the state. It is an historic irony that abortion was medicalized in order to restrict its practice, only to be legalized a century later based on its status as medical procedure, a private matter between patient and doctor.
Supporters of Roe argue that legal abortion is necessary to protect women from unsafe pregnancies and non-medical abortions. For feminists, women’s “right to choose” abortion in the first trimester symbolizes liberation from patriarchal control over women’s sexual and reproductive lives. It also reinforces a more expansive view of adult womanhood than one rooted in a biological capacity to reproduce. For the 1970s feminist movement, the “right to choose” abortion became synonymous with a woman’s right to choose whether, when, and how often to become a mother.
The American pro-life movement was galvanized by the Roe decision. Grassroots organizing built up a single-issue voting block of Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and political conservatives. Pro-lifers argue that abortion is a sin and therefore criminal. Many also condemn legal abortion for eroding traditional gender roles and what is taken to be women’s special moral standing based on the capacity to bear children. Pro-life activists redefined the question of “life” in the American abortion controversy as a matter of fetal, rather than maternal, right to life. Ultrasound images of free-floating fetuses are used in propagandistic displays to portray fetal life not only as viable but autonomous, suggestive of personhood—a requisite for having rights. Pro-life campaigns project images of intact, well-developed fetuses despite the fact that 90 percent of abortions in the United States occur during the first trimester, while late term abortions are generally performed only in cases of fetal abnormality. Radical pro-lifers view abortion as a holocaust, a symbol of America’s moral degeneracy. During the late 1980s and 1990s, several abortion providers were murdered by extremists who championed a vision of a Christian nation currently in millenarian “end times,” during which God’s law prevails over human law.
Although pro-choice rhetoric is consistent with American values of self-determination, “choice” may be a limited symbol for reproductive rights; many women experience abortion not as desirable, but as an unfortunate necessity following failed contraception, forced intercourse, or a diagnosis of fetal abnormality. In the 1990s, reproductive rights groups ran into conflict with disability rights activists over the possible eugenic use of elective abortion to limit the range of acceptable human life following prenatal screening, such as for Down’s syndrome. Further, women’s ability to “choose” an abortion in the United States remains subject to federal and state-level legislative restrictions. The 1976 Hyde Amendment restricts government-funded elective abortions (through Medicaid). In 2000, 87 percent of U.S. counties lacked abortion providers.
Following the George W. Bush administration’s 2001 signing into effect of the Mexico City Policy (called the “Global Gag Rule” by reproductive rights advocates), developing countries have felt the effects of American abortion controversies. This policy, cutting off U.S. international aid money to organizations directly or indirectly engaged in abortion-related services, including referral, has also hampered the promotion of contraceptives and HIV-awareness. Illegal abortions continue to be a significant cause of morbidity and mortality among women of reproductive age throughout the nonindustrialized world.
Pro-choice and pro-life are not universally meaningful terms. Worldwide, the legal status and availability of abortion is often determined by government interest in population control, rather than religious or moral concern for life and family. The People’s Republic of China has implemented its one-child policy in part through mandatory abortions; Nicolae Ceauçescu’s regime in Romania, on the other hand, attempted to accelerate population growth by banning abortion and contraception. Under state socialism, reproduction has been considered a form of production subject to government regulation. The Soviet Union provided workers with medical abortion as routine birth control; in impoverished 1990s Russia abortions outnumbered live births two-to-one.
Japan legalized abortion in 1948 when families and the government shared interests in reducing family size. Women in Japan, as in southern Europe, turned to abortion during World War II to cope with wartime poverty. Initially used by mothers to limit family size but now practiced by women of all ages, abortion in countries like Japan, Greece, and Russia is not regarded as posing a symbolic threat to motherhood. In these countries, economic considerations are said to trump religious belief in guiding decisions to terminate pregnancies. Historic memory of the war and political expectations of the European Union help explain why Italians support legal elective abortion (available since 1978), even as abortion remains highly restricted in Roman Catholic Latin America.
Where abortion is medicalized as routine birth control, a backup to nonmedical contraceptive methods, it is medical contraception rather than abortion that symbolizes women’s liberation. In countries with high abortion rates, family planning workers, frequently trained in the United States or Britain, work to dissuade women from relying on abortion to control births, often by emphasizing potential physical, psychological, and even moral hazards of the procedure. In countries with declining population growth rates, as in Southern Europe, “pro-life” campaign materials imported from the United States are combined with nationalist pro-natal rhetoric.
When influenced by patriarchal, religious, and nationalist beliefs, legalization can restrict women’s access to abortion. Turkey’s 1983 Population Planning Law allows elective abortion through ten weeks of pregnancy, but a married woman’s husband must consent. Germany, cognizant of the Nazi history of eugenic applications of abortion, requires counseling and a three-day waiting period before granting medically approved abortion.
SEE ALSO Abortion; Abortion Rights; Roe v. Wade
Ginsburg, Faye D. 1989. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Luker, Kristin. 1984. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Paxson, Heather. 2004. Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Solinger, Rickie, ed. 1998. Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press.