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Periodization: Changing Patterns of Illegal Abortion

During the more than one hundred years that abortion was illegal in the United States, the patterns, practice, policing, and politics of abortion all changed over time, though not always simultaneously. I trace the history along several lines at once, according to the location, practice, and availability of abortion as well as its regulation. Abortion was widely available throughout much of the era when abortion was a crime. Yet periods of tolerance were punctuated by moments of severe repression. At some points the changing structure of medicine brought about crucial changes in the history of abortion; at others, changes in women's lives or the political and economic context came to the fore.

In the nineteenth century, abortion came under attack at a moment when women were claiming political power; in the twentieth century, it came under attack when they claimed sexual freedom. Abortion, like contraception, means that women can separate sex and procreation—still a controversial notion. Antiabortion campaigns developed when women asserted sexual independence, as during the Progressive Era and since the 1970s. When abortion was most firmly linked to the needs of family rather than the freedoms of women, as during the Depression, it was most ignored by those who would suppress it. Periods of antiabortion activity mark moments of hostility to female independence.

The epoch of illegal abortion may be broken down into four periods. The first covers the time from the criminalization of abortion state-by-state, accomplished nationwide by 1880, to 1930. This period, covering fifty years, is heavily marked by continuity. As other historians have also found, the reproductive lives of most women and the day-to-day practice of most physicians changed slowly.[46] In this period, abortion


was widely accepted and was practiced in women's homes and in the offices of physicians and midwives. The diversity of practitioners, the privacy of medical practice, and the autonomy of physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made the widespread medical practice of abortion possible. A crackdown on abortion occurred between 1890 and 1920 as specialists in obstetrics renewed the earlier campaign against abortion, and the medical profession was drawn into the state's enforcement system.

The structural transformation that occurred during the 1930s, the second period, was crucial for the history of abortion. Abortion became more available and changed location. As the practice moved from private offices and homes to hospitals and clinics, abortion was consolidated in medical hands and became more visible. The changes wrought by the Depression accelerated the pace of change in the coming decades, particularly in the methods of enforcing the criminal abortion laws.

The third period was marked by increasing restrictions on abortion by state and medical authorities and intensifying demand for abortion from women of all groups. This period begins in 1940, when the new methods of controlling abortion were first instituted, and continues through 1973, when they were dismantled. In reaction to the growing practice of abortion as well as apparent changes in female gender and reproductive patterns, a backlash against abortion developed. 1940 marks a dividing line as hospitals instituted new policies, and police and prosecutors changed their tactics. The repression of abortion was part of the repression of political and personal deviance that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet even in this period, the practice of abortion expanded in new directions in response to relentless demand. The new repression of abortion, however, was devastating for women. A dual system of abortion, divided by race and class, developed. During the postwar period, the criminalization of abortion produced its harshest results.

A new stage in the history of abortion, the movement to legalize it, overlaps with the third period. The movement to decriminalize abortion began in the mid-1950s and arose out of the difficult experiences resulting from the repression of abortion in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1950s, a handful of physicians began to challenge the very abortion laws their profession had advocated a century earlier. The progress of that challenge attests to the continuing power of the medical profession to make public policy regarding reproduction. As legal reform moved forward, a new feminist movement arose, which radically transformed the movement for legal change. When the women's movement described


abortion as an aspect of sexual freedom, they articulated a new feminist meaning for abortion; when they demanded abortion as a right, they echoed generations of women.

The structure of this book follows this periodization. The first half of the book uncovers the history of abortion from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s. Chapters I through 4 each cover different aspects of abortion, from women's lives to practice to politics to enforcement, during the first half-century of illegal abortion. The changes of the 1930s, both medical and social, precipitated other changes. The second half of the book traces the history of abortion in chronologically ordered chapters concluding with the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ended the era of illegal abortion.

Women's history of abortion needs to be examined both as a commonly felt need to control reproduction, arising from women's biological capacity to bear children and social relations that assign childbearing to women, and in terms of differences among women. This book differentiates among women by class, race and ethnic identity, and marital status. Though class did not absolutely determine access to or safety of abortion, class position helped define when a woman felt she needed an abortion and affected the type available to her. In general, urban women had greater access to abortion than rural women, though some rural women located abortionists in their areas or traveled to cities for abortions. Race played a less obvious role in access to abortion, though the grim statistics of the postwar period show the connection between discrimination and death. I have made a specific effort to locate sources related to African Americans in order to learn more about black women's use of abortion and how race shaped the history of abortion.[47] Evidence concerning women of color is meager, however, until the 1930s, when medical and sociological studies began separating their findings by race. Before then, contemporary observers tended to focus their attention on the differences among many (white) foreign-born ethnic groups.

This book integrates a national analysis of the history of abortion with a local study. The advantage of this approach is that it connects everyday life and local medical and legal practice to national policy. It examines that relationship rather than assuming that all the public policy action takes place on the federal level without reference to local and "private" events. I select a major metropolis in order to uncover the nature of both abortion practices and police enforcement of the criminal abortion laws. Chicago, the second largest city in the nation, is the focus of my local study. Chicago, the city in "the heartland" that has of-


ten served as a metaphor for the spirit of America, was also known as an important medical center (the home of the AMA) and as a regional center for abortion.[48] Trains brought European immigrants, men and women migrating from farms to the city, African Americans moving from the South to the North, all going to live and work in Chicago. The same trains brought women looking for abortions. Directing my attention to one city enabled me to uncover the nitty-gritty details of the practice and regulation of abortion.

Though much of my analysis of the history of abortion draws on Chicago as a case study, sources verify that my findings hold true for other cities, large and small. Throughout I present national data and trends as well as regional ones and take note of patterns elsewhere. The book moves back and forth from a national overview of abortion practices and politics to a close look at events in Chicago. As medical practice became more standardized in hospitals, the story becomes a more national one and key events take place in other cities: New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. This is primarily a study of abortion in urban areas, where abortion was concentrated. I comment occasionally on practices in rural areas, but the history of reproductive control and abortion is likely to be somewhat different there.

Legal records, most notably lower-level court and criminal trial records, and medical literature make up the foundation of my research. I have also surveyed other government documents, newspapers, popular periodicals, hospital records, and manuscript collections. Using these materials, I have delineated how medical thinking and state regulation have changed over time. Yet this is more than a study of prescriptive literature or policy. I have uncovered the circumstances of hundreds of actual induced abortions and reconstructed changing abortion practices.[49] This study periodizes the history of abortion for the first time.

This book presents the lives of many women and their abortions in rich detail in order to convey the variety and intricacy of the situations that made abortion necessary for women. It is in the minutiae of women's lives that we can discover why women had abortions and how they won sympathy from physicians who belonged to a profession dedicated to fighting abortion. Abortion was a moment in a woman's reproductive life. It cannot be separated from sexual relations or reproduction as a whole. Women themselves did not separate them, nor should we, whether analyzing abortion in the past or present. This book deepens


our understanding of the female experience of reproduction and the connections between sexuality, contraception, pregnancy, and childbirth.[50] At its most fundamental, a policy that restricts abortion is one that forces women into maternity. Without contraceptives and abortion, most women in heterosexual relationships will become pregnant and bear children, whether they want to or not. When women sought abortions, they often revealed the texture of heterosexual relations and the rest of their lives. Many situations made enduring pregnancy unbearable to women. In using abortion, women rebelled against the law and asserted their sense that the decision to carry a pregnancy to term or to abort was theirs to make. A few expressed in words as well as in action the view that abortion was their right. The experiences of women's private lives and private practices over the course of one hundred years altered medical thinking and reshaped public policy. Despite the fact that women's abortion narratives are part of our own contemporary discourse, the stories told here have long been hidden.


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