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Author of "When Abortion was a Crime" Provides Insight Into Health Care Before Roe v. Wade

Lorie Shaull
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announcement that he will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court this summer has put into question the future of abortion rights in the United States.

In Iowa, supporters of a recent law banning physicians from performing most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected hoped that they were laying the groundwork to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the United States. Now, with Justice Kennedy’s retirement opening up a place on the Supreme Court for a more conservative, anti-abortion rights justice, the overturning of Roe v. Wade could very well become a reality.

As lobbyists and advocates on both sides of the issue gear up for a confirmation battle in the Senate, we listen back to a recent River to River interview with Leslie Reagan, author of When Abortion was a Crime, to get a sense of what life was like in America before Roe v. Wade.

In her book, Reagan, a history professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, sought an answer to the question: what happened when abortion was illegal to perform?

“My research was on the moment when laws were passed in the 1860s and the 1870s up through Roe v. Wade,” Reagan says. “It had been legal under common law, but what happened when you made it a crime? How were the laws enforced? Did it really stop [abortion]?”

Reagan says historical evidence shows that laws restricting or banning abortion do not stop the practice. What it does, she says, is create “a bureaucracy that will specifically monitor what women are doing, monitor their bodies, and monitor physicians and health personnel that are taking care of them.”

Before Roe v. Wade, few women were prosecuted for having abortions. More often, it was practitioners, doctors, and midwives who faced criminal charges. However, beginning in the 1900s up until 1973, women who visited emergency rooms for substandard abortions and even miscarriages risked being interrogated by law enforcement.

“They got doctors to call in police or ask them themselves. They threatened to arrest them,” she says. “It creates a wedge between health care providers and women.”

Reagan points out that prior to the legalization of abortion in the United States, hospitals across the country had entire wards devoted to septic abortion cases. A Cook County Hospital in Chicago treated about 5,000 women a year, and there were more than a hundred women seeking treatment per week in Los Angeles for life threatening infections, injuries, or hemorrhaging due to self-induced or unlicensed abortions.

Once Roe v. Wade was passed, maternal mortality rates dropped. Specific statistics are hard to come by, but it's documented that the year after New York legalized abortion, maternal mortality decreased by 45 percent in New York City.

“Roe v. Wade recognized that the decision for an abortion was based on privacy and a decision that a woman could make with her doctor."

Interestingly, Reagan says that this issue hasn’t always been so sharply divided along party lines.

“This was not a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats voted to change the laws and to legalize abortion. And there were Republicans and Democrats who were opposed to it,” she says. “We are in a particularly heated moment that uses abortion to talk about sexuality and family and changes in gender and race and a whole lot of other things.”