Before the invention of modern medical techniques preventing pregnancy, women wore amulets, ingested herbs and took part in anti-fertility rituals, while males wore condoms made from chemical-soaked linen or the intestines of a goat. But what happened when these unreliable prophylactic measures failed?
The earliest written record of self-induced abortion is from 1550 B.C. Egypt, when women countered unwanted pregnancies with vaginal suppositories made of poisonous plant fiber, certain animal dungs and oxytocin-mimicking herbs. The ingestion of toxins, like mercury and quinine, was also effective, albeit extremely dangerous. Vigorous jumping — a technique generally attributed to Hippocrates — doesn’t work, but is a lot healthier than liquid metal.
Although the need for abortions remained, laws and attitudes regarding abortion were — and are — in constant flux.
In the United States from 1861 to 1973, abortion was criminalized and a majority of states didn’t allow it at all, even at the risk of maternal death. Doctors who performed illegal abortions risked imprisonment and the loss of their medical licenses. Yet regardless of the legality, women continued to have abortions. These unsafe abortions, done by the pregnant women themselves or by unskilled persons, came with health risks.
In the 1950s, dangerous abortion-inducing douches, made from Lysol and Clorox, were sold illegally. My mother, who remembers this, thinks of wire coat hangers as symbols of this era. Using items such as coat hangers to induce miscarriage carries the risk of punctured uterine lining, hemorrhaging, infertility or even death.
Women could pay huge amounts of money to have unregulated practitioners perform D&Cs, dilation and curettages, a surgical procedure. Can you imagine the fear these women felt, not only during the abortion but also after? What if complications arose or someone found out? Women were not only frightened of legal repercussions but also of social stigma. If complications from unsafe abortions did arise, women were often too frightened to seek medical help.
According to Planned Parenthood, in the America of the 1960s, illegal abortions accounted for an estimated 5 to 10 thousand deaths a year. By making abortion illegal, society conditioned women to be ashamed of their choices, silent with their stories and uninformed of medical processes.
In 1969, Jane Roe discovered that she was pregnant. Although her pregnancy was unsought, it was illegal for her to have an abortion because Texas law allowed only victims of rape to have access to the procedure. Her case reached the Supreme Court and in 1973 Roe v. Wade declared the criminality of abortion unconstitutional.
Today, each of the states are allowed to place individual restrictions on abortion, as long as women are allowed to abort before fetal viability — a date usually placed on the 24th week of gestation. Women do not have to resort to unsafe abortion out of fear. Women are not insignificant peoples and their rights are not held as secondary to the rights of a fetus.
Currently, abortion in the United States is hundreds of times safer than in countries where it is illegal. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated eight women die per hour from unsafe procedures around the world.
As a college student in liberal California, I am happy with the fact that my reproductive health needs are currently being met. But this might not hold true in the future.
In spite of the strides we have made, attitudes towards abortion are becoming increasingly negative. Politicians, like the now infamous Todd Akin and Joe Walsh, are noted for their ignorance of medical processes, while Mitt Romney supports cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood — whose funding has been recently cut in such states as Texas, Indiana and Oklahoma.
Planned Parenthood provides affordable birth control, STI testing, vaccines and cancer screening for women. Abortion only accounts for a three-percent portion of Planned Parenthood’s entire budget and, by law, none of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives can be allocated towards abortion. Women, especially those of a lower-income bracket, will suffer if Planned Parenthood funding is cut.
It seems to me that women are being forgotten.
In a time when American voters are divided on the issue of abortion, it is important to remember our past. It is up to the American people to make sure that women in need continue to have access to safe and legal medical care.
KATELYN RINGROSE would love to discuss more on the topic of women’s rights, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.