Reproductive Rights

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw

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The right of a woman to determine when and how she will give birth, commonly known as reproductive rights, was not legally recognized until the last half of the twentieth century. Reproductive rights includes not only the highly controversial issue of abortion, but also a wide range of other related topics including contraception (preventing pregnancy), sex education, surrogate (substitute) motherhood, in-vitro fertilization ("test tube babies"), condom availability, and sterilization (making incapable of reproduction). Public acceptance of birth control and other measures associated with reproductive choices have changed dramatically through the years in the United States.

Changing Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century

In the early nineteenth century, the average white American woman gave birth to seven children. As the nineteenth century progressed, the American economy changed from a predominately agricultural society with families living and working together on farms to growth of industrial

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centers involving factory work for husbands. The economic need for large families declined. As a result, scientific information on birth control began to be distributed by social reformers. In addition, few criminal laws existed banning abortion (ending a pregnancy before childbirth by removing the unborn child) and abortion was legal under common law (following common practices rather than laws passed by legislatures). Abortions were commonly associated with disposing of fetuses (unborn child) resulting from rape or conception out of wedlock. They normally were performed in the first four or five months of pregnancy. Abortions, however, were very dangerous to the woman with many left unable to bear children later, or actually dying from the procedure.

As the number of abortions began to significantly increase in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly among white middle-class women, conservatives rallied in opposition to birth control and abortion. They lobbied Congress for laws banning such activities. As a result, Congress passed the Comstock Law in 1873. The law prohibited the distribution of information that promoted methods of preventing pregnancy or that supported abortion. States also began passing laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives. Established in 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) was interested in driving out of business unlicensed people performing abortions. Joined by religious leaders, they successfully led a campaign outlawing abortion. By the 1880s all states had passed laws banning abortion based on their police powers to regulate public health and safety. All had criminal penalties for persons performing abortions and some even adopted penalties for the women who had the abortions. Abortions were only legal when needed to save the mother's life. These restrictions changed little until the 1960s.

The Long Struggle for Reproductive Rights

Those supportive of birth control options for women began an active campaign in the early twentieth century to end the many prohibitions (forbidden by law) established in the late nineteenth century. Guided by reformer Margaret Sanger, a national movement developed leading eventually to establishment of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942...

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