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History of Abortion in the United States

What did ancient civilizations think about abortion? Was abortion always illegal in the United States until Roe vs. Wade? The answers to these and other questions can help you understand the controversy surrounding the procedure and why its legality has been in flux for millennia.

History of Abortion Timeline

The history of abortion timeline offers insight into the ethical concerns regarding abortion. It shows how early civilizations understood pregnancy and childbirth while also revealing the value they put on human life.

When Did Abortion Start?

Abortion has been around for thousands of years. The first mention of it comes from China over 5,000 years ago, as ancient folklore tells that Emperor Shennong prescribed mercury to induce miscarriages. The first written record of it comes from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1550 BC. Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle condoned abortion as a means of population control. Plato went so far as to state that governments should mandate abortions in overpopulated areas, a train of thought embraced by the Chinese Communist Party when it crafted the nation’s One Child Policy in the 1970s. On the other hand, Roman rulers were against abortion. This isn’t because they valued human life but rather because of their concern about a drop in the population.

The First Abortion Laws

The first abortion laws came from the Laws of Moses in the Bible. Exodus 22 states that a man who intentionally hurt a pregnant woman should be killed if the pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injury. The Jews were the only early civilization to place inherent value on the life of the unborn. Ancient India had anti-abortion laws on the books but these only applied to upper-caste women. In the code of Assura in ancient Assyrian law, there is a record of a woman being sentenced to death for having an abortion. However, this seems to be mainly because the woman acted against her husband’s wishes, not only because she terminated her pregnancy.

Constantine, who was emperor of Rome in the early 300s, banned both abortion and infanticide. As the first Christian Roman emperor, it’s clear his actions were based on the Christian understanding that God created all human life in His image, thus giving it inherent value. However, due to the limited medical knowledge of that time period, there was a heated debate over whether a fetus had a human soul. Many popes and church leaders of other branches of Christianity taught that a fetus only became human after “quickening” occurred. This refers to the movement a pregnant mother feels as a fetus moves in the womb and occurs between the fourth and sixth months of pregnancy.

When Did Abortion Become Legal?

Due in large part to the widespread belief that quickening indicated the start of human life, abortion was legal under common law in England at the time when the United States became independent. U.S. States continued to apply this part of English law up until the early 20th century.

When Did Abortion Become Illegal?

America’s early pro-life movement and doctors played a key role in convincing states to outlaw abortion. By the early 1900s, abortion was banned in the United States, although some states allowed exceptions to the rule if the mother’s life was in danger. The issue became increasingly politicized in the early 1960s when some states began passing laws allowing for abortion if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if there was evidence of a fetal deformity, and/or if the mother’s mental health was negatively affected by the pregnancy.

How and Why Did Abortion Become Legal Once Again?

Sherri Finkbine, a TV host and mother of four children, became pregnant and found that her fifth child would have severe deformities. Her case made national news, especially because her ability to travel to Europe to get an abortion highlighted the fact that rich women could obtain abortions with ease while the poor couldn’t. When Gerri Santoro died a few years later trying to obtain an illegal abortion, she immediately became a pro-choice icon. These stories played a key role in changing the public’s opinion of abortion laws. By the time Roe vs. Wade came along, four states permitted abortions and sixteen allowed abortions in specific circumstances.

Roe vs. Wade changed things nationwide as the court’s ruling in the case legalized abortion throughout the United States. The case was based on the premise that the state intervention in preventing abortion was an invasion of a woman’s privacy rights. However, medical misinformation also played a role in ensuring abortion became legal nationwide. While it’s currently well-known that life begins at conception, this was not known for certain when Roe vs. Wade was decided. Ultrasound technology was not yet invented, which meant that the Supreme Court judges didn’t know that a fetus, even in the first trimester, is far more than a clump of cells. Unfortunately, increased medical knowledge did not automatically lead to a reversal of Roe vs. Wade, as the Supreme Court ruled in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey that states could not put substantial obstacles in the way of a woman who wanted to abort a fetus, as long as the fetus was unable to survive outside the womb.

Abortion Becomes Illegal Again

Thirty years after Casey v. Planned Parenthood, another Supreme Court ruling overturned Roe vs. Wade, stating that women did not have a constitutional right to abortion. This ruling allowed each state to make its own laws governing the procedure. As of October 2023, abortion was banned in fourteen states and severely restricted in five others. An additional seven states have passed anti-abortion legislation that has been blocked by state courts. The other 24 states allow elective abortions with few or even no restrictions.

While it’s discouraging that over half of all states offer no protections for the unborn, there are many things that pro-life people of all ages and walks of life can do to prevent abortion. Prayer is a powerful force that can change any heart. Donating baby supplies to pregnancy care clinics enables these clinics to better serve socioeconomically disadvantaged women who need material support. By working together, dedicated Christians can change the course of history as they have in the past while meeting the material and emotional needs of new mothers as they make the all-important decision to carry a new life to term.

Although abortion is legal in Illinois, that makes the mission of Caring Network even more vital. We seek to eliminate the suffering from and desire for abortion in our state by providing free early pregnancy services and support to women seeking termination. As mentioned above, there are many ways you can join in this important work. Reach out to us today to learn more!

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