March 1, 2006
South Dakota just took a huge step backwards. The state's new criminal abortion bill is patterned on laws first passed in the 1860s and 1870s -- laws that produced a public health disaster.
Let's be clear: making abortion illegal, except when a woman's life is threatened, does not protect women or their lives.
And now, with a Supreme Court remade by a president who is dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade, it is a good time to look at the century-long history of illegal abortion in the United States.
The earlier laws never stopped abortion, but they did make it more dangerous. As police and prosecutors stepped up their enforcement in the 1940s and 1950s, they pushed good, safe abortion providers out of practice. As a result, abortion got more deadly. Many women who went to illegal abortionists were blindfolded and had abortions in secret places. Many survived, but some died and many more were seriously injured.
In the years immediately before Roe v. Wade, hospitals around the country had separate septic abortion wards for women bleeding, injured and infected due to illegal abortions. Many of these patients had tried to abort by themselves.
Chicago's Cook County Hospital housed almost 5,000 women per year in its septic abortion wards.
Deaths due to illegal abortion approached 50 percent of the nation's total maternal mortality, according to a U.S. Department of Labor study entitled, "Maternal Mortality in Fifteen States."
In countries where abortion is illegal today, 25 percent to 50 percent of all maternal mortality is due to illegal abortion.
Those deaths are preventable.
Abortions performed by skilled practitioners in sterile environments are extremely safe. After abortion was legalized in the United States, maternal mortality fell dramatically. Hospital abortion wards closed because they were empty.
Criminalization of abortion across the country could double maternal mortality, according to a 1973 article in the American Journal of Public Health. If abortion becomes illegal again (or so hard to get that it is essentially illegal), abortion-related injuries and deaths are likely to be especially high among poor women and African-American and Latina women, who can't afford to travel to pro-choice states. As a result, many of them might try self-induced abortions.
How will new criminal abortion laws be enforced?
In the past, prosecutors focused on those who performed abortions, though women were arrested and punished too. Police and medical staff interrogated women suspected of having abortions. Suspects included women in the midst of a miscarriage.
If abortion is made illegal, medical personnel could again be coerced into collecting information from patients under the threat of losing their medical licenses.
Clinics could again be raided by police, patients captured and forced to endure coercive gynecological examinations as police search for evidence.
Women who seek medical care after an abortion could be questioned, arrested and required to testify in court.
These are not fictional nightmares. All of this happened routinely when abortion was a crime.
Returning to the days when abortion was a crime will prove disastrous.
Leslie J. Reagan is a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of "When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973" (University of California Press,1997). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.