On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its final ruling in Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision with far-reaching consequences that still reverberate today. To mark the occasion, we wanted to take a look at some of the documents and objects from the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library that chart the history of reproductive rights and the centrality of abortion rights to women’s collective action. Many of these will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Women March, opening Feb. 28.
The case began in 1970 when Jane Roe (a pseudonym used in court documents to protect the plaintiff’s identity) filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, TX, after being denied an abortion. Roe maintained that denying her request violated her right to privacy, guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The majority opinion declared that “this right of privacy…encompass[es] a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” They determined that the state could not intervene in a healthcare decision made between a pregnant woman and her physician during the first trimester of pregnancy, and that all laws that criminalized abortion during the first trimester were unconstitutional.
Jane Roe was not alone: Reproductive rights had become a major plank of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. To feminists, women’s social and legal equality rested upon their ability to determine for themselves when they would bear children. The three documents below, which will be showcased in Women March, speak to the centrality of reproductive justice to women’s collective action in the early 1970s. As the Strike For Equality broadside below tells us, access to abortion was considered a crucial aspect of the “unfinished business of equality.”
Feminists heralded the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 as a revolutionary step towards freeing women from compulsory pregnancy. Yet, in historical perspective, the Roe v. Wade looks less like a late-20th century leap forward than a return to an earlier standard.
As historian and N-YHS Scholarly Advisory Board member Linda Gordon has shown, until the mid-19th century, the United States permitted women to terminate pregnancies before “quickening.” Quickening (or a woman’s perception of fetal movement) typically occurred around 15 to 18 weeks of gestation, well after first trimester ended at 12 weeks. It was only after the Civil War that the emerging professional medical establishment joined forces with lawmakers to ban the commonplace procedure. They cited safety concerns with female abortionists who lacked formal medical training as well as moral concerns over young women deferring motherhood in favor of sexual liberty.
In 1866, Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, an obstetrician from Massachusetts, was awarded the Gold Medal Prize by the American Medical Association for his essay “Why Not?: A Book For Every Woman,” which can also be found at the N-YHS Library.
Aimed at a female audience, the essay was a diatribe against abortion at any stage of pregnancy as morally unsound and exceedingly dangerous. “Physicians have now arrived at the unanimous opinion that the foetus in utero is alive from the very moment of conception,” Storer declared. Asserting his professional authority, Storer explained that,
“Many women suppose that the child is not alive till quickening has occurred, others that it is practically dead till it has breathed. As well one of these suppositions as the other; they are both of them erroneous.”
Storer equated “forced abortion”—a term used to distinguish an intentional termination of a pregnancy from a “spontaneous abortion” or miscarriage—with infanticide by selfish married women and misguided single women. He enumerated the many bodily risks of procuring an abortion, namely increased maternal death, debilitation, and susceptibility to “serious and often fatal organic diseases, such as cancer.” Storer offered no empirical evidence to support these conclusions, but nevertheless called for outlawing abortion and harshly penalizing abortion providers. Criminalization of abortion in the late 19th century drove the procedure underground, creating an environment rife with exploitation and opportunism (see, for example, the Center for Women’s History’s previous exhibition, Female Remedies). For this reason, women’s liberationists celebrated the Roe v. Wade decision. No longer would they need to submit to unscrupulous, illegal abortionists to control their fertility.
In hindsight, calling Roe v. Wade a victory seems premature. The decision immediately galvanized a conservative movement against abortion. It mobilized rapidly to chip away at the accessibility of abortion, revealing the shortcomings of the original Roe v. Wade decision in the process. Roe v. Wade made abortion legal during the first trimester on the grounds of privacy. It did not guarantee access to abortion, limiting the decision’s impact on low-income women who could not afford to pay for the procedure out of pocket. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment (named for anti-abortion congressman Henry J. Hyde) prohibited federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services. This effectively blocked Medicaid from covering abortion procedures, leaving poor and uninsured women without access. Roe v. Wade was also premised upon a narrow definition of “reproductive rights.” In their fervor to secure women’s right to reject pregnancy and childbearing without state interference, women’s liberationists overlooked the right to become pregnant and bear children without state interference. African American, Latina, and Native American women were subject to involuntary sterilization at alarmingly high rates, often as a condition of receiving welfare.
Access to abortion remains tenuous in the present day, with many states enacting restrictions and regulations meant to drive abortion providers out of business or push limits on abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Examining the historical context of Roe v. Wade during our current moment reveals that, despite its flaws, the ruling was a feminist milestone and turning point in the history of reproductive rights.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society
Above image: Eugene Gordon, Women’s Strike for Equality, New York City, 1970. New-York Historical Society Library