ABORTION (Social Science)

Induced abortion, in contrast to spontaneous abortion, is the deliberate termination of an established pregnancy. Induced abortion is a universal phenomenon, present in every known culture—literate or preliterate, primitive or modern. What has differed has been the safety of the methods used; how widespread the practice has been, especially relative to contraception and infanticide; and the role of church and state.

Induced abortion was certainly practiced in ancient societies. The oldest known recipe for abortifacients comes from an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1550 bce, which lists substances that terminate pregnancy in the first, second, and third trimesters. Ancient Greeks also used herbal abortifacients, including silphium (a giant fennel), pennyroyal, and myrrh; modern analyses suggest that many of these were effective. Abortion was common in both ancient Greece and Rome, although not nearly as widespread as infanticide. The timing of animation or ensoulment was of great interest to Greek philosophers. Aristotle (384-322 bce) hypothesized that the fetus had a succession of souls: vegetable, animal, and rational. He also believed that animation occurred in the male fetus forty days after conception and in the female fetus after eighty days. Among Romans, the prevailing view was that the fetus became a person, an entity with a soul, only at the time it began to breathe.

Abortion practices varied widely among early Christians, who generally believed that fetuses did not have a soul until sometime after conception. Saint Augustine (354-430 ce) accepted Aristotle’s theory of delayed animation of the female fetus and contributed his own description of fetal development: the first six days in milky form, nine more days for it to turn to blood, twelve days for the mass of blood to solidify, and eighteen more days for the mass to become fully formed with all of its members.

During the Middle Ages, a woman was considered to have had an abortion only if a formed fetus was extracted. Abortion among Christians remained a local issue, and penances imposed for procuring abortions varied widely among localities. In the thirteenth century, the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225—1274) expanded upon the ideas of his predecessors, accepting Aristotle’s view that male semen alone had the power of creation. He reasoned that since beings tend to reproduce their own kind, the products of conception ordinarily would be male. Females must result from flaws in the semen or an act of God, such as the south wind. Aquinas’s ideas influenced Pope Innocent IV (d. 1254), who declared that abortion before the infusion of the soul was not homicide.

The papal position did not change again for three centuries. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) declared that whoever practiced abortion, which he believed to be premeditated murder, was to be excommunicated and put to death. In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) withdrew these penalties for the sin of abortion, which he believed were too severe in light of the debate on animation or ensoulment. This remained the Catholic Church’s abortion policy until 1869, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) restored Sixtus V’s declaration, thus eliminating any distinction between an animated and an unan-imated fetus.

Despite its change in doctrine, the Catholic Church did not play an important role in the passage of antiabor-tion legislation in either England or the United States during the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, English common law, which also applied in the United States, allowed induced abortion until at least quickening, that is, when the woman first feels fetal movements, usually between the fourth and fifth months of pregnancy. The change in British law occurred in 1803 when induced abortion was made illegal throughout pregnancy. The change in American law occurred somewhat later through two waves of state antiabortion legislation.

The first wave occurred between 1821 and 1841. Ten states and one territory enacted legislation to make some abortions illegal. Connecticut passed the first statute in 1821, prohibiting the administration of poisons to produce postquickening abortions. In 1828 New York banned postquickening abortions by all methods. Other than politicians and physicians, there was little popular support for these laws, and they were almost never enforced.

Massachusetts launched the second wave of antiabortion legislation in 1846 with a law that ignored the notion of quickening and included jail sentences and fines for attempted abortions. New York followed suit in the same year and passed an abortion law that also disregarded quickening and prescribed punishments for abortionists and abortion patients. Between 1840 and 1880, forty antiabortion state laws were passed. By 1910 induced abortion at any stage was a criminal offense in every state except Kentucky. The only exception was a therapeutic abortion, performed to save the pregnant woman’s life. However stringent, these state laws were ineffective in curtailing abortions—reliable estimates show that abortion rates climbed throughout the nineteenth century.

During the first half of the twentieth century, an estimated one in three pregnancies ended in abortion. Most of these abortions were illegal and unregulated, resulting in high morbidity and mortality rates for poor and rural women. The rationale for therapeutic abortions had also expanded over time. For women who had access to physician services, induced abortions became relatively safe by the mid-twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the medical profession became a principal advocate for reforming the antiabortion laws for which it had lobbied in the previous century.

Abortion was legalized in the United Kingdom in 1967 and throughout the United States in 1973. While these policy changes occurred within about five years of each other, their paths were almost totally divergent. In Britain, the law was liberalized after a fierce political campaign. In the United States, abortion reform occurred judicially rather than through legislative deliberation. In both counties, deaths from abortions plummeted after the abortion laws were liberalized, but these reformed policies have not settled the abortion debate in either country. However, abortion politics have been far more contentious in the United States than in the United Kingdom.

In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade overturned existing state laws by holding that a woman’s right to choose abortion was constitutionally protected as part of her right to privacy. This decision prohibited any level of government from interfering with a woman’s right to obtain an abortion during the first trimester except to require that it be performed by a licensed physician. During the second trimester, the state had only the power to regulate abortion in ways designed to preserve and protect the woman’s health. In the third trimester, the protection of fetal life became a compelling reason to justify state interference with a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Beyond these broad parameters, individual states were free to regulate other aspects of abortion.

By permitting considerable state discretion, Roe v. Wade federalized, rather than nationalized, abortion policy. Consequently, state abortion laws differ widely in terms of parental involvement, informed consent, and funding for poor women. Since Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided over thirty abortion-related cases emanating from the states. The changing composition of the Court has meant that American abortion case law has changed over time.

A key question that remained in the early twenty-first century was whether the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the Roe decision. Such a decision would have serious ramifications. In the 2000s, about one in three women in the United States had an abortion by the age of forty-five.

Next post:

Previous post: