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Women's Rights

Reproductive Rights In The Nineteenth Century

The fertility rate of white women declined steadily during the nineteenth century. In part this was the result of using BIRTH CONTROL and ABORTION to control family size. By the 1870s, a woman's right to make decisions about reproduction was restricted by federal and state laws. The most famous was the federal COMSTOCK LAW OF 1873, which criminalized the transmission and receipt of "obscene," "lewd," or "lascivious" publications through the U.S. mail. The law specified that materials designed, adapted, or intended "for preventing conception or producing abortion" were included in the list of banned items. Some states passed laws banning the use of contraceptives.

A woman's opportunity to have an abortion was outlawed by the states during the latter part of the nineteenth century. ABORTIONS, which increased markedly in the 1850s and 1860s, especially among middle-class white women, had been legal until the fetus "quickened," or moved inside the uterus. The AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (AMA) and religious groups led the successful move to have state legislatures impose criminal penalties on persons performing abortions. In some states, women who had abortions could also be held criminally liable.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Alyce Faye Wattleton to Zoning - Further ReadingsWomen's Rights - Nineteenth Century Women's Rights Movement, The Campaign To Defeat The Era, Domestic Relations In The Nineteenth Century