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Twentieth-century Abortion Law Reform

Despite legal prohibition, abortion remained available in the United States, under conditions that varied with time and place. During the 1930s, for instance, at least in large cities, abortion could be readily obtained through referral to private clinics. It was prosecuted, if at all, only when the woman who sought the abortion died. This changed in the 1940s and 1950s. Antiabortion laws were enforced more strictly. Abortion became harder to obtain and more expensive. Hospitals created new rules to restrict therapeutic abortions. Women without money and good medical contacts where shut out of facilities for safe abortion. Injuries and fatalities from clandestine "back-alley" abortions increased.

Recognition that illegal abortion was widespread and often dangerous led in the 1950s and 1960s to calls for abortion law reform. Medical opinion reversed itself. Physicians began to complain about the hypocrisy and discrimination involved in applying statutory exceptions for abortions designed to preserve the mother's life, and chafed at restrictions imposed by law rather than as a matter of medical judgment. "Quality of life" was emphasized. In the early 1960s, highly publicized fetal deformities caused by thalidomide and rubella heightened sympathy for women seeking abortions. Concern about worldwide overpopulation produced more favorable attitudes toward all techniques for controlling reproduction. So did the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, a flood of women in the workforce, and the beginnings of "second-wave" feminism.

The American Law Institute's Model Penal Code (1962) provided an important catalyst. The "tentative draft" of the code's section on abortion (§ 230.3) was first published in 1959. It proposed that abortion should be a felony, with the level of punishment to depend on whether the abortion took place up to or after the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy. It added, however, that "[a] licensed physician is justified in terminating a pregnancy if he believes there is a substantial risk (1) that continuation of the pregnancy would gravely impair the physical and mental health of the mother or (2) that the child would be born with grave physical or mental defect, or (3) that the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest, or other felonious intercourse."

During the decade or so between 1962 and 1973, nineteen states reformed their abortion laws. Some adopted all three of the Model Penal Code's expanded justifications for abortion; others followed it only in part. Four states (Hawaii, Alaska, New York, and Washington) went further and removed all limitations on the reasons for which abortions could be performed. The New York law enacted in 1970 was the most sweeping. It permitted all abortions within the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy and did away with both residency and hospitalization requirements (thus encouraging the growth of free-standing abortion clinics).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAbortion - Classical Attitudes And Canon Law, Abortion In English Law, Abortion In American Law: The Nineteenth Century