In the nineteenth century, the average size of the U.S. family declined dramatically. A white woman in 1800 gave birth to an average of seven children. By the end of the century, the average was three-and-a-half children. In part, the decline was caused by the dissemination of scientific information on birth control. Many of the nineteenth-century proponents of family planning were radical social reformers who offended church and community leaders with their graphic descriptions of human REPRODUCTION.
Conservatives sought to curtail this information on birth control and abortion. The most prominent conservative watchdog was Anthony Comstock, a New York businessman who led a national reform effort against obscene materials. His work resulted in 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 "little Comstock laws" that prohibited the use of contraceptives.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, few states had criminal laws against abortion. Women in colonial times had used abortion to dispose of the offspring of rape or seduction. Abortion was not illegal under the COMMON LAW as long as it was performed before "quickening," the period at about four months when the fetus begins to move in the womb.
State legislatures passed laws in the first half of the nineteenth century that adopted the quickening rule, and a few states allowed abortion after quickening to save the life of the mother. Abortions increased markedly in the 1850s and 1860s, especially among middle-class white women.
Religious leaders began to denounce abortion, but the AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (AMA) proved to be the most successful in ending legalized abortion. The AMA was formed in 1847, and the all-male professional group (women were not allowed to become doctors) made abortion law reform one of its top priorities. The AMA saw abortion reform as a way to increase its influence and to drive out unlicensed practitioners of abortion. By the 1880s, medical and religious leaders had convinced all-male state legislatures (women were not allowed to vote) to impose criminal penalties on persons performing abortions and, in some states, on the women who had abortions. The laws were based on the states' POLICE POWER to regulate public health and safety. This had some justification because abortion procedures of the time were dangerous, subjecting women to sterility and, in many cases, death. In response, women turned to birth control and to illegal abortions. The legal restrictions on birth control and abortion that were created in the late nineteenth century were not be removed until the 1960s and 1970s.
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