He stood there; shoulders bent, head down. He told his professor,“I’m sorry, Dr. Kahrl, my term paper will be late. My girlfriend bled to death in our bed on Saturday night.” The year was 1972, a year before the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade when abortion became legal across all the US.
Many of us older women remember those days. The stories vary from being about ourselves, about a friend or college classmate. Some lost their mother. Some women were sent away “to visit an aunt” or a “home for unwed mothers.” Strongly stigmatized as “unwed mothers” or “used goods,” most gave their children up for adoption.
Abortions have been a part of women’s lives for millennia. In the United States, abortion before “quickening” was common in the early 19th century. Gradually, state-by-state bans on abortion passed in the second half of the 19th century. Women continued to seek abortions. Now illegal, they were often unsafe. Hospitals in major cities had special wards for women who were sick and dying from botched abortions.
Meanwhile, access to contraception was limited. Many people, including medical leaders, associated birth control with promiscuity. It was illegal to give information about contraception in most states. The methods available such as the diaphragm, were awkward to use and required a visit to a doctor. Douching and the rhythm method were unreliable. Withdrawal and the condom required male participation. Many women wanted to be able to control their fertility without depending on the male partner.
It wasn’t until 1965 that it was legal for married couples to use contraception. The Supreme Court’s decision on Griswold v. Connecticut changed that. Seven years later, in 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird gave the same right to unwed couples.
The US Food and Drug Administration approved the Pill in 1957, but not as a contraceptive, only for certain menstrual disorders. Three years later, when the FDA approved contraceptive use, eight states declared the Pill illegal.
In 1973, the Supreme Court made the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal. But the controversy continues as the anti-choice/forced birthers continue to create obstacles to women’s access to contraception and abortion.
Armed with the knowledge of past challenges, we refuse to return to those days. We will continue to fight for reproductive justice in every way that we can.