In the courtroom, prosecutors rarely discussed the unborn, instead accusing abortion providers of preventing women from fulfilling their destiny: motherhood. When early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion, they argued that the disconnect between sexual intercourse and maternity endangered women’s chastity — at the time considered their main basis for moral standing and personal dignity.
Then, in the second half of the 20th century, technology such as sonogram imaging and genetic testing allowed us to see a fetus not simply as a potential life but as a patient requiring diagnosis and treatment, and sometimes entitled to more medical intervention than a pregnant woman.
New imaging techniques furthered the idea that the interests of a woman and her fetus may be inimical: the woman’s “right to choose” vs. the fetus’s “right to life.” Over the past generation, some state legislatures have passed laws imbuing fetuses with civic personhood while sidelining the rights and needs of pregnant women.
2. Until Roe v. Wade, back-alley procedures killed countless women, and that risk would return if abortion were outlawed.
Despite the charges surrounding the abortion practice of Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, there is little evidence that abortion caused high rates of morbidity or mortality before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure in 1973. According to the Guttmacher Institute, for instance, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women in 1930 — a relatively small number in a time before antibiotics, when estimates are that at least 1 million abortions were performed per year. By 1940, the number of deaths had fallen under 1,700, and by 1965, below 200.
Even when abortion was illegal, it was often practiced with the knowledge and protection of district attorneys and police chiefs who considered these practitioners assets to public health. For example, Ruth Barnett, the proprietor of one of the busiest abortion clinics on the West Coast before Roe, wrote in a self-published memoir that her clinic in downtown Portland, Ore., was well known: “The duly elected officers of the law, members of the medical profession and state medical board knew we were in business,” she wrote, and sent clients to her office.
Abortion rights advocates have argued that Roe shields women from “back-alley butchers.” But that is a consumer-protection argument, not an argument about what rights women have over their bodies. Before legalization, laws against abortion endangered women, keeping them from making fundamental decisions about their lives.