Home / Opinion / Commentary / Abortion legal under Puritans, more than 200 years – what changed?

Abortion legal under Puritans, more than 200 years – what changed?


My sister and I went on an Amtrak vacation in July to attend a conference and visit friends and family in the Midwest. On her last leg home, my sister was on a local metro when a pregnant woman threw herself in front of the train and committed suicide. We don’t know if the lack of abortion or health care or services drove her to it. But expect to see more.

Prior to the 1840’s, abortion was widespread and not illegal. Under the Puritans, abortion was allowed until the fetus was “quick” or until the woman could feel it move even up to the fourth or fifth month as it was the woman’s choice. For more than two centuries after the Pilgrims landed abortion was largely permitted.

Dianne Post (Photo by Martha Lochert)

Dianne Post (Photo by Martha Lochert)

From the 1840s to 1900, abortion became illegal state by state and remained illegal everywhere in the United States until 1973 when Roe v. Wade said women had a constitutional right to determine the use of their own bodies. What caused the reversal?

In the 1830s, most women had their babies at home with midwives. Beginning in the 1840s, doctors and hospitals started to gain control of birthing. Soon doctors, nearly all men who never had a baby, became the decision makers for women’s reproductive health care and women lost their bodily autonomy.

The use of the term “right to life” didn’t start until 1951 from a papal encyclical in which Pope Pius XII said the child has a right to life from God not from its parents. Only 21% of Americans are Catholic. To make policy based on the beliefs of 21% of the people or based on religious dogma of any kind violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The “pro-life” term came into being only after 1973 when the first “anti-abortion” messaging failed. Of course it would since Americans still today support abortion from 51% of Catholics to 76% of mainstream religious people; from 59% of Republicans to 79% of Democrats. Pro-life is a good marketing tool, but a false message.

Likewise, the “heartbeat” bills like the “late term abortion” bills are cleverly but deceptively named. There is no such thing as “late term abortion” and that “heartbeat” is not – it is an electrical sensation in the nerves of the zygote. The heart is not yet developed let alone beating.

To punish a woman by forcing her to have a child she does not want or can’t afford is to make a child a punishment. A child should never be a “punishment.” The obvious answer to those opposed to abortion is don’t have one. No one is taking away their choice, their agency, their decision making, their family security, their income, their right to follow their own religion or beliefs.

Rev. Kelli Clement, the Social Justice minister at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, wrote a column about how the right to an abortion transformed her life. In her 20s as an active alcoholic she had an abortion. Later when she became sober, she became the woman she wanted to be, a minister and a mother.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 73% of women delay or end childbearing because they can’t afford it or it would interfere with their work, education, or ability to care for existing dependents. Forty-eight percent were in a bad relationship and didn’t want to become single parents. Sixty percent already had children and did not want to harm the existing family.

Legislators cannot make decisions about what is best for them. That must be left to the family that the anti-choice people claim they respect. If they really cared about families, they would look at why families can’t afford a child e.g. raise the minimum wage, ensure that women are paid equally to men, and provide adequate and affordable health care. They would also look at how educational institutions and work places can become more family friendly with paid parental leave, onsite childcare, safe and clean rooms for breast feeding and diaper-changing. They would also examine why it’s so difficult and expensive to care for the dependents we have such as providing all-day kindergarten, after school programs, community centers, and respite care for elderly parents. To end unstable relationships they would work to reduce violence against women and children. But they don’t do any of that. Instead women are blamed and shamed, they are paid less at work or forced out if they become pregnant or have child-care responsibilities, they are chastised for feeding a baby in a public place, they are expected to manage a work shift during the day and another when they get home. A fetus cannot be “sacred” before birth when it is clearly not “sacred” after it is born.

In 2013 the number of abortions in the U.S. dropped under one million for the first time since 1975 because of birth control. If reducing abortions was the goal, affordable, accessible birth control would be widely available and every school would have comprehensive sex education.

In states where they have a state Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the abortion rate and the domestic violence rate is lower. If a person opposed abortion and supported families, that person would support birth control, comprehensive sex education and the ERA. But they don’t. That’s because the movement is not about pro-life; it’s about pro-control. If it was pro-life, they would support pre and post-natal care, health care, childcare, early education, free school lunch, SNAP, gun control, and abolish the death penalty. Those opposing women’s bodily autonomy will continue. But at least the public should know what that fight is truly about.

Dianne Post is an international human rights attorney with 37 years of experience, and serves on the board of State NOW and ERA Task Force Arizona.

One comment

  1. If public policy “based on religious dogma of any kind violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” does that mean our criminal code which includes “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is unconstitutional? I think not. Public policy should be based on public opinion regardless of what the author interprets as its origin.

    Abortion is not the only choice if someone doesn’t want a baby. It is much more cost effective to use a condom than to pay for an abortion.

    The ERA is unnecessary. No provision of the US Constitution authorizes discrimination under the law against women. Many laws exist to protect gender equality including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title IX, Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The broadly worded ERA isn’t really a vote for equal rights, it’s a vote for a question mark because we don’t know how judges will apply it. It may be construed in ways that will invade privacy and coerce women into combat. Equality should be achieved by laws including enforcing those that already exist. Our constitution should not be altered unless that change is necessary. The amendment needs to be re-written to include some reasonable exemptions like protecting personal privacy.

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