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Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy

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Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History

Why has the Roe v. Wade decision become so important in American history? Why has the debate on both sides of the abortion question become so intractable? What does this debate reveal about American history, society and politics? No one who observes the American political arena can fail to notice the problems which accompany discussions about abortion - but do we really understand what is going on?


Title: Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History
Author: N. E. H Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer.
Publisher: University Press of Kansas.
ISBN: 0807855359

•  Provides extensive background on abortion legislation
•  Shows how various people affected the development of abortion legislation
•  Helps reader understand important context on abortion debate

•  Better notes/citations would have been useful

•  History of abortion and contraception in America: legislation, court decisions and more
•  Shows how attitudes towards abortion have changed over time and in reaction to other events
•  Explains the arguments and the personalities of those who have played key roles


Book Review

The difficult social and political issues surrounding abortion are addressed by N. E. H Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer in their book Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History, tracing the development of both legal and social attitudes on abortion over the past two centuries. With this, they provide a resource that has both breadth and depth in a way which is lacking in most books on abortion.

Hull and Hoffer begin with the late 18th and early 19th centuries, describing how abortion slowly became a criminal issue. The key word here is became, because it emphasizes the fact that abortion was not always regarded as criminal. Before this era, abortion was simply one of many choices available to women, regulated of course in various ways by local mores and customs.

By exploring the nature of abortion choices and the ways in which pregnancy was treated, the authors are able to find out more about why abortion ever became a criminal issue in the first place. What they reveal is that at no point were the laws passed for the express purpose of protecting the fetus. The real impetus behind the laws was a paternalistic attitude of trying to protect women from predatory abortionists - abortions were, after all,

much more dangerous at the time, and it is true that many women who received one suffered from it.

This is not to say that such laws were entirely altruistic. The medical profession was a big supporter of anti-abortion laws during this time, but it was not simply in order to help women. This was an era in which doctors were becoming more professionalized and trying to establish greater control over healthcare. Abortion, however, was more often performed by midwifes and other “traditional” healers - thus challenging the doctors’ authority and monopoly. Banning abortion was a very effective way for doctors’ groups to further their agendas.

    ...the first round of anti-abortion laws had the same purpose as the 1803 English law: to announce that the state would protect women against the misconduct of abortionists. The woman who attempted her own abortion was not the object of the law, nor was the protection (at least explicitly) of fetal life before quickening.
    The criminalization of abortion fit the overall gendering of law, in which male lawgivers asserted that women must be protected against their own weakness and immorality in having unwanted children and then seeking the assistance of abortionists.
Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History

Interestingly, this rationale for protecting women from unsafe abortions would later come back and haunt anti-abortion groups. When it was demonstrated that medical abortions were safer than pregnancies, this particular prop for anti-abortion laws simply fell away, leaving the door open for finding those laws unconstitutional. The idea of banning abortion for the sake of protecting the fetus as a human being is revealed by Hull and Hoffer as being a very modern and recent development - for most of history, even American history, the fetus was not accorded any protected status.

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