Background on Reproductive Rights

Girl holding up hands

Women have been fighting the struggle for reproductive rights for centuries. Historically, these rights are an especially controversial subject due to the moral, ethical, and religious considerations. In recent US elections, this has been a very emotionally and politically charged issue.

Abortion was legal in America until the second half of the 19th century. The first abortion regulation, which passed in Connecticut in 1821, was a poison control measure designed to protect women – not to criminalize abortion or to restrict abortion access.

AMA’s Outlaw Attempt

A campaign to outlaw abortion began in the 1850s, led by the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA), and made reproductive rights a political issue. Doctors, politicians, and religious leaders sought to restrict reproductive rights for various reasons:

  1. Members of the AMA sought to “professionalize” medicine. They used legislation to put midwives, herbalists, and healers out of business.
  2. Some members of the government felt that outlawing contraceptives would lead to a decrease in immoral activity. The Comstock Act, passed in 1873, made it illegal to send anything related to birth control or abortion through the mail.
  3. Some Protestant leaders feared losing control of the government to Catholic immigrants. Protestant women were having far fewer children than their Catholic counterparts. This alarmed some legislators and led to the passage of laws outlawing contraceptives and abortion. Between 1860 and 1880, 40 states and territories passed anti-abortion laws. By 1899, contraceptives and abortion were illegal nationwide.

The Peoples’ Reaction

An underground market for contraceptives and abortions flourished. Contraceptives were widely available in many areas and abortion providers ran highly successful, well-respected businesses in many areas.

Margaret Sanger grew up in an Irish-Catholic family and witnessed the hardships of her mother who had numerous pregnancies and died at the age of 49. As a nurse, Sanger witnessed firsthand the determination of women to hold power over their own reproductive rights. She established the American Birth Control League, now Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1918, an American judge ruled that contraceptives were legal to prevent diseases. After this, many state laws against contraceptives were removed from the books, and in 1965, the last state law was found to be unconstitutional.


Throughout the 1960s, the movement to decriminalize abortion became one of the fastest growing in American history. In 1967, Colorado was the first state to liberalize its abortion laws and was followed by Hawaii, New York, and California. On January 22, 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Roe v. Wade that women have a right to abortion.

Continuing Restrictions

Since 1973, hundreds of state laws have been passed restricting access to abortion services. Federal and state legislatures are currently considering bills that would further restrict access to abortion and contraceptives, as well as restrict funding for reproductive health education.

Currently 43 states restrict young women's access to abortion by mandating parental notice or consent. Seven of these laws have been found unconstitutional and unenforceable in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico.

In the spring of 2005, the House of Representatives passed the "Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act," which imposes criminal penalties on anyone other than a parent—including a grandparent or minister—who accompanies a young woman across state lines for abortion care if requirements of the home state's parental involvement law have not been met.

Reproductive Rights around the World

If it is this difficult to get an abortion in the U.S., just think how hard it is in other countries around the world. In many parts of the world, women face serious and sometimes insurmountable barriers in obtaining reproductive health and family planning services.

A shortage of contraceptive products and services leads to an estimated 76 million unplanned pregnancies worldwide each year. A 2010 study for the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) estimated 42 million abortions globally each year, with1 in 5 pregnancies ending in abortion.

A 2007 AGI study reported that 25% of the world’s population lives in countries where abortion is prohibited or permitted only to save women’s lives, while 61% live in countries where abortion is allowed without restriction or for a broad range of reasons.

Whether abortion is legal or not, women are just as likely to have one. Restricting access to abortion does not make it go away; it only makes it secret and unsafe.

Contributing to the unsafe abortion rate is the global gag rule policy of the current U.S. administration. This denies the U.S. funds to family planning and population assistance programs if they provide or even discuss abortions. The policy has been rigidly enforced by the Bush administration and has resulted in a reduction in international family planning programs and closure of clinics.

National Organization for Women Foundation
Center for Reproductive Rights
The Emma Goldman Clinic