Flashbacks May 2006

A Moral Wrong or a Fundamental Right?

Articles from the 1960s onward illuminate the many facets of the abortion debate

"The day Roe is overturned,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his June 2006 cover story, “the handful of state abortion bans that were passed before Roe but never formally repealed would arguably spring back to life.” As Rosen’s scenario suggests, the 1973 Roe decision did not so much kill off state abortion laws as leave them frozen in time. In eleven states, statutes banning abortion are still on the books. If Roe were to be overturned, Rosen theorizes, a governor or attorney general could step forward to support these “miraculously rejuvenated abortion bans,” and abortion could be drastically limited or altogether outlawed.

With this in mind, it is edifying to look through the Atlantic archives and find a range of earlier articles on abortion. Pieces written before Roe offer snapshots of the days when abortion was a matter of state law rather than federal jurisdiction. What emerges is a portrait of a country in which white, middle-class women could obtain safe, sterile abortions while others languished in dark alleyways. The debate did not end when Roe made abortion available across racial and economic lines; articles written after 1973 continue to champion abortion rights or argue for Roe alternatives. Taken together, these articles suggest that Rosen’s scenario is not as distant or implausible as many Americans might wish it to be.

In August 1965, The Atlantic published the story of an East Coast housewife, married with three children, who found herself confronting an unwanted pregnancy. The woman—who signed her piece “Mrs. X”—was in her late forties, as was her husband. Neither felt up to another round of sleepless nights, diaper changes, measles, mumps, and concussions. Finances were tight; Mrs. X was reluctant to give up her part-time secretarial work to care for another infant, and her husband had managed to save just enough money to put three children through college, not four. All of this seemed reason enough to terminate the pregnancy.

Mrs. X’s story is strikingly pragmatic and suburban. Rather than combing the Bowery, Mrs. X began her project by donning her reading glasses and settling down with a book called Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion.

I discovered that abortion is an operation that all med students learn, even if they don't get much chance to perfect techniques; that of the institute's sample, only a minute percentage of women had suffered either physical or psychic aftereffects; and that while the authors made no attempt to estimate the number of abortions performed every year in the United States, it was plain that even without the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, I had lots of company.

Conducting a quick survey of five “intelligent, well educated” friends, Mrs. X discovered that three had had abortions, and all were willing to help her find a respectable physician who would perform one. She soon found a doctor who was willing to flout state law and take on her case. His fee was reasonable, his instruments were sterile, and Mrs. X’s discomfort was minimal. Within five days, she was back to her old self: a 1960s housewife and mother of three, sans fetus.

By 1969, a number of states had relaxed their abortion laws, and California had ruled in People v. Belous that “every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child or to choose and to obtain an abortion.” In June of that year, Harriet Pilpel wrote an article entitled “The Right of Abortion.” In her most compelling argument, Pilpel also pointed out that the abortion laws of her time discriminated against black and Latina women. Throughout the 1960s, she wrote, white women were able to obtain abortions in sterile, private hospital rooms, under the rubric of “psychiatric” care. During the same time period, black and Latina women accounted for 78 percent of all abortion deaths in New York City. Abortion legislation, then, came down to “the rights of women, rich and poor, black and white, to equal protection of the law—that is, to get proper medical treatment without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or income.”

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