American birth control activist Margaret Sanger once said, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” American reproductive rights have faced many transformations shifting between advancement and restriction over time. The 1960s marked a significant time period in which social movements and legal milestones impacted the development of contraceptives and access to reproductive health services. Because of varying governmental regulations, progress for reproductive rights in the United States has not been linear since the 1960s due to various factors. These factors include the availability of contraception, legal protections for abortion, and surrounding controversy.
Prior to the 1960s, the availability of contraception was limited due to the fact that it was seen as obscene with social and legal factors contributing to its restriction. This lack of access resulted in higher rates of unwanted pregnancies, limitation of reproductive autonomy, and unsafe abortions. For example, in 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act which prohibited the distribution of contraceptives through the mail by classifying contraceptives as “obscene”. PBS states, “The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.” At this time, the United States was the only Western Nation to have anti-obscenity laws criminalizing birth control in place. Contraception was heavily stigmatized and discussions surrounding sex and reproductive health were considered improper and taboo.
Many believed that contraception went against the natural order of things which had profound implications for family planning and individuals’ choice of reproductive autonomy. Furthermore, access to contraception and accurate information about reproductive health was especially difficult for marginalized communities. Women of color and those of lower income faced discrimination and socioeconomic disparities, making it all the more challenging to access reliable contraceptive methods and accurate education about sexual health. This absence of availability of contraception further compounded the barriers for individuals to have control over their reproductive choice.
In the 1960s, the introduction of available contraception transformed the landscape of reproductive health in American society by empowering individuals to make informed choices about their reproductive lives. One of the most profound changes that sparked a social and cultural revolution in reproductive health was the legalization of birth control in the United States. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of Enovid, the world’s first commercially produced birth control pill. This was one of the most pivotal events in the history of contraception by allowing women to plan and control their reproductive lives and make decisions about their own bodies and health. Margaret Sanger repealed the federal Comstock law by providing women with birth control information in order to control family size and end the cycle of women’s poverty. She believed that since women bore the burden of pregnancy and child-rearing, they should also have the right to control their fertility. Sanger opened the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, helped create “the pill”, and her efforts led to the legalization and distribution of contraceptives in the United States. Planned Parenthood notes, “During the information wars between Congress, the FDA, the AMA, and the women, Planned Parenthood filled the gap with its own client information publications about the pill and developed its own medical standards and guidelines to ensure that all women who came to Planned Parenthood for the pill would receive balanced information about its risks and benefits.” Overall, the introduction of available contraception in the 1960s provided a groundbreaking change in reproductive health and rights in the United States.
Despite the advancement that was being made by legalizing contraception, in the last few years, the United States has receded in its progress of available contraception due to government restrictions. Mifepristone, a medication used for abortion, has been suspended by a Texas federal judge. This could compromise the safety of those seeking to terminate pregnancies and potentially result in individuals turning to illicit alternative methods. NBC News reports, “States trying to limit abortion from the moment of conception could also try to restrict access to Plan B and IUDs.” Louisiana, Missouri, and Arizona have proposed laws that would ban abortion at fertilization. “IUD and Plan B are thought to prevent implantation, which could make these contraceptives illegal.” Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law Naomi Cahn states, “If abortion is defined as preventing implantation of a fertilized egg, there is some fear that those contraceptives could be causing abortions.” This increased regulation of reproductive laws further perpetuates the history of reproductive oppression in the United States. In summary, in recent years the availability of contraception has become limited due to the current state of political and social affairs in the United States.
Regardless of the availability of contraception, legal protections for women seeking abortions are crucial to the progression of reproductive rights. Before the 1960s, legal rights surrounding abortion were significantly limited. Laws aimed to prohibit the termination of pregnancy by criminalizing abortion across different jurisdictions. Women who sought abortions often faced public humiliation due to societal stigma. In the novel, When Abortion Was A Crime, author Leslie J. Reagan writes, “The new mode of enforcing the criminal abortion laws brought women into contact with the criminal justice system in unprecedented ways… the state's methods used interrogation and the humiliation of public exposure to penalize women who had abortions.” Newspapers would expose the names or pictures of women with the intention of shaming their sexual behavior, and women would risk legal repercussions if they were to seek an unregulated method of termination. To add on, medical professionals providing illegal abortion procedures also faced potential persecution for their involvement. The Feminist reports, “In the 1950s, about a million illegal abortions a year were performed in the U.S., and over a thousand women died each year as a result.” Desperate individuals were forced to turn towards dangerous methods, putting the lives and well-being of pregnant women in jeopardy. All in all, legal restrictions prior to the 1960s created an environment where women seeking safe abortions faced glaring challenges in terms of accessing the procedure itself and the potential consequences of their actions.
Court cases and legislative changes in the United States marked a significant advancement in the landscape of reproductive rights in the 1960 and 1970s. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 recognized the constitutional right to privacy, as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, in regard to childbearing decisions within marital relationships. Furthermore, the case declared that Connecticut’s state ban on contraceptives was unconstitutional and thus was struck down. In 1973, the Supreme Court established that the right to privacy encompassed a women’s decision to terminate her pregnancy with the court case Roe v. Wade, recognizing a strict trimester framework for regulating abortion. The Court established that states were able to regulate abortion without banning it which allowed for a balance between a women’s right to make decisions about her own body and protecting the potential life of a fetus. This transformed the legal structure surrounding reproductive rights and abortion in the United States and laid the groundwork for change in future decades. Subsequently, the Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992 reaffirmed the core holdings of Roe v. Wade but allowed for specific state regulations and proclaimed the “undue burden” test which modified the legal standard for evaluating the constitutionality of abortion restrictions. Overall, these landmark court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s continued to influence subsequent legal battles about reproductive rights in the United States.
Despite reproductive rights having seen significant legal advancement in the past, legal rights have regressed in the United States in recent years. Supreme Court case Dobbs vs. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization addressed whether the Constitution protected the right to abortion. Dobbs addressed the constitutionality of Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act which banned most abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for fetal abnormalities or health emergencies. The Court upheld the law; On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion and abandoning nearly fifty years of precedent. This decision marks the first time in history that the Supreme Court has deprived individuals of a fundamental right. America’s political landscape reflects anti-abortion rhetoric as additional states act in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Mississppi’s fifteen-week abortion ban, passing similar provisions. The Center for Reproductive Rights states, “The Court’s decision will likely lead to half of U.S. states immediately taking action to ban abortion outright, forcing people to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to access abortion care or to carry pregnancies against their will, a grave violation of their human rights.” This devasting conclusion undermines the Constitution’s promise to protect freedom and equality, revoking women of fundamental human rights. To conclude, the recent regression in terms of legality for reproductive rights has created a significant setback in the fight for equality and individual autonomy, specifically for those seeking abortion in the United States.
Aside from the legalities of abortion and other reproductive health rights, public opinion prior to the 1960s often emphasized restrictions on contraception, abortion, and reproductive-decision making. Some believe these practices were deeply rooted in cultural and religious beliefs that were seen as a violation of the natural order of things. This may be true, but the early 20th century’s patriarchal refusal to allow women the right to control their reproductive health through shame and fear was likely an effort to strip women of their bodily autonomy. Additionally, women of color were disproportionately affected by the lack of reproductive healthcare which exacerbated existing disparities in terms of reproductive autonomy. Some members of the black community rejected birth control due to the belief that it was nothing more than a white plot to decimate the black race. Birth control was commonly disguised and sold as feminine hygiene products due to being immensely demonized socially. In defiance of the American Medical Association's decision to withhold the approval of contraception, feminine hygiene manufacturers continued to distribute camouflaged contraceptive products to women. Similarly, abortion was largely disapproved of as the procedure equated to taking a life based on societal perspective. The condemnation of reproductive autonomy resulted in limited discussions around family planning and reproductive health due to being taboo and seen as a moral transgression. In all, the prevailing social stigma associated with reproductive rights prior to the 1960s forced individuals to overcome social barriers in order to control their reproductive choices.
The 1960s paved the beginnings of change as society’s views on reproductive rights began to shift and social movements emerged, advocating for greater autonomy and access to reproductive health resources. Public opinion became more accepting of contraception, abortion, and women’s reproductive-decision making “with 54 percent saying abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances in 1975.” As the era of change progressed, social justice movements gained momentum fighting to ensure that women had the right to make informed choices about their bodies and reproductive lives. The Women’s Liberation Movement, also known as the “second wave of feminism”, sought to challenge and transform oppressive social structures of society ranging from reproductive autonomy, gender roles, sexuality, workplace discrimination, and more. The introduction of the pill provided a catalyst for feminist activism exploding and sexual stereotypes being obviated. Women worked to redefine societal expectations by recognizing the systemic nature of gender inequality and asserting their sexual autonomy. Furthermore, reproductive movements aimed to address intersectional issues and acknowledge the experiences and voices of women of color. In 1983, the first National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues took place, giving birth to the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP), the first women of color reproductive justice organization. These movements worked towards challenging the historical marginalization of women of color and recognized how reproductive rights are influenced by racial, economic, and political structures within society. Altogether, the 1960s represented a transformative period in terms of social opinion and perspective of reproductive rights in the United States.
However, in recent years, society’s outlook on reproductive rights has experienced a regression, reverting towards more restrictive attitudes and policies. Anti-abortion violence has risen with pregnant individuals and abortion providers facing harassment due to waves of the strictest abortion restrictions seen in decades. The National Abortion Federation revealed that in 2020 violence and disruption–specifically, reports of assault and battery–against abortion clinics increased by 125% compared to 2019. Abortion providers are continuing to be threatened with the number of death threats increasing by the year. The politicization of abortion rights has aided this increase in violence. Even today, the majority of Americans support access to abortion in all or most cases, but former President Trump’s appointment of extremely conservative justices to the Supreme Court of the United States has allowed a vocal minority (anti-abortion Americans) to gain both a national platform and control of the law.
Additionally, women of color in comparison to their White counterparts continue to be disproportionally affected by the significant challenges and ongoing debates surrounding reproductive healthcare. The National Women’s Law Center writes about how a local anti-abortionist group has targeted West Virginia’s only black legislator with racist threats due to her support of legislation that would obstruct all abortion restrictions in the state. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe, many states have already outlawed abortion services, and more are expected to do so in the future. The Kaiser Family Foundation describes that “many of these states are in the South, which has large shares of Black and Hispanic women, the Plains which has a large Indigenous population, and the Midwest.” Accessing abortion for women of color will become increasingly difficult with the absence of laws protecting abortion in states like these. The KFF reports, “More than half of abortions are among women of color...In 2019, almost four in ten of abortions were among Black women (38%), one-third were among White women (33%), one in five among Hispanic women (21%), and 7% among women of other racial and ethnic groups.” Denying people of color access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare displays the deeply-rooted racist practices surrounding the healthcare system in the United States. Moreover, anti-abortionists spread propaganda to campaign against abortion and seek to pack federal courts with justices in favor of reproductive healthcare limitations. The New Yorker details the link between the United States Capitol attack in January of 2021 and anti-abortion extremism discussing how “John Brockhoeft, who was convicted of firebombing a Planned Parenthood clinic in Cincinnati, in 1985, and of conspiring to bomb another abortion clinic in Pensacola, in 1988, live-streamed from outside the Capitol.” Many view anti-abortionism as synonymous with patriotism as states begin to enact laws of near-total ban on abortion procedures. As a result, although public opinion on reproductive rights and abortion became less conservative during the 1960s and 1970s, society’s viewpoints and standings on this controversy have regressed in recent years.
In conclusion, reproductive rights in the United States have witnessed both progress and setbacks from before the 1960s until modern times. While the 1960s represented a period of progress for women across the country in comparison to earlier in the 20th century, the advancement of reproductive rights has since stagnated in a variety of areas. These areas include the availability of contraception, legal protections for abortion, and surrounding controversy. Following the words of Margaret Sanger, unless the regression of reproductive rights in the United States is halted, women will continue to be stripped of their individual autonomy and therefore their ability to live freely in this country.
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