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How the Right to Legal Abortion Changed the Arc of All Women’s Lives
By Katha Pollitt
I’ve never had an abortion. In this, I am like most American women. A frequently quoted statistic from a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, which reports that one in four women will have an abortion before the age of forty-five, may strike you as high, but it means that a large majority of women never need to end a pregnancy. (Indeed, the abortion rate has been declining for decades, although it’s disputed how much of that decrease is due to better birth control, and wider use of it, and how much to restrictions that have made abortions much harder to get.) Now that the Supreme Court seems likely to overturn Roe v. Wade sometime in the next few years—Alabama has passed a near-total ban on abortion, and Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Missouri have passed “heartbeat” bills that, in effect, ban abortion later than six weeks of pregnancy, and any of these laws, or similar ones, could prove the catalyst—I wonder if women who have never needed to undergo the procedure, and perhaps believe that they never will, realize the many ways that the legal right to abortion has undergirded their lives.
Legal abortion means that the law recognizes a woman as a person. It says that she belongs to herself. Most obviously, it means that a woman has a safe recourse if she becomes pregnant as a result of being raped. (Believe it or not, in some states, the law allows a rapist to sue for custody or visitation rights.) It means that doctors no longer need to deny treatment to pregnant women with certain serious conditions—cancer, heart disease, kidney disease—until after they’ve given birth, by which time their health may have deteriorated irretrievably. And it means that non-Catholic hospitals can treat a woman promptly if she is having a miscarriage. (If she goes to a Catholic hospital, she may have to wait until the embryo or fetus dies. In one hospital, in Ireland, such a delay led to the death of a woman named Savita Halappanavar, who contracted septicemia. Her case spurred a movement to repeal that country’s constitutional amendment banning abortion.)
The legalization of abortion, though, has had broader and more subtle effects than limiting damage in these grave but relatively uncommon scenarios. The revolutionary advances made in the social status of American women during the nineteen-seventies are generally attributed to the availability of oral contraception, which came on the market in 1960. But, according to a 2017 study by the economist Caitlin Knowles Myers, “The Power of Abortion Policy: Re-Examining the Effects of Young Women’s Access to Reproductive Control,” published in the Journal of Political Economy , the effects of the Pill were offset by the fact that more teens and women were having sex, and so birth-control failure affected more people. Complicating the conventional wisdom that oral contraception made sex risk-free for all, the Pill was also not easy for many women to get. Restrictive laws in some states barred it for unmarried women and for women under the age of twenty-one. The Roe decision, in 1973, afforded thousands upon thousands of teen-agers a chance to avoid early marriage and motherhood. Myers writes, “Policies governing access to the pill had little if any effect on the average probabilities of marrying and giving birth at a young age. In contrast, policy environments in which abortion was legal and readily accessible by young women are estimated to have caused a 34 percent reduction in first births, a 19 percent reduction in first marriages, and a 63 percent reduction in ‘shotgun marriages’ prior to age 19.”
Access to legal abortion, whether as a backup to birth control or not, meant that women, like men, could have a sexual life without risking their future. A woman could plan her life without having to consider that it could be derailed by a single sperm. She could dream bigger dreams. Under the old rules, inculcated from girlhood, if a woman got pregnant at a young age, she married her boyfriend; and, expecting early marriage and kids, she wouldn’t have invested too heavily in her education in any case, and she would have chosen work that she could drop in and out of as family demands required.
In 1970, the average age of first-time American mothers was younger than twenty-two. Today, more women postpone marriage until they are ready for it. (Early marriages are notoriously unstable, so, if you’re glad that the divorce rate is down, you can, in part, thank Roe.) Women can also postpone childbearing until they are prepared for it, which takes some serious doing in a country that lacks paid parental leave and affordable childcare, and where discrimination against pregnant women and mothers is still widespread. For all the hand-wringing about lower birth rates, most women— eighty-six per cent of them —still become mothers. They just do it later, and have fewer children.
Most women don’t enter fields that require years of graduate-school education, but all women have benefitted from having larger numbers of women in those fields. It was female lawyers, for example, who brought cases that opened up good blue-collar jobs to women. Without more women obtaining law degrees, would men still be shaping all our legislation? Without the large numbers of women who have entered the medical professions, would psychiatrists still be telling women that they suffered from penis envy and were masochistic by nature? Would women still routinely undergo unnecessary hysterectomies? Without increased numbers of women in academia, and without the new field of women’s studies, would children still be taught, as I was, that, a hundred years ago this month, Woodrow Wilson “gave” women the vote? There has been a revolution in every field, and the women in those fields have led it.
It is frequently pointed out that the states passing abortion restrictions and bans are states where women’s status remains particularly low. Take Alabama. According to one study , by almost every index—pay, workforce participation, percentage of single mothers living in poverty, mortality due to conditions such as heart disease and stroke—the state scores among the worst for women. Children don’t fare much better: according to U.S. News rankings , Alabama is the worst state for education. It also has one of the nation’s highest rates of infant mortality (only half the counties have even one ob-gyn), and it has refused to expand Medicaid, either through the Affordable Care Act or on its own. Only four women sit in Alabama’s thirty-five-member State Senate, and none of them voted for the ban. Maybe that’s why an amendment to the bill proposed by State Senator Linda Coleman-Madison was voted down. It would have provided prenatal care and medical care for a woman and child in cases where the new law prevents the woman from obtaining an abortion. Interestingly, the law allows in-vitro fertilization, a procedure that often results in the discarding of fertilized eggs. As Clyde Chambliss, the bill’s chief sponsor in the state senate, put it, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” In other words, life only begins at conception if there’s a woman’s body to control.
Indifference to women and children isn’t an oversight. This is why calls for better sex education and wider access to birth control are non-starters, even though they have helped lower the rate of unwanted pregnancies, which is the cause of abortion. The point isn’t to prevent unwanted pregnancy. (States with strong anti-abortion laws have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country; Alabama is among them.) The point is to roll back modernity for women.
So, if women who have never had an abortion, and don’t expect to, think that the new restrictions and bans won’t affect them, they are wrong. The new laws will fall most heavily on poor women, disproportionately on women of color, who have the highest abortion rates and will be hard-pressed to travel to distant clinics.
But without legal, accessible abortion, the assumptions that have shaped all women’s lives in the past few decades—including that they, not a torn condom or a missed pill or a rapist, will decide what happens to their bodies and their futures—will change. Women and their daughters will have a harder time, and there will be plenty of people who will say that they were foolish to think that it could be otherwise.
By Jia Tolentino
By Isaac Chotiner
By Peter Slevin
Statement: Reproductive rights are women’s rights and human rights
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Reproductive rights are integral to women’s rights, a fact that is upheld by international agreements and reflected in law in different parts of the world.
To be able to exercise their human rights and make essential decisions, women need to be able to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to information, education, and services.
When safe and legal access to abortion is restricted, women are forced to resort to less-safe methods, too often with damaging or disastrous results—especially for women who are affected by poverty or marginalization, including minority women.
The ability of women to control what happens to their own bodies is also associated with the roles women are able to play in society, whether as a member of the family, the workforce, or government.
UN Women remains steadfast in our determination to ensure that the rights of women and girls are fully observed and enjoyed worldwide, and we look forward to continued evidence-based engagement with our partners everywhere in support of rapid progress towards universal enjoyment of universal rights.
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The Making of the Right to Abortion
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, two aclu board members made it their mission to make reproductive freedom a civil liberties issue..
By Leigh Ann Wheeler October 18, 2019
“I am far from being a feminist,” Dorothy Kenyon announced in 1968 to colleagues on the American Civil Liberties Union’s national board. But I “care passionately for fair play,” she assured them. Harriet Pilpel , another prominent board member, also distanced herself from feminism — so much so that, in 1973, self-identified feminists who had recently joined the board whispered that Pilpel did not “consider Feminist concerns her own or savor the bonds of sisterhood.”
To Kenyon and Pilpel, feminism smacked of man-hating. Worse, it threatened to undermine the camaraderie they had long relied on to persuade male board members to treat women’s rights as civil liberties. Even so, in the 1950s and 1960s, Kenyon and Pilpel introduced their colleagues on the ACLU board — mostly men — to the idea that laws against abortion might involve civil liberties, and they did so in surprising ways and within unlikely contexts.
Dorothy Kenyon, July 31, 1939. (Photo by Barney Stein/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
‘Self-Determination in Childbearing’
The men who led the early ACLU in the 1920s were familiar with abortion. As participants in the sexually experimental social scene that distinguished Greenwich Village, many appreciated that abortion, even though illegal, could provide a back-up when contraception failed. Roger Baldwin , a founder and longtime director of the ACLU, for example, knew that his aversion to fatherhood led his first wife to have at least one abortion.
Even so, in the beginning of the 1930s, after becoming one of the only female board members, Dorothy Kenyon tried repeatedly and without success to raise the issue of abortion. Harriet Pilpel was younger than Kenyon by more than two decades and did not join the board until the 1960s. But by 1936, she was already working with her law partner Morris Ernst to overturn laws against birth control, and by the 1940s, she advocated repeal of all laws that criminalized common sexual practices, including those against abortion.
Kenyon did not convince the board even to discuss abortion as a possible civil liberties matter until 1956 , and only after a Virginia-based contributor, Jules E. Bernfeld , urged the ACLU to go after laws that prevented “self-determination in childbearing.” But that discussion resulted in no action; board members concluded that abortion fell outside their purview, because they could not determine when life begins. That, Kenyon argued, was not the point. Women must have the “right to choose what shall happen to their bodies,” she insisted. Nevertheless, the ACLU decided to leave the matter to “social agencies in the field.”
Kenyon gained a new ally a couple of years later when Melvin Wulf arrived as the ACLU’s assistant legal director. Wulf made no secret of his support for abortion rights or of his personal familiarity with the issue. After arguing in Poe v. Ullman (1960) — unsuccessfully, it turned out — that laws against birth control violated rights to privacy, he considered the possibility of attacking laws against abortion on the same grounds.
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Ironically, although leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America ( PPFA ), represented by Harriet Pilpel in Poe , sided with Wulf, they were reluctant to envision birth control on a continuum with abortion. After all, they had worked for decades to distinguish birth control from abortion as a strategy for destigmatizing and legalizing it. They had, in fact, argued that birth control was abortion’s antithesis because it would prevent abortions, not make them more available.
Abortion Rights Begin to Go Mainstream
Even as the ACLU and PPFA coordinated a campaign to overturn laws against birth control, others were developing a full-blown movement focused on legalizing what they called therapeutic abortion. First among them was the American Law Institute (ALI), an organization of leading attorneys and judges who had worked, since 1951, to create a “ Model Penal Code ” that would guide state legislatures in reforming their criminal laws.
By the late 1950s, the ALI recommended legalization of therapeutic abortions, defined as abortions performed by physicians to end a pregnancy that threatened the mental or physical health of the woman or one with severe fetal anomolies. “[R]ape, incest, or other felonious” intercourse might also justify an abortion.
As if on cue, the 1960s brought a wide range of new demands for abortion — from women who helped to generate the decade’s sexual revolution to women who wanted to control the number and spacing of their children. Discoveries that thalidomide and rubella caused serious fetal anomalies emerged in the middle of a rubella epidemic and also brought new supporters to the movement to legalize therapeutic abortion.
By the middle of the 1960s, high-profile allies included the Christian Century magazine and the National Council of Churches, as well as a number of mainstream media outlets, law reviews, deans of law schools, and state medical societies and bar conventions. Meanwhile, abortion law reform groups formed all over the country and demanded “humane abortion laws,” beginning in California when the legislature considered bills that would decriminalize therapeutic abortion.
Despite Kenyon’s persistent advocacy, the ACLU came late to the issue. In 1963, even the director of its most progressive affiliate — the one in Southern California — insisted that “there is no prospect that the ACLU will regard ‘Therapeutic abortion’ as a civil liberties matter.”
Even so, just one year later, Harriet Pilpel, recently elected to the national board, brought the issue of abortion to the ACLU’s 1964 Biennial Conference in Boulder, Colorado. Created in the 1950s as a strategy for more fully involving lay members and the affiliates in shaping ACLU policy, the biennial had become the place for activist members to initiate change. Indeed, resolutions passed at biennial meetings became formal policy if the national board did not reject them within 18 months. If the board did object, the resolutions were submitted to a vote by the ACLU’s affiliate boards.
Pilpel went to Boulder determined to come away with a resolution on abortion.
ACLU General Counsel Harriet Pilpel in her office., 1980 (ACLU Archives)
‘There’s Something Wrong With the Laws’
The 1964 biennial had a packed agenda. The meeting was dominated by the civil rights crisis in Mississippi as participants strategized about how the ACLU could help prevent violence from overtaking the summer voting rights project. President John Kennedy’s “war on crime,” another major issue, also occupied attendees, who worried that a war on crime could trigger new abuses of civil liberties.
Pilpel actually presented her appeal for abortion law reform on a panel titled, “Civil Liberties and the War on Crime.” Laws against abortion and other “sex laws” constitute a form of “class legislation,” she argued. They are enforced primarily against the poor and underprivileged who suffer “wholesale violations of civil liberties” through surveillance, entrapment, arbitrary police action, speech repression, and intrusions on their privacy.
Relying heavily on the work of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey , one of her clients , Pilpel claimed that, under these laws, nine out of 10 Americans qualify as sex criminals. “There’s something wrong with the laws,” Pilpel declared, when elites violate them with impunity, while the poor and people of color suffer prosecution and punishment.
“The American Law Institute has pointed the way,” she noted, to establishing a right of sexual privacy that would encompass rights to birth control and abortion. But it was up to the ACLU, she insisted, to tease out and defend the civil liberties issues involved.
Pilpel prevailed over the opposition of a vocal minority. The 1964 biennial voted to adopt ALI’s recommendation to decriminalize private sexual conduct by consenting adults and instructed the ACLU to explore the constitutionality of abortion laws. She was delighted.
In addition to moving sexual rights, in general, and abortion, in particular, onto the ACLU’s agenda at the biennial, Pilpel also forged a new and powerful relationship there. “One of the nice things” about the conference, she wrote to Dorothy Kenyon, “was the feeling of having become friends.”
Indeed, the two attended panels together, debated issues, enjoyed sightseeing in the mountains, and later exchanged letters celebrating their newfound friendship. Thereafter, they vacationed together on Martha’s Vineyard and joined forces to persuade the national board to recognize the right to abortion as a matter of civil liberties.
Responding to Pilpel’s triumphant biennial resolution, the national board researched possible constitutional bases for attacking laws against abortion. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) — a major Supreme Court opinion that relied in part on briefs submitted by Pilpel, for PPFA, and Wulf, for the ACLU — soon eased the task. It overturned laws against birth control by finding in the U.S. Constitution a right to privacy, one that ACLU leaders quickly deployed against abortion laws.
Policy details came together more slowly and with a fair bit of acrimony. Even Pilpel and Kenyon disagreed about whether and how a woman’s right to an abortion should be restricted. Others argued that a married woman must obtain her husband’s consent or that the rights of a fetus trumped those of a pregnant woman. Some argued for the rights of the unborn and the state’s interest in preserving fetal life.
Kenyon called the discussions “a shambles of irrelevance and illogic,” and she despaired at seeing civil libertarians steadfastly refusing to apply civil liberties principles to abortion. Like “a Cassandra crying out in the A.C.L.U. wilderness against the crime of our abortion laws and man’s inhumanity to women,” Kenyon denounced the “bodily slavery” that laws against abortion imposed on women. A democracy in which women are “forced by the government to bear children against their will” is a mockery, she insisted. “Only Hitler could create the obscenity of women’s bodies belonging (in this crucial function of theirs) to the state."
Kenyon denounced the “bodily slavery” that laws against abortion imposed on women.
The ACLU, and the Supreme Court, Comes Around
After years of negotiations, the board in 1969 articulated the following policy :
The Union asks that state legislatures abolish all laws imposing criminal penalties for abortions. Total repeal of all such laws will meet these civil liberties criteria.
Kenyon expressed her delight in a letter to Jules Bernfeld, the Virginia donor who helped her persuade the ACLU to discuss abortion for the first time in 1956. “I’m happy as can be,” she wrote him, “that the end seems almost in sight. Isn’t it fun to be almost prophets?”
She also forwarded her original correspondence with Bernfeld to the ACLU’s associate director for preservation as “a footnote to history.” It was to Bernfeld, she added, that “I first made my remark about women’s right to control their own bodies,” an idea that initiated the campaign to repeal abortion laws. “I am free now,” she told another colleague, “to shout abroad that this policy of mine is also that of the A.C.L.U.”
Demonstrators demanding a woman's right to choose march to the U.S. Capitol for a rally seeking repeal of all anti-abortion laws in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 1971. (AP Photo)
The ACLU immediately joined a number of promising abortion cases , including Doe v. Bolton and Roe v. Wade . Pilpel stepped up to recruit and coordinate amicus briefs, hoping to present the strongest case for a woman’s right to abortion by mobilizing social science research and arguments from the medical and legal professions as well as agencies representing the poor, women’s rights, and other “public spirited organizations.” She also planned and executed moot court sessions with the local attorneys who would argue the cases to prepare them for the aggressive questioning they would encounter before the Supreme Court.
Pilpel celebrated on Jan. 23, 1973, when a 7-2 majority on the Supreme Court declared the “right of privacy…broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” The court imposed limits on a pregnant woman’s rights, allowing the state to intrude on her privacy to “safeguard health,” “maintain medical standards,” and “protect potential life.”
To balance the woman’s rights with the state’s interests, the court created a trimester timetable according to which a woman’s rights would give way over the course of the pregnancy to the state’s interest in preserving her health and the life of the fetus. The court also struck down statutes that restricted abortions to particular types of hospitals, required external approval, or imposed residency requirements.
According to ACLU attorneys at the time, the court's opinion immediately invalidated abortion laws in 43 states, including 13 that had recently adopted ALI-type reform legislation. It also halted 30 other abortion cases with which the ACLU and its affiliates were involved and sent state legislatures back to the drawing board — some to challenge the Supreme Court’s holding, others to bring their laws into compliance. The virulent antiabortion movement that emerged inspired the ACLU to develop a long-term strategy for preserving what it came to call reproductive freedom.
Kenyon and Pilpel’s Legacy
Kenyon did not live to see Doe and Roe . Already, in 1969 — even as she exchanged congratulations with Harriet Pilpel and Jules Bernfeld over the ACLU’s new policy on abortion — Kenyon suffered symptoms related to the stomach cancer that would end her life at age 83 in 1972.
Pilpel felt the loss of her friend and co-conspirator keenly. Together, she and Kenyon had — with the crucial help of Wulf and others — moved the ACLU, the nation’s most important civil liberties organization, to recognize and fight for women’s right to abortion, something it continues to do today. They did so before the emergence of second-wave feminism, working within institutions — the ACLU, state legislatures, and the judicial system — that included very few women.
These few women had to persuade men to recognize that laws against abortion violated human rights to control one’s own body — rights that only women and no men sacrificed when sexual intercourse resulted in an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy. Kenyon, Pilpel, and countless others did this in the decades between 1930 and 1970 partly by disavowing feminism, but also by insisting — as First Lady Hillary Clinton would defiantly declare in 1995 in Beijing, China — that women’s rights are human rights. In doing so, they laid groundwork for feminists to take the ACLU and the world by storm.
Leigh Ann Wheeler is professor of history at Binghamton University and the author of "How Sex Became a Civil Liberty" (Oxford University Press, 2014) and "Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). She is currently writing the biography of popular memoirist and civil rights activist Anne Moody.
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The public health case for abortion rights
Joanne rosen from the johns hopkins center for law and the public's health discusses dobbs v. jackson women's health organization, which heads to the supreme court dec. 1.
By Annalies Winny, Alissa Zhu, and Lindsay Smith Rogers
This article is adapted from a special episode of the Public Health On Call podcast called Public Health in the Field. Hear the full episode online .
Editor's note: The terms "woman" and "women" are used throughout this article because that is how the CDC and other sources record related data.
A potentially landmark battle is in play over abortion rights, and it's headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1.
In 2018, the Mississippi legislature passed and the governor signed House Bill 1510, known as the Gestational Age Act, which bans abortions after 15 weeks. There are exceptions if the life of the fetus or parent is at risk—but not in cases of rape or incest. The law violated Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide and protects the right to abortion prior to "viability" of the fetus, which is at around 24 weeks. House Bill 1510 was quickly blocked by lower federal courts but now the law's fate is up to the Supreme Court.
The outcome of this case—Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization—has implications for abortion rights far beyond Mississippi: A decision that previability bans are not unconstitutional could upend longstanding protections established by Roe v. Wade.
The conversation about abortion rights in the U.S. is a noisy one involving politics, precedents, and personal beliefs. What often gets short shrift, however, is the public health reality that restricting access to abortion frequently results in erosion of the health of women, especially low-income women and women of color. This is why abortion is so much more than a legal battle.
According to The Turnaway Study , a 10-year study that followed nearly 1,000 women who either had or were denied abortions, any women who were denied wanted abortions had higher levels of household poverty, debt, evictions, and other economic hardships and instabilities, says Joanne Rosen , associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public's Health.
"The study also found that women who were seeking but unable to obtain abortions endured higher levels of physical violence from the men who had fathered these children," Rosen says. "And people who were turned away when seeking abortions endured more health problems than women who were able to obtain [them], as well as more serious health problems. That gives you a sense of the ways in which being unable to obtain abortions had really long lasting impacts on these peoples' lives."
A 2020 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women living in states with less restrictive reproductive health policies were less likely to give birth to low-weight babies. Other research published in The Lancet found that restrictive abortion laws actually mean a higher rate of abortion-related maternal deaths.
Restrictive abortion laws affect more than just the health of individuals and families—they affect the economy, too. Research from The Lancet found that "ensuring women's access to safe abortion services does lower medical costs for health systems."
The Institute for Women's Policy Research has a host of data around how reproductive health restrictions impact women's earning potential, including an interactive map tool, Total Economic Losses Due to State-level Abortion Restrictions. In Mississippi, for example, the data indicate that removing restrictions to abortion would translate to a 1.8% increase of Black women in the labor force, over 2% for Hispanic women, and a leap of more than 2.6% for women who identify as Asian-Pacific Islander. This same tool calculates that removing restrictions on abortion access would translate to an estimated $13.4 million in increased earnings at the state level for Black women alone.
Abortion restrictions disproportionately affect people of color and those with low-incomes. According to data from the CDC, Black women are five times more likely to have an abortion than white women, and Latinx women are two times as likely as whites. Seventy-five percent of people who have abortions are low-income or poor.
Mississippi, Texas, and the Supreme Court
On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court will hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization and Rosen thinks it's unlikely the court would agree to hear the case if they were just going to affirm the status quo.
The case isn't the only one on the docket, however. Texas' Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, made headlines earlier this month and may impact the court's ultimate decision on the Mississippi case. The high-profile law came before the Supreme Court in November 2021 and Rosen said the important thing to note is that the justices didn't actually address whether the six-week ban is constitutional. Rather, they examined the unusual enforcement scheme of the law—where, when, and by whom the Texas law could be challenged.
Rosen says that the justices may compare the Texas law with the Mississippi law and, when considering a six-week abortion ban, a 15-week ban may seem less extreme. In this way, the Texas case could give the court some cover to uphold Mississippi's 15-week ban.
It's likely to be months before an opinion is released; Rosen says the court typically releases its decisions on high-stakes or controversial cases in June. And high stakes this is: for the future of abortion, for reproductive health rights, and for public health.
Posted in Health , Politics+Society
Tagged supreme court , reproductive health , abortion
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1. americans’ views on whether, and in what circumstances, abortion should be legal.
As the long-running debate over abortion reaches another key moment at the Supreme Court and in state legislatures across the country , a majority of U.S. adults continue to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. About six-in-ten Americans (61%) say abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases, while 37% think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. These views have changed little over the past several years: In 2019, for example, 61% of adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. Most respondents in the new survey took one of the middle options when first asked about their views on abortion, saying either that abortion should be legal in most cases (36%) or illegal in most cases (27%).
Respondents who said abortion should either be legal in all cases or illegal in all cases received a follow-up question asking whether there should be any exceptions to such laws. Overall, 25% of adults initially said abortion should be legal in all cases, but about a quarter of this group (6% of all U.S. adults) went on to say that there should be some exceptions when abortion should be against the law.
One-in-ten adults initially answered that abortion should be illegal in all cases, but about one-in-five of these respondents (2% of all U.S. adults) followed up by saying that there are some exceptions when abortion should be permitted.
Altogether, seven-in-ten Americans say abortion should be legal in some cases and illegal in others, including 42% who say abortion should be generally legal, but with some exceptions, and 29% who say it should be generally illegal, except in certain cases. Much smaller shares take absolutist views when it comes to the legality of abortion in the U.S., maintaining that abortion should be legal in all cases with no exceptions (19%) or illegal in all circumstances (8%).
There is a modest gender gap in views of whether abortion should be legal, with women slightly more likely than men to say abortion should be legal in all cases or in all cases but with some exceptions (63% vs. 58%).
Younger adults are considerably more likely than older adults to say abortion should be legal: Three-quarters of adults under 30 (74%) say abortion should be generally legal, including 30% who say it should be legal in all cases without exception.
But there is an even larger gap in views toward abortion by partisanship: 80% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 38% of Republicans and GOP leaners. Previous Center research has shown this gap widening over the past 15 years.
Still, while partisans diverge in views of whether abortion should mostly be legal or illegal, most Democrats and Republicans do not view abortion in absolutist terms. Just 13% of Republicans say abortion should be against the law in all cases without exception; 47% say it should be illegal with some exceptions. And while three-in-ten Democrats say abortion should be permitted in all circumstances, half say it should mostly be legal – but with some exceptions.
There also are sizable divisions within both partisan coalitions by ideology. For instance, while a majority of moderate and liberal Republicans say abortion should mostly be legal (60%), just 27% of conservative Republicans say the same. Among Democrats, self-described liberals are twice as apt as moderates and conservatives to say abortion should be legal in all cases without exception (42% vs. 20%).
Regardless of partisan affiliation, adults who say they personally know someone who has had an abortion – such as a friend, relative or themselves – are more likely to say abortion should be legal than those who say they do not know anyone who had an abortion.
Views toward abortion also vary considerably by religious affiliation – specifically among large Christian subgroups and religiously unaffiliated Americans.
For example, roughly three-quarters of White evangelical Protestants say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. This is far higher than the share of White non-evangelical Protestants (38%) or Black Protestants (28%) who say the same.
Despite Catholic teaching on abortion , a slim majority of U.S. Catholics (56%) say abortion should be legal. This includes 13% who say it should be legal in all cases without exception, and 43% who say it should be legal, but with some exceptions.
Compared with Christians, religiously unaffiliated adults are far more likely to say abortion should be legal overall – and significantly more inclined to say it should be legal in all cases without exception. Within this group, atheists stand out: 97% say abortion should be legal, including 53% who say it should be legal in all cases without exception. Agnostics and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” also overwhelmingly say that abortion should be legal, but they are more likely than atheists to say there are some circumstances when abortion should be against the law.
Although the survey was conducted among Americans of many religious backgrounds, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, it did not obtain enough respondents from non-Christian groups to report separately on their responses.
Abortion at various stages of pregnancy
As a growing number of states debate legislation to restrict abortion – often after a certain stage of pregnancy – Americans express complex views about when abortion should generally be legal and when it should be against the law. Overall, a majority of adults (56%) say that how long a woman has been pregnant should matter in determining when abortion should be legal, while far fewer (14%) say that this should not be a factor. An additional one-quarter of the public says that abortion should either be legal (19%) or illegal (8%) in all circumstances without exception; these respondents did not receive this question.
Among men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and Christians and religious “nones” who do not take absolutist positions about abortion on either side of the debate, the prevailing view is that the stage of the pregnancy should be a factor in determining whether abortion should be legal.
Americans broadly are more likely to favor restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy than earlier in pregnancy. Many adults also say the legality of abortion depends on other factors at every stage of pregnancy.
One-in-five Americans (21%) say abortion should be illegal at six weeks. This includes 8% of adults who say abortion should be illegal in all cases without exception as well as 12% of adults who say that abortion should be illegal at this point. Additionally, 6% say abortion should be illegal in most cases and how long a woman has been pregnant should not matter in determining abortion’s legality. Nearly one-in-five respondents, when asked whether abortion should be legal six weeks into a pregnancy, say “it depends.”
Americans are more divided about what should be permitted 14 weeks into a pregnancy – roughly at the end of the first trimester – although still, more people say abortion should be legal at this stage (34%) than illegal (27%), and about one-in-five say “it depends.”
Fewer adults say abortion should be legal 24 weeks into a pregnancy – about when a healthy fetus could survive outside the womb with medical care. At this stage, 22% of adults say abortion should be legal, while nearly twice as many (43%) say it should be illegal . Again, about one-in-five adults (18%) say whether abortion should be legal at 24 weeks depends on other factors.
Respondents who said that abortion should be illegal 24 weeks into a pregnancy or that “it depends” were asked a follow-up question about whether abortion at that point should be legal if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or the baby would be born with severe disabilities. Most who received this question say abortion in these circumstances should be legal (54%) or that it depends on other factors (40%). Just 4% of this group maintained that abortion should be illegal in this case.
This pattern in views of abortion – whereby more favor greater restrictions on abortion as a pregnancy progresses – is evident across a variety of demographic and political groups.
Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say that abortion should be legal at each of the three stages of pregnancy asked about on the survey. For example, while 26% of Republicans say abortion should be legal at six weeks of pregnancy, more than twice as many Democrats say the same (61%). Similarly, while about a third of Democrats say abortion should be legal at 24 weeks of pregnancy, just 8% of Republicans say the same.
However, neither Republicans nor Democrats uniformly express absolutist views about abortion throughout a pregnancy. Republicans are divided on abortion at six weeks: Roughly a quarter say it should be legal (26%), while a similar share say it depends (24%). A third say it should be illegal.
Democrats are divided about whether abortion should be legal or illegal at 24 weeks, with 34% saying it should be legal, 29% saying it should be illegal, and 21% saying it depends.
There also is considerable division among each partisan group by ideology. At six weeks of pregnancy, just one-in-five conservative Republicans (19%) say that abortion should be legal; moderate and liberal Republicans are twice as likely as their conservative counterparts to say this (39%).
At the same time, about half of liberal Democrats (48%) say abortion at 24 weeks should be legal, while 17% say it should be illegal. Among conservative and moderate Democrats, the pattern is reversed: A plurality (39%) say abortion at this stage should be illegal, while 24% say it should be legal.
Christian adults are far less likely than religiously unaffiliated Americans to say abortion should be legal at each stage of pregnancy.
Among Protestants, White evangelicals stand out for their opposition to abortion. At six weeks of pregnancy, for example, 44% say abortion should be illegal, compared with 17% of White non-evangelical Protestants and 15% of Black Protestants. This pattern also is evident at 14 and 24 weeks of pregnancy, when half or more of White evangelicals say abortion should be illegal.
At six weeks, a plurality of Catholics (41%) say abortion should be legal, while smaller shares say it depends or it should be illegal. But by 24 weeks, about half of Catholics (49%) say abortion should be illegal.
Among adults who are religiously unaffiliated, atheists stand out for their views. They are the only group in which a sizable majority says abortion should be legal at each point in a pregnancy. Even at 24 weeks, 62% of self-described atheists say abortion should be legal, compared with smaller shares of agnostics (43%) and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” (31%).
As is the case with adults overall, most religiously affiliated and religiously unaffiliated adults who originally say that abortion should be illegal or “it depends” at 24 weeks go on to say either it should be legal or it depends if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or the baby would be born with severe disabilities. Few (4% and 5%, respectively) say abortion should be illegal at 24 weeks in these situations.
Abortion and circumstances of pregnancy
The stage of the pregnancy is not the only factor that shapes people’s views of when abortion should be legal. Sizable majorities of U.S. adults say that abortion should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the pregnant woman (73%) or if pregnancy is the result of rape (69%).
There is less consensus when it comes to circumstances in which a baby may be born with severe disabilities or health problems: 53% of Americans overall say abortion should be legal in such circumstances, including 19% who say abortion should be legal in all cases and 35% who say there are some situations where abortions should be illegal, but that it should be legal in this specific type of case. A quarter of adults say “it depends” in this situation, and about one-in-five say it should be illegal (10% who say illegal in this specific circumstance and 8% who say illegal in all circumstances).
There are sizable divides between and among partisans when it comes to views of abortion in these situations. Overall, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to say abortion should be legal in each of the three circumstances outlined in the survey. However, both partisan groups are less likely to say abortion should be legal when the baby may be born with severe disabilities or health problems than when the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Just as there are wide gaps among Republicans by ideology on whether how long a woman has been pregnant should be a factor in determining abortion’s legality, there are large gaps when it comes to circumstances in which abortions should be legal. For example, while a clear majority of moderate and liberal Republicans (71%) say abortion should be permitted when the pregnancy is the result of rape, conservative Republicans are more divided. About half (48%) say it should be legal in this situation, while 29% say it should be illegal and 21% say it depends.
The ideological gaps among Democrats are slightly less pronounced. Most Democrats say abortion should be legal in each of the three circumstances – just to varying degrees. While 77% of liberal Democrats say abortion should be legal if a baby will be born with severe disabilities or health problems, for example, a smaller majority of conservative and moderate Democrats (60%) say the same.
White evangelical Protestants again stand out for their views on abortion in various circumstances; they are far less likely than White non-evangelical or Black Protestants to say abortion should be legal across each of the three circumstances described in the survey.
While about half of White evangelical Protestants (51%) say abortion should be legal if a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, clear majorities of other Protestant groups and Catholics say this should be the case. The same pattern holds in views of whether abortion should be legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape. Most White non-evangelical Protestants (75%), Black Protestants (71%) and Catholics (66%) say abortion should be permitted in this instance, while White evangelicals are more divided: 40% say it should be legal, while 34% say it should be illegal and about a quarter say it depends.
Mirroring the pattern seen among adults overall, opinions are more varied about a situation where a baby might be born with severe disabilities or health issues. For instance, half of Catholics say abortion should be legal in such cases, while 21% say it should be illegal and 27% say it depends on the situation.
Most religiously unaffiliated adults – including overwhelming majorities of self-described atheists – say abortion should be legal in each of the three circumstances.
Parental notification for minors seeking abortion
Seven-in-ten U.S. adults say that doctors or other health care providers should be required to notify a parent or legal guardian if the pregnant woman seeking an abortion is under 18, while 28% say they should not be required to do so.
Women are slightly less likely than men to say this should be a requirement (67% vs. 74%). And younger adults are far less likely than those who are older to say a parent or guardian should be notified before a doctor performs an abortion on a pregnant woman who is under 18. In fact, about half of adults ages 18 to 24 (53%) say a doctor should not be required to notify a parent. By contrast, 64% of adults ages 25 to 29 say doctors should be required to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion, as do 68% of adults ages 30 to 49 and 78% of those 50 and older.
A large majority of Republicans (85%) say that a doctor should be required to notify the parents of a minor before an abortion, though conservative Republicans are somewhat more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans to take this position (90% vs. 77%).
The ideological divide is even more pronounced among Democrats. Overall, a slim majority of Democrats (57%) say a parent should be notified in this circumstance, but while 72% of conservative and moderate Democrats hold this view, just 39% of liberal Democrats agree.
By and large, most Protestant (81%) and Catholic (78%) adults say doctors should be required to notify parents of minors before an abortion. But religiously unaffiliated Americans are more divided. Majorities of both atheists (71%) and agnostics (58%) say doctors should not be required to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion, while six-in-ten of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” say such notification should be required.
Penalties for abortions performed illegally
Americans are divided over who should be penalized – and what that penalty should be – in a situation where an abortion occurs illegally.
Overall, a 60% majority of adults say that if a doctor or provider performs an abortion in a situation where it is illegal, they should face a penalty. But there is less agreement when it comes to others who may have been involved in the procedure.
While about half of the public (47%) says a woman who has an illegal abortion should face a penalty, a nearly identical share (50%) says she should not. And adults are more likely to say people who help find and schedule or pay for an abortion in a situation where it is illegal should not face a penalty than they are to say they should.
Views about penalties are closely correlated with overall attitudes about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. For example, just 20% of adults who say abortion should be legal in all cases without exception think doctors or providers should face a penalty if an abortion were carried out in a situation where it was illegal. This compares with 91% of those who think abortion should be illegal in all cases without exceptions. Still, regardless of how they feel about whether abortion should be legal or not, Americans are more likely to say a doctor or provider should face a penalty compared with others involved in the procedure.
Among those who say medical providers and/or women should face penalties for illegal abortions, there is no consensus about whether they should get jail time or a less severe punishment. Among U.S. adults overall, 14% say women should serve jail time if they have an abortion in a situation where it is illegal, while 16% say they should receive a fine or community service and 17% say they are not sure what the penalty should be.
A somewhat larger share of Americans (25%) say doctors or other medical providers should face jail time for providing illegal abortion services, while 18% say they should face fines or community service and 17% are not sure. About three-in-ten U.S. adults (31%) say doctors should lose their medical license if they perform an abortion in a situation where it is illegal.
Men are more likely than women to favor penalties for the woman or doctor in situations where abortion is illegal. About half of men (52%) say women should face a penalty, while just 43% of women say the same. Similarly, about two-thirds of men (64%) say a doctor should face a penalty, while 56% of women agree.
Republicans are considerably more likely than Democrats to say both women and doctors should face penalties – including jail time. For example, 21% of Republicans say the woman who had the abortion should face jail time, and 40% say this about the doctor who performed the abortion. Among Democrats, far smaller shares say the woman (8%) or doctor (13%) should serve jail time.
White evangelical Protestants are more likely than other Protestant groups to favor penalties for abortions in situations where they are illegal. Fully 24% say the woman who had the abortion should serve time in jail, compared with just 12% of White non-evangelical Protestants or Black Protestants. And while about half of White evangelicals (48%) say doctors who perform illegal abortions should serve jail time, just 26% of White non-evangelical Protestants and 18% of Black Protestants share this view.
- Only respondents who said that abortion should be legal in some cases but not others and that how long a woman has been pregnant should matter in determining whether abortion should be legal received questions about abortion’s legality at specific points in the pregnancy. ↩
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Table of contents, majority of public disapproves of supreme court’s decision to overturn roe v. wade, wide partisan gaps in abortion attitudes, but opinions in both parties are complicated, key facts about the abortion debate in america, about six-in-ten americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, fact sheet: public opinion on abortion, most popular.
About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .
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- Abortion , Women Rights
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In spite of the fact that unborn baby removal has generally been a challenged issue, modern talks and their individual social on-screen characters have risen up out of the pressures of this change all period. Current discussion over the issue is dug in a developing snare of institutional vacuums that in the course of at least the last 20 years bear witness to mounting strains between another worldwide model of creation and use and organizations that relate to a former period. As the social request of mechanical invention of new things bit by bit spreads around, new ways of life ask lots of questions about organizations that are never again customized to everyday needs. New, interesting ideas of existence produced by significant extra and mechanical changes that Castellscalls “the second modern change” (Castells, 2010, p. 23), offer rise to progressively spoke unclearly and useless establishments putrefying with battles.
Since the Tea Party wave helped arm Republicans with a mind larger part in theU.S. Place of Representatives in 2010 and added to Republican victories for senator and state lawmaking bodies in 25 expresses, the counter premature birth law of the Republican stage has driven the greater part of their state and government legislative efforts (2012 Republican Party platform, in Life Issues Institute, 2012).15 During the previous five years, states have received 288 laws confining unborn baby removal. While 31 states have gone somewhere around one enemy of unborn baby removal measure, one-fifth of allstate governments have established something like 10 new confinements, representing 60 percent of the aggregate premature birth restrictions received somewhere in the range of 2010 and 2015 (Nash, Benson, Gold, Rathburn and Ansari-Thomas, 2015). The Webster (1989) and Casey(1992) Supreme Court decisions flagged green lights to state association in unborn baby removal politics (Rose, 2007). Therefore, a definitely merged biopolitical anti abortion position has been especially clearly said in Southern and Midwestern states. With Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, and Oklahoma piling up 33% of all national unborn baby removal confinements, (Guttmacher Institute, 2016) this developing natural tendency has aggressively cut out a geopolitical break of provincially separated prematurely birth policies. Absolutely clear errors over the importance of human multiplication, the points of confinement of ladies’ command over their bodies, and access to premature birth administrations are differentially educating ladies’ regular day to day existences and molding unique sexual orientation stories in different parts of the nation, reinforced in this case by religious cases.
Of the 514 arrangements thought about in 2015, a mind greater part of 396, in 46 states, were gone for restricting ladies’ entrance to unborn baby removal(Guttmacher Institute, 2016). These arrangements fall into five important categories:1) holding up periods, pregnancy-screening (times of moving ahead or up), and directing; 2) decrease of legal/real and true time portions; 3) denial of unborn baby removal making someone or something do prescription; 4) premature birth forbiddances for private insurance agencies; 5) TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of abortion Providers). Together they speak to an changing gutting of premature birth access in a great part of the United States, especially for low-salary ladies.
Holding up times of somewhere in the range of 24 and 72 hours have been ordered in 18 states, with 13 requiring two specialist’s visits previously the method. Adding to financial, business related, or family costs, especially to work ladies who don’t live close to the facility, passionate pressure may also be connected to dragging out the procedure. This can be intensified by required guiding, by and large by enemies of premature birth, that is now required in 24 states. Ordered survey of ultrasound exams in 15 states, and tuning in to hatchling pulses in others, could be viewed as a type of sex specific, mental evil violence in the view of worldwide human rights organizations. Dealing with that, Pennsylvania’s representative denied abusing ladies’ rights, expressing: “You simply need to close your eyes” (Bassett, 2012). In a ongoing report, Kimport found that instead of discouraging ladies from proceeding with a premature birth, these measures shape along and boring message that shows ladies as unequipped for making right choices (Kimport, 2016).
In any case, these negative results for ladies’ wellbeing and lives were push aside by the ongoing Supreme Court judgment in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case on June 27, 2016. The 5-3 larger part denied the idea-based gridlock of the separated court left by the end of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, refocusing premature birth enactment for quite a long time to come. Putting the unnecessary weight standard of Casey(1992) at the inside, the greater part feeling guesses based on what’s known that neither the doctor’s facility’s agreeing benefits need for specialists performing premature births, nor the careful focus requirement for unborn baby removal centers, offer “health advantages (good) enough to make acceptable the weights upon access that each forces” (Whole Woman’s Health v. For hell’s sake erstedt, 2016, p. 7). The judgment clearly promises that the two needs constitute an unnecessary weight on premature birth get to, in this manner ignoring the fourteenth Change of the Constitution.18 Through restored drawing attention to something on the unnecessary weight standard, the court as time went on highlights convincing state excited interest in something for ladies’ rights. As noted in the decision, Casey’s focus on convincing state excited interest in something for “developing life” in the middle of the whole pregnancy could be confused on state levels in manners that are prejudicial to ladies (Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016, p.44). The Hellerstedt judgment changes this suspicious thing, changing ladies’ entitlement to premature birth access without unnecessary weight, until reasonability (Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016, p. 44). With its drawing attention to something on both unnecessary weight and ability to actually be done, this judgment has been given the most extremely important unborn baby removal case in over 20 years.
Since its legitimization in 1973, unborn baby removal in the United States has turned into an increasingly challenged issue. Disagreeing talks, connected to religious or common explanations of social reality, have made premature birth a focal issue of their reality sees. In spite of the fact that the subject has truly educated religious and philosophical dialogs of morals and life respects, current strains are connected to our specific transitional setting between two helpful and new and interesting models and resulting changes in social examples. The change from a steady, complete, mechanical request to a divided, globalized, postindustrial model has made a inability to speak between antiquated modern foundations and the ordinary needs of quick paced, constantly changing, modern ways of life. As social and political organizations have been changing quickly as needed sapped of their firm, basic ability to hold or do something, institutional vacuums welcome way of thinking contests that go after the benefit of social importance. Fighting separationist and religious points of view take a stab at organizational representation, trying to fill these voids.
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Why Abortion Rights Keep Winning in Red States
When given a choice between prohibition and expansive abortion rights, Americans seem to prefer the latter.
Abortion foes thought Roe v. Wade ’s reversal would usher in a more pro-life America by finally clearing the legal obstacles to the eventual abolition of abortion. But that’s not how things are panning out, even in red states. Yesterday in Ohio—which Donald Trump won in 2020—voters approved a state constitutional amendment to make abortion a fundamental right, effectively restoring the reproductive freedom they once enjoyed under Roe .
Ohio is hardly an outlier. In the 17 months since Roe fell, citizens in Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky have voted for measures that protect abortion rights. Even some Republican presidential candidates, who in previous cycles might have pressed for sweeping abortion restrictions, are instead advocating for a 15-week limit , a policy that would protect the large majority of abortions. Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, and a man who has called himself “ the most pro-life president ” in American history, labeled Florida’s de facto abortion ban a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The conservative calls for moderation should sober pro-life activists. Now more than half a century old, their movement seems trapped by internal tensions. Its bold demand for a new society that rests on rights for all humans—born and unborn—has been its singular strength, inspiring a level of devotion matched by few other causes. Having spent countless hours interviewing and observing its activists, I know at least one thing with certainty: They sincerely consider themselves human-rights crusaders. Supporters of abortion rights who don’t see this are underestimating what they’re up against.
Read: The abortion backlash reaches Ohio
The ideals of the pro-life movement have also buoyed anti-abortion sympathies in the broader public amid the fast-rising tides of social liberalization. Although surveys show that the United States is much more supportive of gay rights and gender equality than it was 50 years ago, support for abortion rights has not had a similar increase.
But the movement’s ultimate ambition—the abolition of abortion—is also a call for social revolution that scares Americans, especially now that Roe ’s reversal has brought that revolution to their doorsteps. Just as center-left Democrats turned against police abolitionists in droves, so too have many Republicans rejected the dream of abortion abolitionists in their ranks. For Americans across the political spectrum, calling their local police or Planned Parenthood is sometimes an unfortunate necessity, however ambivalent they might feel about those institutions.
Laws that protected abortion rights were certainly revolutionary way back in the 1960s, but now they are our tradition, deeply embedded in our way of life. Americans from all walks of life have come to rely on these protections. This is no less true of Republicans than Democrats, especially as the GOP’s base has become more working-class. Research shows that women without a college degree are more likely to get an abortion than women with more education.
Even so, it still might be possible for pro-lifers to nudge the nation in their direction by pushing for something well short of abolition, such as a strict national limits on abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a policy for which Republican presidential candidates Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Tim Scott have all voiced support.
But to pursue any such settlement, right-to-life advocates must accept an America remade by 50 years of abortion rights. That is hard. How does any movement set aside the very ambition that drives it? That is the pro-life movement’s dilemma: It can’t easily push for a durable settlement to the abortion conflict without vitiating the ideals that have held it together.
The liberalism of the pro-life movement has been the unacknowledged secret to its success. While socially conservative causes have lost considerable ground since Roe was decided, abortion opinion has been remarkably stable. One explanation is that the core claims of right-to-lifers continue to resonate in a culture committed to the proposition that all human beings are created equally, entitled to life, liberty, and happiness.
That means pro-life and pro-choice activists are fellow children of the Declaration of Independence, fighting over its meaning. Both movements are trying to expand the frontiers of human freedom and equality. The abortion fight is often cast as a culture war that divides Americans into competing worldviews, one liberal, the other theocratic. But it is in fact a fight over what liberalism means.
From the beginning, many right-to-life activists have been inspired by the ideals of freedom and equality, rather than the sexism they are often accused of. Even back in the 1970s, many of the most radical pro-life leaders were hardly Archie Bunker conservatives. Centered in the anti-war, Catholic left, many early radicals saw their activism as part of a broader ethic of nonviolence. One leader, John O’Keefe, was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and aimed to prove his commitment to feminism by adding his wife’s last name to his in 1976, changing it to Cavanaugh-O’Keefe. Unlike O’Keefe, Francis Schaeffer—an early Protestant leader who inspired legions of evangelicals to join the anti-abortion cause—was no lefty, but he still wanted nothing to do with Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign to fight the Equal Rights Amendment. As different as they were, leaders such as O’Keefe and Schaeffer were mostly consumed with, as they put it, “saving babies,” not some retrograde desire to keep women in their place.
Their ranks became more conservative in the ’80s when Protestant fundamentalists enlisted, diminishing what one history of the movement called its early “sixties leftist feel.” Many were openly anti-feminist. Randall Terry, the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, even excluded women from leadership positions.
But if views on gender roles were what animated the movement, then the dramatic rise in gender egalitarianism since the ’80s should have depressed pro-life sentiments and activism. Surveys show , however, that gender traditionalism declined markedly without depressing pro-life opinion. As a consequence, today the gap between the gender ideologies of pro-life and pro-choice citizens is much smaller than it was in the ’80s. Other survey-based research on pro-life activists themselves finds that, compared with other Americans, their views on gender roles are only slightly more conservative.
The vitality of the pro-life movement is partly why the Supreme Court overturned Roe . That the public seemed no less divided over Roe than it had in 1973 gave the Court’s conservative justices room to reconsider it. Had the pro-life movement and the sentiments that power it waned significantly over time, the Court might well have left Roe alone. It would have been just another social issue the Court was a little ahead of, like same-sex marriage. But Roe was never legitimated by the forward march of social attitudes.
Yet as soon as it was overturned, voters turned against the pro-life cause everywhere they could. Of course, citizens often fear the sudden disruption of the status quo, and some research on voting behavior suggests that people are particularly susceptible to such concerns when asked to vote on ballot measures. And naturally, a preference for normality may be especially strong among conservative voters.
That raises an interesting possibility: Although the pro-life movement hasn’t generally been propelled by conservative values, it may be ultimately defeated by them.
Perhaps the best evidence of pro-choice conservatism comes from the purple state of Michigan. In 1972, voters rejected a law that would have made abortion legal in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Fifty years later, in 2022, voters approved a nearly identical ballot measure. The shift can’t be easily explained by dramatic changes in abortion attitudes, which, as I’ve noted, have been remarkably stable since the ’70s.
But while abortion attitudes haven’t changed all that much, nearly everything else has. When the citizens of Michigan rejected abortion rights in 1972, they were affirming the world they knew. They were voting against social revolution. When the state’s citizens took to the polls in 2022, their vote to sustain a long legacy of abortion rights expressed the same essential conservatism. Michigan voters didn’t change. The context did.
For years, pro-choice Boomers have lamented younger generations’ distance from a pre- Roe America. They supposed that Gen Xers and Millennials would be more committed to abortion rights if only they had witnessed the horrors of “back alley” abortions. But America’s emerging pro-choice consensus suggests that the opposite is more true: Our collective distance from a world without Roe makes us reluctant to resurrect it.
Although a reflexive bias toward the status quo is sometimes irrational, that isn’t true in this case. Even those of us—myself included—who have genuine sympathy for the philosophical case against abortion should be uneasy about reimposing broad abortion prohibitions in an America remade by the sexual revolution.
In the era prior to Roe , unplanned pregnancies tended to impose heavy burdens on men, not just women. Men were generally expected to commit to lifelong marriage when their girlfriend got pregnant. Until the 1970s, shotgun marriages were still the norm .
After Roe , though, the sexual revolution unraveled the social expectations that had once distributed the burden of unplanned children more equally. More and more, women were left to go it alone in cases of unplanned pregnancy. Roe itself accelerated this revolution, but it also reduced its costs by giving women something closer to the same freedom from parenthood that men enjoyed. Hence, Roe didn’t simply reject an old conservative social order; ironically, it did some of the work of the old order by attempting to re-create a semblance of equality between the sexes.
That means if abortion were prohibited in this age of sexual freedom, a troubling social experiment would result: compulsory motherhood without demanding anything from men in return. Pro-lifers should accept reality. Absent any agreement on the moral status of the embryo, Americans will never support a radical social revolution on its behalf. They don’t want to live in a nation without abortion any more than they want one without police.
Read: The new pro-life movement has a plan to end abortion
Movement leaders probably can’t afford to surrender that dream and still maintain the dedication of their activists, but they can recognize that their dream won’t be coming true anytime soon. Pro-lifers should also see that flirting with strong-arm tactics—like impeaching a newly elected pro-choice judge in Wisconsin—to achieve what they could not at the polls might backfire by further alienating voters.
Doing so might also undermine a real opportunity to attain durable and meaningful limits on abortion. A 15-week limit is a good one from the point of view of right-to-life advocates. It would move us well past the extremism of Roe , which, with its companion decision ( Doe v. Bolton ), established one of the most radical abortion policies in the world. Yes, Roe and Doe technically permitted third-trimester bans, but they also neutralized them by subjecting such bans to an exception that allowed physicians to perform abortions for any reason they deemed relevant to the health of their patients, including “emotional, psychological, [and] familial” concerns.
One model that might attract bipartisan support is France’s abortion policy: It provides funding for poor women who seek abortion and allows for late-term procedures in rare cases (e.g. severe fetal abnormalities and serious maternal health risks), but also limits abortion to 14 weeks . France’s policy is close to the norm throughout other Western democracies, perhaps because it is consistent with common moral intuitions that predispose us to feel more protective of embryos once they begin to resemble newborns, roughly after the first trimester. Though more restrictive than many pro-choice advocates would prefer, it would still protect the vast majority of abortions, even as it would prevent many thousands of later-term ones that pro-life advocates find most troubling.
Alternatively, pro-lifers could seek more restrictive abortion policies by trying to subvert the will of a pro-choice majority, as they recently attempted to do in Ohio and are contemplating in Wisconsin. Not only does that strategy risk alienating the American public; it also represents a troubling about-face: After decades of rightly insisting that citizens should not be effectively disenfranchised by Roe , pro-lifers are now seeking their marginalization.
It is easy enough for me to say what pro-life activists should do. But as abortion foes weigh their options, they should remember what our post- Roe politics has revealed: When given a choice between prohibition and expansive abortion rights, Americans seem to prefer the latter—and they have good conservative reasons for doing so.
This article was originally published on October 10, 2023. It was updated at 8:56 a.m. ET on November 8, 2023.
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Reproductive Rights in the US: Timeline
By: Lesley Kennedy
Updated: July 13, 2023 | Original: January 23, 2023
Protections and regulations around contraception and abortion have been subject to laws and legislation in the U.S. since the 1800s.
Prior to 1821, abortions were generally accessible and were often performed by midwives, as well as doctors. That changed as women’s reproductive rights in the United States became more contentious. A 1873 case established federal control over contraception distribution. By 1960, women's access to contraception broadened with FDA approval of "the Pill."
Below is a timeline of court cases and more, from the nation’s first statutory abortion regulation in 1821 to efforts to control the distribution and use of contraception, to the Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade .
19th Century - Bans on Abortion, Contraception
1821 : The Connecticut General Assembly passes the first U.S. law banning medicinal abortion after the “quickening” stage (when fetal movement is detected, generally around the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy). Punishment is a life sentence for the provider of the poison administered to perform the procedure.
1857 : Led by Horatio Storer, the American Medical Association campaigns to make abortion illegal in the United States. “We are the physical guardians of women,” the group’s 1859 report on “criminal abortion” stated. “The case is here of life or death—and it depends, almost wholly, upon ourselves.” By 1860, more than 20 states had criminalized the procedure.
1869 : The Catholic Church’s Pope Pius IX declares abortions at any stage of pregnancy punishable by excommunication.
March 3, 1873 : The Comstock A ct is passed by the U.S. Congress, making it a federal crime to sell or distribute contraception through the mail or across state lines. Drafted by Anthony Comstock, a devout Christian known for his crusade against prostitution, pornography and birth control, the statute terms birth control as “obscene.”
Soon after the federal act is passed, 24 states enact their own laws to restrict access to contraception at a state level. In Connecticut, the act of using birth control becomes prohibited by law. The law is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965.
Early 20th Century - Planned Parenthood Launches
October 16, 1916 : Margaret Sanger opens the country’s first birth control clinic in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Nine days later police shut down the clinic and arrest Sanger, her sister, Ethel Byrne, a registered nurse, and Fania Mindell, an interpreter.
After serving 30 days in prison, Sanger goes on to launch the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York and the American Birth Control League, which later merge to form Planned Parenthood. One of 11 children, Sanger, a nurse, blamed her mother’s death on the toll of those pregnancies.
“Sanger strongly believed that the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty,” according to the National Women’s History Museum .
December 7, 1936 : A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of an amendment to the Comstock laws in United States v. One Package , making it legal for doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines. Sanger had worked behind the scenes to ensure the amendment reached the court. The ruling paves the way for new advances in contraception since physicians can now mail contraceptives to patients throughout the country.
1960s - ‘The Pill’ Approved, The San Francisco Nine Sued
May 9, 1960 : Enovid, better known as “The Pill,” gains FDA approval , making it the nation’s first oral contraceptive. The IUD is granted similar approval in 1968. The advances offer U.S. women female-controlled birth control methods.
June 7, 1965 : In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court rules in Griswold v. Connecticut that the U.S. Constitution protects marital privacy rights, striking down Connecticut’s contraception ban for married people. The decision introduces the right to privacy argument, which will later be applied in Roe v. Wade .
1966 : In what becomes known as the case of the San Francisco Nine , nine San Francisco doctors are sued by the California State Board of Medical Examiners for performing abortions on women exposed to rubella, known to cause miscarriage, stillbirth and severe birth defects. Doctors nationwide and California’s medical school deans rally in defense of the doctors, and the cases are dropped in 1970.
April 25, 1967 : Colorado becomes the first state to loosen abortion restrictions , allowing the procedure if a woman’s physical or mental health are at risk, in the cases of rape (including statutory) or incest and if the pregnancy is likely to result in birth defects. Eleven states soon follow suit.
1970s - States Legalize Abortion, Roe v. Wade Established
1970 : Four states–Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington–legalize abortion. Health officials estimate that more than 400,000 abortions are performed in New York in the first two years after the practice was legalized. Hawaii, Alaska and Washington restrict abortions to women from out of state by requiring a minimum period of residency within their state's borders to qualify.
March 22, 1972 : In Eisenstadt v. Baird , the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, strikes down a Massachusetts law against distributing contraceptives to unmarried women or men, citing the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
"If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child," Justice William J. Brennan Jr. writes in the ruling .
January 22, 1973 : In the landmark case Roe v. Wade , the Supreme Court rules 7-2 that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment . It strikes down a Texas law banning abortions, effectively making the procedure legal nationwide. The decision finds a woman has full rights to an abortion in the first trimester, that states can regulate the procedure in the second trimester and that states can ban abortion in the third trimester, after fetal viability or when a woman’s health is in danger.
September 30, 1976 : The bipartisan Hyde Amendment is passed by Congress, blocking the use of federal Medicaid dollars to be used for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or to protect a woman’s life. Amended versions of the amendment have been included in the federal government’s annual appropriations legislation ever since.
July 1, 1976 : In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth , strikes down parts of a Missouri statute requiring consent of a married woman’s husband or a minor’s parent before she can receive an abortion.
1980s - Abortion Provisions Struck Down
June 15, 1983 : In City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health , the Supreme Court rules 6-3 to strike down abortion provisions in an Akron, Ohio ordinance requiring a 24-hour waiting period, procedures in the first trimester to take place in hospitals and informed consent.
''It is fair to say that much of the information required is designed not to inform the woman's consent but rather to persuade her to withhold it altogether,''Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in the decision .
August 1984 : The Ronald Reagan administration institutes the Mexico City Policy, better known as the global gag rule , barring foreign non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, who receive U.S. funding from performing or promoting abortion. “[T]he United States does not consider abortion an acceptable element of family planning programs and will no longer contribute to those of which it is a part,” the original policy stated.
It is subsequently rescinded and reinstated, most recently rescinded by President Joe Biden in 2021. In 1991, in Rust v. Sullivan , the rule was upheld by the Supreme Court.
1990s - Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ‘Morning After Pill’ Approved
June 29, 1992 : In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey , the Supreme Court upholds its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, reaffirming a woman’s right to an abortion . But the contentious 5-4 decision alters Roe , and also upholds abortion restrictions in the Pennsylvania law, giving states more authority to regulate the procedure. “The woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy before viability is the most central principle of Roe v. Wade,” the majority authors wrote . “It is a rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce.″
September 2, 1998 : The FDA approves Preven, better known as the “ morning after pill ,” emergency contraception that, when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, causes a 75 percent reduction in the risk of pregnancy. In 1999, it approves the prescription-only oral emergency contraception Plan B . In 2006, Plan B is approved over-the-counter to those 18 and older.
2000s - States Restrict Abortions, Roe v. Wade Overturned
January 18, 2006 : In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court finds in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England that a New Hampshire statute requiring parental consent prior to an abortion is unconstitutional as it lacks a medical emergency exception.
April 18, 2007 : The Supreme Court rules 5-4 in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America to uphold the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, effectively giving Congress the right to ban abortions after the first trimester without exception for a woman’s health.
March 23, 2010 : The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is enacted. It includes a mandate that any FDA-approved birth control method be available to those with insurance with no copay or deductible.
June 27, 2016 : In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court cites undue burden in striking down a Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of the clinic and that facilities offering abortion services meet strict ambulatory surgical center building standards.
September 1, 2021 : Texas enacts SB 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act , banning abortions after six weeks, or when an embryo’s heartbeat can be detected, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The act includes the right for any private citizen to sue any person who “aids or abets” an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
June 24, 2022 : The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturns Roe v. Wade (reaffirmed in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey ) that had provided a constitutional right to an abortion since 1973. The ruling leaves abortion laws up to the states. The case surrounded a Mississippi abortion ban at 15 weeks for medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormalities only.
July 13, 2023 : The FDA approves a birth control pill, called Opill, to be sold without a prescription for the first time in the United States. The contraceptive pill is considered more effective than other over-the-counter options, such as condoms and spermicide, and its approval stands to broaden access to contraception, as it removes the requirement for a physician-issued prescription.
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- “ Timeline of Legal History of Women in the United States ,” National Women’s History Alliance.
- “ Timeline of Important Reproductive Freedom Cases Decided by the Supreme Court ,” American Civil Liberties Union.
- “ Reproductive Rights in History ,” Duke University.
- “ Reproductive Rights at the U.S. Supreme Court ,” American Bar Association.
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Home / Essay Samples / Social Issues / Gender Equality / Women Right To Abortion
Women Right To Abortion
- Category: Health , Social Issues
- Topic: Abortion , Gender Equality
Pages: 4 (1932 words)
- Downloads: -->
- How have the abortion laws improved the status of women in developed countries?
- Even if the abortion laws made, are they enough to ensure that women of all races and classes can exercise this right?
- Barriers to an early abortion remain in developed countries. (2015). Nursing Standard, 29(46), 14-14. doi: 10. 7748/ns. 29. 46. 14. s15
- Bianco, M. , Belizán, J. , & Althabe, F. (2007). Abortion debate in Latin America and beyond. The Lancet, 370(9595), 1309-1310. doi: 10. 1016/s0140-6736(07)61569-4
- Berer, M. (2019). Reconceptualizing safe abortion and abortion services in the age of abortion pills: A discussion paper. Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynecology. doi: 10. 1016/j. bpobgyn. 2019. 07. 012
- Despite Differences in Legal Status, Abortion Occurs at Similar Rates in Developing and Developed Countries. (2008). Perspectives On Sexual And Reproductive Health, 40(1), 55-56. doi: 10. 1363/4005508
- Drone flies abortion pills to Northern Ireland to highlight its abortion laws. (2016). the Pharmaceutical Journal. doi: 10. 1211/pj. 2016. 20201347
- Dyer, C. (2017). Mother wins right to challenge prosecution for buying abortion pills in Northern Ireland. BMJ, j527. doi: 10. 1136/bmj. j527
- Jalali, N. , Doosti, M. , & Ighani, M. (2018). A survey on abortion laws in Asian countries. International Academic Journal Of Humanities, 05(01), 101-111. doi: 10. 9756/iajh/v5i1/1810011
- Medoff, M. (2010). State Abortion Policies, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider Laws, and Abortion Demand. Review Of Policy Research, 27(5), 577-594. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1541-1338. 2010. 00460. x
- Millar, E. (2016). Mourned Choices and Grievable Lives: The Anti-Abortion Movement's Influence in Defining the Abortion Experience in Australia Since the 1960s. Gender & History, 28(2), 501-519. doi: 10. 1111/1468-0424. 12220
- Oakley, M. (2003). Abortion Restrictions and Abortion Rates: Has State Abortion Policy Been Successful? Politics & Policy, 31(3), 472-487. doi: 10. 1111/j. 1747-1346. 2003. tb00158. x
- Overall, C. (2015). Rethinking Abortion, Exogenesis, and Fetal Death. Journal of Social Philosophy, 46(1), 126-140. doi: 10. 1111/josp. 12090
- O'Rourke, A. (2016). The discourse of abortion law debate in Australia: Caring mother or mother of convenience. Women's Studies International Forum, 56, 37-44. doi: 10. 1016/j. wsif. 2016. 02. 012
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