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Abortion Overview and History

Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures performed in the United States each year. More than 40% of all women will end a pregnancy by abortion at some time in their reproductive lives.

While women of every social class seek terminations, the typical woman who ends her pregnancy is either young, white, unmarried, poor, or over the age of 40.

In the United States and worldwide, abortion (known also as elective termination of pregnancy) remains common.

  • The US Supreme Court legalized abortion in the well-known Roe v Wade decision in 1973; currently, there are about 1.2 million abortions are performed each year in the United States.
  • Worldwide, some 20-30 million legal abortions are performed each year, with another 10-20 million abortions performed illegally. Illegal abortions are unsafe and account for 13% of all deaths of women because of serious complications. Death from abortion is almost unknown in the United States or in other countries where abortion is legally available.

In spite of the introduction of newer, more effective, and more widely available birth control methods, more than half of the 6 million pregnancies occurring each year in the United States are considered unplanned by the women who are pregnant. Of these unplanned pregnancies, about half end in abortion.

Making abortion legal

Since the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, hundreds of federal and state laws have been proposed or passed. Abortion is one of the most visible, controversial, and legally active areas in the field of medicine. These laws address a variety of controversial questions including:

  • The issue of parental notification. A number of state laws do require that some minors notify parents before obtaining an abortion, but what provisions are necessary to protect young women who feel they cannot notify their parents?
  • Should spouses be notified before a woman has an abortion?
  • Has the pregnancy progressed far enough that the fetus could live on its own before termination (termed viability)?
  • Should there be mandatory waiting periods before an abortion can take place?
  • What might be mandatory wording for counseling sessions or consent forms?
  • Should public funds be used for abortions?
  • What regulations if any should apply to abortion providers?
  • What provisions might be made against specific abortion techniques?
  • Should emergency contraception be allowed?
  • Should the rules be different in cases of sexual assault and rape?

Before abortion was legal

Before the 19th century, most US states had no specific abortion laws. Women were able to end a pregnancy prior to viability with the assistance of medical personnel.

  • Beginning with a Connecticut statute and followed by an 1829 New York law, the next 20 years saw the enactment of a series of laws restricting abortion, punishing providers, and, in some cases, punishing the woman who was seeking the abortion.
  • The first US federal law on the subject was the Comstock Law of 1873, which permitted a special agent of the postal service to open mail dealing with abortion or contraception in order to suppress the circulation of "obscene" materials.
  • From 1900 until the 1960s, abortions were prohibited by law. However, the Kinsey report noted that premarital pregnancies were electively aborted, and public and physician opinion began to be shaped by the alarming reports of increased numbers of unsafe illegal abortions.

In 1965, 265 deaths occurred due to illegal abortions. Of all pregnancy-related complications in New York and California, 20% were due to abortions. A series of US Supreme Court decisions granted increased rights to women and ensured their right to choice in this process. No decision was more important than Griswold v Connecticut, which, in 1965, recognized a constitutional right to privacy and ruled that a married couple had a constitutional right to obtain birth control from their health care professional.

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In the United States and worldwide, elective termination of pregnancy remains common.

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