Our nation is wrestling with basic facts about the elimination of women’s access to safe abortions. Conservative political leaders are more willing to force a woman through pregnancy in the name of “life” than they are to guarantee the “life,” health and safety of the woman. They are also not willing to guarantee the “life,” health, and safety of that baby and growing child with support for health and child care.
A leaked draft opinion of the Supreme Court published by Politico on May 2 revealed that a majority of justices are ready to overturn the court’s ruling in 1973 in the Roe v. Wade case that cited the 14th Amendment right to privacy in upholding abortion rights. The leaked opinion said “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” This ignorance is so profound.
In the colonial 1600s, women would sometimes ask their midwife, mother or elder neighbor for a “cure for delayed menses” — a euphemism used then to ask for a recipe for causing abortion and a cure to restart menses, with herbs like pennyroyal or savin. Women had medicinal recipes handed down through generations — some were true curatives; others not.
Women’s arsenal of remedies cared for their families’ health. From Hypericum or St. John’s wort to willow bark and myrtle, which contained salicylic acid, the basis of today’s aspirin, women kept the necessary ingredients at hand. Since miscarriages were common in early pregnancy, what was the difference between a miscarriage and a cure for delayed menses?
Before the late 1800s, people believed that pregnancy could not be confirmed until “quickening,” or when the fetus moved — and women defined that moment, not male physicians or governing bodies. Even today, many women do not know they are pregnant until eight or 12 weeks into the pregnancy.
By 1868, when the 14th Amendment passed guaranteeing the right to privacy, a movement had begun. Dr. Horatio Storer of the fledgling American Medical Association sought to ban abortion. Before the American Medical Association was founded in 1847, women’s reproductive health was largely in the hands of women, midwives and family members.
Credentialed men in mainstream or “heroic” medicine sought to become authorities on women’s health despite their lack of knowledge about female physiology. Eliminating midwives was key for their professionalization. But heroic medicine was dramatically interventionist and dangerous, like bloodletting, and many Americans at the time preferred natural remedies.
Germ theory was not yet accepted; mercury, opium, turpentine and a host of other poisonous “medications” were commonplace among those formally trained. Laws that forbade slave women to abort morphed into racist 20th-century use of mass forced sterilizations of Black women and Latinas. Many women were never told they were sterilized after a childbirth or surgery in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Today, the American Medical Association opposes the outlawing of abortion to keep government out of the patient-doctor relationship.
Before the late 1800s, early American communities supported the needs and privacy of free women because the dangers of pregnancy were recognized along with the need for women to be industrious family and community members. For centuries, women used recipes for causing abortions in the private sphere — in home. But the practice was known publicly by both men and women.
In a May article in Slate, Ohio State University professor Molly Farrell revealed that printer-scientist-revolutionary Ben Franklin edited a book to include a relatively reliable abortifacient recipe to give assistance to “unmarry’d Women,” among others. Franklin’s printing of George Fisher’s “American Instructor” went through at least 10 editions, with lessons on reading, writing and math supplemented by other useful household advice. Farrell writes that the book was so treasured that two escaped slaves took it with them in their flight in 1771.
In 1973, the male justices who decided the Roe case were not the first to concede that women had the right to seek an abortion. Although abortion was illegal in much of the country in 1973, it had not always been so. Abortion was embedded in this country’s traditions.
Currently, the “abortion pill” — medicinal abortion — provides a safe and effective remedy. This, ironically, places women closer to our ancestors who had access to abortion remedies, however unpredictable they may have been.
While medicinal abortion set the precedent in American tradition, it opened the door for any safe abortion method to ensure the life and safety of a woman.
It is time to use your vote to elect officials who care about living women and children. We are staring at the impending loss of women’s control over their bodies, a loss of control no man would allow for his own body. The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade would jeopardize women’s health, agency and socioeconomic opportunities. It is government overreach to control women’s bodies and futures.
To all conservatives who disdain big government and hold traditional values: Be consistent. Embrace the deep American tradition of free women having private access to abortion.