If today the status of abortion is unelear, clouded by myth and taboo, and genuinely confusing, this is merely the reflection of the past. Abortion is deemed the first, though necessarily crude, form of surgery, practiced, it seems, for thousands of years in all recorded civilizations. It coexisted with infanticide, which was thought to be a simpler means of disposing of inconvenient or unwanted progeny in some primitive societies.
It is far from clear whether or not abortion was considered a crime in classical antiquity. Socrates refers to the practice as both common and permissible. Plato authorized it in his Republic, and elsewhere states that no child should come into the world with the mother more than 40 and the father older than 55 years of age. Among the Romans, abortion was punishable, sometimes even by death.
After the spread of Christianity among the Romans, killing a fetus became a crime on a par with the murder Of an adult, and so it was when the barbarians subsequently overran the Empire. Severe penalties remained in force in all countries of Europe during the Middle Ages. Barbarous punishment ceased slowly and in a piecemeal fashion, accompanied by a reluctant reversal of opinion about the magnitude of the crime involved. Ernest Havemann noted in 1967 that “during the eu)ightened Renaissance abortion was common in Europe, even a woman risked being pul death by erucifixion.
It is still common today in nations where a woman risks a fine or prison sentence for having an abortion and where a physician who performs an illegitimate operation may even be subject to the death penalty. In France, a 1939 law
specifies guillotining as a penalty for abortion. A woman abortionist was in fact sent to the guillotine in 1942. The law has not been used since, but it is still on the books. Since grandmother’s day, abortion-on-demand has been the rallying cry of the emancipated woman.
That women have the right to govern their reproductive life is today a basic tenet Of the Women’s Liberation movement. But the debate continues on the morality of abortion with institutions such as the Catholic Church opposed on principle, declaring. in the words ofPius XII, that the unborn child “receives its right to life directly from God, not from its parents, nor from any human society or authority.” The ethics of induced abortions
thus remain a source of controversy that surrounds the unresolved question—is abortion a woman’s right or is it homicide—in a confusing pattern Of laws and practices.
But whatever private Opinion holds or public policy determines, abortion as a key Social issue of our day is subject to slowly changing laws and rapidly changing attitudes. As a matter of social reality, every American woman can avail herself of a safe and legal abortion, whether she is married or not or whether or not she believes in her right to do so. Means are not so important; the procedure is also available free Of charge or the cost is covered by some form Of public Or private health insurance.
Up to 1970, the United States had strict laws against abortions, specifically a patchwork of curious and antiquated state rulings. At one ime, any attempt was punishable in all states, except in Ohio. Or the person who caused the abortion was punishable, as was anyone who supplied any drug or instrumentsfor thé purpose. The woman herself
was not an accomplice, nor guilty of any crime, except in New York, California, and Connecticut. The changing patterns of abortion laws cannot be traced here. The laws can only be stated as they apply in 1972, Liable to court actions, they may be somewhat different thereafter.
In Canada, the Canadian Criminal Code (Sect. 237) which took effect on August 26, 1969, redefined the legal position on abortion:
“Therapeutic abortions may be performed in an accredited or approved hospital if a board consisting of no less than three doctors decides that the continuation of a pregnancy will endanger the life or health of the pregnant woman. An “approved” hospital is one that has been given the approval of a provincial government.
Prior to the reform laws of 1970 there were an estimated 8,000 medically indicated therapeutic abortions performed in U.S. hospitals in an average year. At a time when 3.5 million babies were born in the U.S. in one year, an astounding one million illegal abortions were supposedly obtained, No one can prove this figure, but it has not been widely challenged. In Canada, illegal abortions have been estimated variously at between 100,000 and 300,000 annually. The latter figure is close to the number of live births in that country.
As such, these figures serve as a frightening indicator of the number of unwanted pregnancies and demonstrate that abortions are sought and found despite social disapproval and legal sanctions. By 1971, after 15 months of liberalized abortion laws in the States, an estimated 400,000 women had obtained legal abortions in hospitals or clinics. Abortion has become increasingly accepted throughout the country although many doctors and nurses strongly disapprove of the trend. Even more abortions were predicted for 1972, development Tillie magazine called one of the (‘most dramatic in American medicine and mores.
Canadian abortions remain virtually unaffected by the 1969 change “The granting of legal abortions depends a great deal on the makeup of the Abortion Committee,” says Lorrie Peron, President of the Association for the Repeal of Canadian Abortion Laws. Thus, the number of therapeutic abortions obtained in all Canadian reporting areas was 4,375, with more than half of them done in Ontario.