Exploring abortion laws throughout United States history and today

What you need to know about current abortion laws and how they came to be


Allie Wang

Protesters in Washington D.C. fight for their belief in access to abortion

Sydney Herstein and Brooke Herstein

The year is 1973. Due to the ruling on the court case Roe v. Wade, it is legal for women to get an abortion at their own discretion nationwide. This ruling also provided women with easier and safer access to abortion. In the ruling of Roe v. Wade, it was determined by the Supreme Court that it is a constitutional right for women to have access to abortion, regardless of the reason. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with a 5-4 decision. As a result of this decision, abortion is not protected by the federal government, leaving each state in the U.S. to make its own decisions and laws pertaining to abortion. 

In the 1700s and early 1800s, women had access to abortion throughout the U.S. However, they were rarely performed as procedures. Instead, herbs, medicines, and poison were the most common methods of abortion at the time, making abortion risky and unsafe for most women. 

Beginning in the year 1821, Connecticut became the first state to impose a law restricting abortion access for women. This law was passed with the intent to stop women from utilizing harmful drugs and poisons in abortions, as the mortality rate for women who received abortions was increasing. Abortion was legal until the stage of pregnancy called quickening, where fetal movement begins at around four months into the pregnancy. 

By 1847, the American Medical Association was formed; however, it was male-dominated and lacked female representation. The AMA looked down upon people involved in reproductive health care and believed that their association should be able to decide when someone can get an abortion. The AMA began a campaign to make receiving or performing an abortion a crime, causing states to impose laws banning abortion.

Abortion was heavily restricted and criminalized in the United States by 1880, with the exception of a few states that would perform an abortion if necessary to save the life of the mother. 

By 1910, abortions at any stage of pregnancy were prohibited throughout the United States. Only doctors had the power to decide to perform an abortion in order to save lives, and d 5% of doctors at the time were males who made decisions about female reproductive health.

As all abortions became illegal, the women of the 1930s started the practice of secret and off-the-record abortions. 

“Unsafe, illegal abortion was the cause of death for nearly 2,700 women in 1930 — almost one out of every five (18%) of recorded maternal deaths that year,” Planned Parenthood wrote.

A group of nine doctors in San Fransisco were sued for performing an abortion on patients who had the possibility of being infected with a disease called Rubella, which can cause birth defects. After doctors from across the U.S. defended the nine doctors in their decisions to perform abortions, California became one of the first states to ease abortion laws, allowing hospitals to approve abortion upon request. This reform resulted from what is known as the Trial of the San Fransisco Nine in 1966. Similarly to the reformation of abortion laws in California, Colorado changed its abortion laws in 1967.

The state of New York legalized abortion in the year 1970, and the first abortion center, Planned Parenthood, was built in the city of Syracuse. After two years of legal abortions in New York, two-thirds of the abortions performed in this state were given to women who resided in other states, of which abortions in their state were still illegal.

“The year after abortion was legalized in New York State, the maternal-mortality rate there dropped by 45 percent,” Katha Pollitt wrote in The Atlantic.

In 1973, the court case Roe v. Wade marked the beginning of the federal right for women across the nation to easily access abortion. Jane Roe, the alias used by Norma McCorvey, was pregnant and was not married when she fought against the state of Texas and its laws illegalizing abortion by taking the district attorney of Dallas, Henry Wade, to court. 

“Roe alleged that the state laws were unconstitutionally vague and abridged her right of personal privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments,” Oyez wrote in an article.

With these arguments, Roe won her case, and the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that all women in all of the 50 states had a right to an abortion, and legalized abortion throughout the nation. 

Up until June 24, 2022, the ruling on Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court remained. This ruling was overturned, meaning each state could individually decide whether they would continue to provide abortions to women legally. States could also decide to impose restrictions to any degree, including total prohibition.

What does this mean for women in our community?

In California, abortion has remained legal. In the article “Abortion is still legal in California. Here are answers to questions about access in the state,” Janelle Salanga wrote, “Abortion is only legal in California until a fetus reaches 24 weeks or weighs 500 grams unless the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk.” 

In other states, abortion has been severely restricted and/or outlawed. Women from these states are either unable to receive abortions or have extremely limited access to abortions where they live. These women have to travel from states such as Kentucky, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, to states such as California, Washington, and New York to legally have an abortion. 

Abortion laws in the U.S. have changed over time, and this recent overturning of Roe v. Wade will continue to impact the lives of women living in the U.S. as laws are constantly being revised according to each state. To track abortion laws by state, visit the Center for Reproductive Rights.