Fellow 1993-94

Leslie Jean Reagan


When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law 1867-1973

When Abortion Was a Crime will be the first book to examine the entire period of illegal abortion in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century, when abortion was first criminalized, to 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision overturned the nation's criminal abortion laws. The book charts both the practice of abortion and the enforcement of the criminal abortion laws. The strength of the book is its analysis of legal and medical evidence from the perspective of the women who sought abortions during the era of criminalized abortion.

While other scholars have studied the mid-nineteenth-century medical campaign to criminalize abortion in the United States, we know very little about the history of the nearly one hundred years of illegal abortion. Scholars have tended to assume that the period of illegal abortion was static. In fact, the practice and policing, the repression and relative availability of abortion changed while the criminal status of abortion remained the same. The conditions of abortion changed with changes in medicine, politics, economics, and women's lives.

The book analyzes how race and class affected public policy and the availability of abortion. By the early 1960s, the inequity of abortion practices had deepened and was obvious. A dual system of abortion existed where white, private paying patients received over 90% of the legal, safe therapeutic abortions in hospitals and where poor women were often sterilized at the same time that they received therapeutic abortions.

When Abortion Was a Crime demonstrates the power of patients to influence and change medical practice. Women successfully pressured physicians for abortions. Despite the official anti-abortion stance of the medical profession, physicians were deeply involved in illegal abortion throughout the twentieth century.