The history of abortion law in the United States from a pro-life perspective is a nuanced narrative shaped by legal battles, evolving public opinion, and ongoing efforts to protect the rights of the unborn. Through the efforts of devoted educators and physicians like the ProLife Doc, as well as the engagement of compassionate people everywhere, we are finally seeing some light at the end of this long tunnel. But it’s important to know our country’s history regarding abortion. Understanding how we got here can equip us to move forward into a future that honors the worth and dignity of every human life.

Legal No Man’s Land

Before the 19th century, abortion was not specifically addressed in U.S. law. It was primarily practiced in secret, using herbal methods and other rudimentary procedures provided by midwives. Sometimes, these methods successfully ended a pregnancy, but in other cases, they resulted in failure, infection, infertility, and even death of the mother, not to mention injury or disability in infants who survived the attempted termination. Accurate records are hard to come by due to the furtive nature of the proceedings. However, by the mid-19th century, concerns about the morality and safety of abortion led many states to enact laws that criminalized the procedure except to save the life of the mother. From 1860 to 1880, individual states enacted at least 40 anti-abortion laws.

These laws weren’t rigorously upheld, especially as America moved into the Great Depression and people struggled to support their families. Many abortionists worked “off book,” illegally terminating the pregnancies of women referred to them by other physicians. After World War II, the leniency that allowed this flagrant disregard of the law disappeared. Doctors who were caught performing abortions were arrested and prosecuted in increasing numbers, driving the practice underground. According to the Guttmacher Institute, just over a million illegal abortions were performed in the U.S. each year throughout the 50s and 60s. In 1965, 17% of deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth were associated with illegal abortions. These losses and the subsequent risks posed by a national rubella outbreak in the early sixties began to shift public opinion about abortion, setting the stage for what came next.

Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 was a pivotal moment in the history of abortion law in the U.S. In this case, the Court ruled that the constitutional “right to privacy” extends beyond typical privacy concerns to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide. This decision, considered by many constitutional experts to be bad law built on a shaky foundation, was based on the belief that a woman has a fundamental right to control her own body and make decisions about her own health care, even when doing so is deadly to the preborn baby she is carrying.

Following the Roe ruling, the campaign that started as a push to legalize abortion to save the life or health of the mother evolved well beyond its initial goals. The cries of “safe, legal, and rare” that drew many compassionate people into supporting abortion quickly gave way to strident “abortion on demand” rhetoric. Unfettered abortion supporters believe that women should be able to terminate the lives of their babies at any point during pregnancy and for any reason–or no reason at all.

The Roe v. Wade decision triggered a wave of pro-life activism and legislative efforts to restrict or overturn abortion rights. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment was enacted, prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Since then, many states have enacted laws that impose waiting periods, require parental consent for minors, and regulate the operation of abortion clinics.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey

One of the most significant legal challenges to Roe v. Wade came in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In this case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the core principles of Roe v. Wade but also ruled that states have the right to regulate abortion as long as these regulations do not place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose.

The verdict in Casey launched a renewed push by pro-life advocates to further restrict the practice of abortion and to overturn Roe v. Wade. Several states passed laws that banned abortion after the detection of a heartbeat in the developing fetus, often as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. In 2019, Georgia passed its own version of this law, a move that was shortly followed by the passage of similar laws in other states, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi. These laws are often referred to as “heartbeat bills” and are part of a broader strategy by pro-life advocates to challenge the legal framework established by Roe v. Wade.

Despite these efforts, abortion remained legal throughout the United States, and the basic framework established by Roe v. Wade remained intact for almost fifty years. That all changed in 2023 with SCOTUS ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson.

Dobbs v. Jackson

On June 27, 2023, the Supreme Court once again transformed the landscape of U.S. abortion law. In the historic ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court asserted that there is no provision of the Constitution that confers a right to abortion. Instead, the Court ruled that the issue of abortion didn’t belong in federal courts at all, but was a matter that states would have to decide through democratic processes.

In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, 

The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’.

Dobbs does not outlaw abortion; rather, it returns the question to individual states:

Abortion presents a profound moral question. The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority to the courts. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.

This landmark decision acknowledges the fundamental structure of the federal system enshrined in the Constitution and thus empowers states to enact laws that protect the rights of the unborn.

Trigger Laws

On the heels of the dissolution of Roe v. Wade, “trigger laws” went into effect in several states. These laws limiting or eliminating the practice of abortion were written and passed by state lawmakers in advance and were designed to be triggered immediately if the Supreme Court ever overturned Roe. Accordingly, all at once, the lives of preborn babies in 13 states came under the protection of blanket bans on abortion when Dobbs was decided, and in the years since Dobbs, many other states have passed their own laws condemning abortion or limiting its availability. After nearly fifty years in the dark, the shadow of Roe v. Wade has been lifted from our country.

The Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade reflects a growing recognition among average citizens of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, including the preborn. By returning the issue of abortion regulation to the states, the Court has taken a significant step toward restoring justice and equality for the most vulnerable members of society. This decision underscores the principle that all life is precious and deserving of protection, regardless of the stage of development or circumstances of conception. While the Court in Dobbs ruled that abortion is a state issue, many more liberal states have now expanded abortion availability and funding. The number of abortions has actually increased nationwide since the Dobbs decision, with expanded abortion access appearing on the ballot in seven states. For numerous reasons, the pro-life side has lost all seven of those votes. We must unify our messaging and work together. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” The body of Christ must function as one and use all tools – Scripture, prayer, science, medicine, the law, and our financial treasure – to fight for the lives of God’s tiniest image-bearers. 

As pro-abortion measures continue to appear on state ballots, we must take every opportunity that presents itself to spread pro-life messaging and influence. Amendment 4 in Florida would reverse the current “heartbeat law” and enshrine abortion for any reason in the state constitution, untouchable by legislation. According to Ballotpedia, supporters of the pro-abortion amendment have already raised over 20 million dollars. Meanwhile, the pro-life opposition to the amendment has only raised $75,000. 266 times as much money has been raised by those bent on destroying the image of God in the womb. This is a spiritual battle, and the enemy of life must be defeated.

Looking ahead, it is up to each one of us to foster a culture of life where every child is welcomed into the world with love and support. We must continue to advocate for policies and initiatives that uphold the dignity of all human beings and provide assistance to mothers facing unplanned pregnancies. Through collective efforts to promote a society that values and protects life at every stage, we can build a brighter future for generations to come.

The history of pro-life influence in shaping United States reproductive law is a story of perseverance, activism, and legal challenges. Pro-life advocates believe that abortion is a grave moral wrong and that the law should reflect this by protecting the rights of the preborn. While we have made progress in some areas, the fight to preserve the sanctity of human life continues.

To learn how you can join the ProLife Doc in protecting human lives in the womb, to donate, or to find out more about Dr. Lile’s pro-life work, check out his website or contact the ProLife Doc. The commitment to life requires vigilance and determination from all of us!

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