Policing our Morality:
The Age of Consent Campaign and the Struggle to Overturn Roe v. Wade
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the sexuality of young men and women was a common topic of debate. Many groups tried to restrict teenage sexuality by beginning campaigns to raise the age of consent in all states to either 16 or 18. Although this cause was noble, in theory, many unintended consequences occurred. In modern times, many religious and political groups are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that decriminalized abortion for women in most circumstances. This is a highly controversial issue that deals with sexuality, just as the age of consent campaigns did a century ago.
Before 1973, abortion hadn’t always been illegal. But it had always been at least somewhat controversial. Before the 1820s, abortion was “...illegal only after the ‘quickening,’ the point at which a woman could feel the movements of the fetus (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy)” (Reagan 1998, p. 8). Many drugs were available to induce abortions at home. These drugs were often dangerous and could easily cause hemorrhaging, other injury, or death. The deaths of many women due to these drugs soon inspired poison-control laws that banned chemical abortifacients but not abortion itself. These laws punished doctors and apothecaries who sold the drugs, but did not punish the women that used them (Pollitt 1997). In 1857, the American Medical Association (AMA) and one of its most prominent members, Horatio Storer, began a campaign to criminalize abortion at every stage of the pregnancy (Tribe 1992, p. 30). This was done for many reasons, including moral and religious ones, though mostly they were professional and social. Professionally, the doctors of the AMA did not want competition in performing abortions from midwives and apothecaries. Socially, “birth rates among the Yankee classes had declined while immigrants poured into the country” (Reagan 1998, p. 11). The main cohort of women who had abortions during the mid-1800s were upper-middle class whites (Tribe 1992, p. 32). The AMA feared that if abortion stayed legal, more of these women would have abortions while the immigrants and lower-class people would continue giving birth. The American Medical Association’s push to criminalize abortion was so successful that by 1880, every state and territory in the United States had outlawed abortion except in extreme circumstances (Pollitt 1997).
Just because abortion was criminalized, though, did not mean it stopped. Abortion still occurred , it was just incredibly unsafe. As times changed, though, medical science advanced. For example, “whereas in 1955 roughly a hundred out of every hundred thousand legal abortions resulted in the woman’s death along with that of the fetus, by 1972 that grim number had fallen to three out of a hundred thousand” (Tribe 1992, p. 36). This was one of the main reasons for the crusade to legalize abortion....