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Women Health. 1979 Summer;4(2):159-67.

Abortion in early America.


This piece describes abortion practices in use from the 1600s to the 19th century among the inhabitants of North America. The abortive techniques of women from different ethnic and racial groups as found in historical literature are revealed. Thus, the point is made that abortion is not simply a "now issue" that effects select women. Instead, it is demonstrated that it is a widespread practice as solidly rooted in our past as it is in the present.


Abortion was frequently practiced in North America during the period from 1600 to 1900. Many tribal societies knew how to induce abortions. They used a variety of methods including the use of black root and cedar root as abortifacient agents. During the colonial period, the legality of abortion varied from colony to colony and reflected the attitude of the European country which controlled the specific colony. In the British colonies abortions were legal if they were performed prior to quickening. In the French colonies abortions were frequently performed despite the fact that they were considered to be illegal. In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies abortion was illegal. From 1776 until the mid-1800s abortion was viewed as socially unacceptable; however, abortions were not illegal in most states. During the 1860s a number of states passed anti-abortion laws. Most of these laws were ambiguous and difficult to enforce. After 1860 stronger anti-abortion laws were passed and these laws were more vigorously enforced. As a result, many women began to utilize illegal underground abortion services. Although abortion was legalized in 1970, many women are still forced to obtain illegal abortion or to perform self-abortions due to the economic constraints imposed by the Hyde Amendment and the unavailability of services in many areas. Throughout the colonial period and during the early years of the republic, the abortion situation for slave women was different than for other women. Slaves were subject to the rules of their owners, and the owners refused to allow their slaves to terminate pregnancies. The owners wanted their slaves to produce as many children as possible since these children belonged to the slave owners. This situation persisted until the end of the slavery era.

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