New York’s recent passing of the Reproductive Health Act, expanding abortion rights in the state is arguably the most aggressive state legislation to date addressing this issue. Prior to this law, NYS loosely followed the precedent set in 1973 by the Roe v. Wade decision, making abortions legal only in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions performed outside of this time frame would be considered illegal with an exception for abortions performed after 24 weeks if the mother’s life was at risk.
This new law expands the exception to not only the life of the mother but her health as well. The new law also includes exceptions for if the child is not viable outside of the womb. This is seen as the full scope of the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. The law also removes the regulation of abortions from the criminal code to the health code as well as expands the types of health professionals who can legally perform abortions from just medical doctors to nurse practitioners, physician assistants and licensed midwives.
There are interesting comparisons that can be made if we look at some of the history of abortion in America and compare with the current nature of the debate. Professor and social policy historian James Mohr has probably the most unbiased and scholarly work done on the subject.
In his book, Abortion in America: The Origin and Evolution of National Policy, Mohr describes the general sentiment on abortion before the civil war was that of a fairly commonplace medical procedure with no real moral implications or significance. With limited medical knowledge, a fetus was considered alive only after the first perceivable signs of movement (referred to as the “quickening”), and children prior to this were not considered to have a soul.
After 1840, according to Mohr, there was an increase in public attention on abortions as well as an interesting shift in the demographic of women who underwent the procedure. Before 1840, mostly poor, single mothers had abortions with a drastic shift to white, married, middle to upper-class protestant women afterward.
Morhr further describes the impact of the early American Medical Association (AMA) as the first organized moral crusaders against abortion while most church leaders at the time were practically silent or indifferent on the issue. Partnering with feminist groups (who at the time viewed abortion as an oppressive threat to women’s health), the AMA was crucial in convincing legislators in many states from the 1860s to the 1870s to make abortion a criminal offense.
Mohr takes it a step further and suggests two interesting reasons why a professional organization made up predominantly of white, upper-class males took such a stance at a time where most people were indifferent on the issue. Mohr implies fear and self-interest may have influenced the stance the AMA took.
Firstly, the AMA benefited from legislation that made physicians the only professionals that could legally perform abortions. Secondly, this increase in the number of abortions among women of the “better class” happened at a time where there also was an increase in the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. with much larger families. Unfortunately, these concurrent events influenced both lawmakers and many AMA members that their “native-born protestant” population was at risk of being outnumbered.
The many ironies present when comparing the discussion on abortion today vs. back then are striking. The AMA is currently neutral on the issue of abortion at a time where new legislation expands the legal practice of abortion to many other professions. Currently, three-fourths of abortion patients are from lower-income homes with an early 2009 study showing African- Americans were having far more abortions than other groups with more recent numbers from 2014 indicating no one racial group is in the majority. Even so, there are far deeper concerns about certain populations and the impact abortion could have.
In NYC, more black babies were aborted than born in 2012. This along with studies indicating that the most common reasons women stated for having an abortion seem to be less about dire straits and more about convenience and perceptions.
While I definitely do not want to downplay the complexity and emotional trauma women who have to contemplate making these kinds of choices are dealing with, we also have to be wise and meaningfully consider the rational and motivations of not only the women, but the professionals and lawmakers involved in all this. Simply put, the stakes here are too high to ignore facts only to hold an ideology blindly.