1973 – January 22, Roe v Wade was passed and declared that the right of privacy included “a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”
1970s – When abortion was illegal, two women in California started a self-help feminist health group called the Feminist Women’s Health Center. They developed an abortion procedure called “menstrual extraction” to abort early pregnancy.
1969 – In the 1960s, a group of young women in Chicago started “The Service”, an underground feminist, health-care referral system to help women find safe and affordable illegal abortions. The collective renamed itself “Jane” and trained themselves to provide surgical abortions in-house. Between 1969 and 1973, Jane performed nearly 12,000 abortion procedures.
1965 – The pill came onto the market and was available only to married women through a doctor’s prescription. Unmarried women were unable to legally access it for seven more years until 1972.
1959 - Patricia Maginnis, a medical technician in San Francisco, developed a do-it-yourself abortion procedure that involved dilating your own cervix to miscarry. She helped many women find safe abortions at a time when it was illegal.
1950s – Dr. Alfred Kinsey remarked, “There is… more difficulty in locating abortionists today than there used to be. The laws have made it more difficult to find a physician who will perform it, and that has raised the cost of abortions.”
1939 – A national poll of medial students found that 68% would be willing to perform abortion if it was legal.
1938 - Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr, an African-American physician in Detroit, provided abortion services for poor and Black women, starting in 1938. His wife had obtained an abortion from a prominent doctor while she was in medical school. He performed over 30,000 abortions and was imprisoned from 1958 to 1961.
1936 – Women organized their own “birth control clubs”, such as one in New Jersey with 800 members who paid dues and carried cards entitling them to regular examinations and access to illegal abortions.
1932 – For 10 years during the Depression, Dr. Josephine Gabler performed over 18,000 abortions at her office on State Street in Chicago. 80% of the women were married and 57% had children. She had referrals from over 200 area doctors.
1932 – Harlem Hospital in New York City had to open a separate ward just to treat women seeking emergency post-abortion emergency services from illegal abortions.
1931 – A study at a birth control clinic in The Bronx found that 35% of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish women had at least one illegal abortion.
1930s – The American Birth Control League was started by Margaret Sanger and quickly grew to over 500 birth control clinics throughout the United States.
1930s - The demand for abortion increased until many physicians became “specialists in abortion, who devote themselves to that work to the exclusion of any other part of medical activity.” In addition to numerous physicians in New York City, and underground clinics were established on the West Coast.
1930s – During the Depression era, contraceptive devices and condoms became ever more socially acceptable and were commonly available at pharmacies and gas stations.
1930s – A non-Native resident of the Trobriand islands reported, “I have been informed by many independent and intelligent natives that the female of the species is specially endowed or gifted with ejaculatory powers, which may be called upon after an act of coition to expel the male seed.”
1930s – There was an increase in the number of abortions in the United States to over 681,000 each year. These increasing numbers coincided with the rising economic pressures faced by most Americans.
1930s - The United States had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world with induced abortions responsible for at least 14% of deaths.
1920s – A study showed that between 10-23% of educated, middle-class women had undergone abortions.
1920s – Margaret Sanger conducted a survey of ten thousand working-class women through efforts at her early first birth control clinics. She found that 20% of them had undergone abortions.
1920s – A woman wrote to Margaret Sanger saying, “I’m nearly crazy for when my husband finds out that I’m going to have another baby he will beat the life out of me.”
1920s – The exact timing of human ovulation was discovered in the 1920s. Planned Parenthood created a calendar device called the “Rythmeter” to help couples learn how to prevent pregnancy.
1918 – Marie Stopes, a family planning pioneer in England, wrote about coitus reservatus, “The union is protracted, and the erection, after being active for a length of time varying from twenty minutes to ten hours, naturally subsides before withdrawal from the vagina.”
1912 – The national raids by the U.S. Post Office on people using the mail to sell contraception and abortion services and equipment was at an all time high.
1911 – A physician remarked, “Those who apply for abortions are from every walk of life, from the factory girl to the millionaire’s daughter; from the laborer’s wife to that of the banker. No class, no sect seems to be above the destruction of the fetus.”
1904 – At the turn of the century, Dr. C.S. Bacon explained the wide-scale use of illegal abortion, describing how “six to ten thousand abortions are induced in Chicago every year.”
1900s – “I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.” – 1897 During the early 20th century, Emma Goldman toured throughout the country speaking about the importance of birth control in women’s lives. In 1916, she was arrested for violating the Comstock Act, a law passed in 1873 banning information about contraception and abortion in the United States.
1900s – While abortion was illegal in the 1900s, women used knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, and button hooks to induce miscarriage and terminate pregnancies, often causing serious injuries to themselves or death.
1900s – During the early 20th century, the word “abortion” wasn’t commonly used. Instead, women used euphemisms such as “bringing their courses on”, “having it done”, and getting “fixed up” or “getting straight”.
1897 - Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham, an early OBGYN in Chicago, recommended coitus reservatus, a technique involving orgasm without ejaculation, for the “highest possible enjoyment, no loss of vitality, and perfect control of the fecundating power.”
1896 – The Chicago Health Department forbade “any midwife having in her possession any drug or instrument or other article which may be used to procure and abortion”, along with eleven other rules intended to control how they practiced traditional women’s heath care.
1893 – The chairman of the American Medical Association’s Obstetrics committee, called abortion “a pernicious crime against God and society.”
1890s – A physician commented that women who had abortions were “not secretive about the matter when it comes to passing this knowledge on to some sister who is also in trouble.”
1888 – The Chicago Times newspaper ran a front page story exposing a list of local doctors providing abortion services to women in Chicago.
1886 – Health officials felt that controlling midwives would control abortion, and remarked that “the practice of abortion has become a very great evil, largely as a result of a lack of midwife control.”
1873 – The “Comstock Law” criminalized contraception and abortion in the United States, except when a physician deemed either was necessary. With the passage of this law, women lost what had been their common law right.
1869 – It wasn’t until 1869 that the Catholic Church officially condemned the practice of abortion at all stages of pregnancy. Before then, the church felt that abortion before ensoulment of the fetus, which occurred at thirty days after conception, was not a sin.
1866 – Contraceptive syringes were commonly advertised in the back of ladies home journals. One ad read, “it is used to destroy the life properties of the spermatic fluid without injury to the person.”
1857 - The American Medical Association formed and set out to make all abortion illegal. They accused midwives of performing abortions and began a campaign to drive them out of business.
1850s – Madame Restelle was one of over two hundred abortionists practicing in New York City during the mid-1800s. Abortion services were largely sought out by middle and upper-class women living in urban city centers who desired smaller families.
1830s – Madame Restell started an abortion service in New York City and became the most widely known abortionist for 35 years. Through her success, she opened additional offices in Boston and Philadelphia.
1821 – Connecticut passed the first law restricting abortion in the United States. It became a criminal act to give a woman “quick with child” a poison intended to cause miscarriage.
1800s – Francis Place, a tailor and supporter of contraception in England, printed handbills called “To the Married of Both Sexes”. In it, he wrote that when the sponge was not at hand, “for the husband to withdraw, previous to emission, so that none of the semen may enter the vagina of his wife.”
1800s – An advertisement for a pessary from the late 1800s read, “a simply devised instrument made of pure soft medicated rubber, to be worn by the female (during coition) as a protection against contraception… and with care will last for years.”
1800s – Women who were worried about the reliability about commercial contraceptive plugs exchanged the following recipe for “Contraceptive Fudge”: Cocoa butter 1/4 lb, Borax 5 dr., Salicylic acid 1 dr., and Quinine bisulphate 1 1/2 dr.
1800s - The syringe, the cap, and the sponge were commonly used in the 19th century. Victorian women were known to pin their sponges to the inside of their petticoats when they went out on the town!
1800s – Aboriginal tribes in Australia used a special drink made from the juices of a vine that grew alongside the waterholes for birth control. Traditionally, women only had two or three children but after disruptions to their culture by White settlers, family sizes increased to ten to fifteen children.
1800s – According to Russell Thacher Trall, a 19th century health reformer, women on the Friendly Islands and Iceland practice the “movement cure” to avoid pregnancy. He wrote, “some women have that flexibility and vigour of the whole muscular system that they can, by effort of will, prevent contraception.”
1800s – Abortion services in the United States were sought out mostly by married, white, native-born Protestant women of the upper and middle classes.
1800s – Anthropologists reported that Alaskan Inuit women terminated their pregnancies during the 4th month by manually kneading and compressing the uterus through the abdominal wall.
1800s – Dr. Bronson’s Female Pills were advertised to “remove difficulties arising from obstruction”. The text warned, “they should not be taken during the first three or four months of pregnancy or miscarriage is likely to occur”, which was the likely intended result.
1800s - John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, wrote that contraception was no more unnatural than putting up an umbrella against the rain. He preferred the withdrawal method, as “all other methods that have yet been devised are apt to be highly offensive to the delicacy of women.”
1800s – Maternity homes were established to “combat the crime of induced abortion” by providing a safe place for pregnant women, yet their policies were oppressive and they often refused to take in African American women.
1779 – German artist Johan Zoffany painted a self-portrait showing his own “moral decay”. In the background of this composition is a deck of cards, a bottle of wine, a framed picture of a woman, and two condoms hanging on the wall.
1750s – Casanova, the famous French lover, wrote in his memoirs about his sexual escapades that women used halved lemons as cervical caps. The ascorbic acid in the juice acted as a fairly effective spermicide.
1750s – In his autobiography, Histoire de ma vie, Casanova wrote about his sexual affairs and referred to condoms as; “the little preventative bags invented by the English to save the fair sex from anxiety”, “the English vestment that put one’s mind to rest”, and “assurance caps.”
1700s – The largest distributor of commercial condom was a factory owned by Mrs. Perkins and Mrs. Phillips of England.
1700s – Condoms were sold at pubs, barbershops, chemist shops, markets, and theaters throughout Europe and Russia, later spreading to America. They were made from animal intestines or treated linen and were reusable, and used only by the middle and upper-classes.
1600s – U.S. colonial woman used the savin from the juniper bush, pennyroyal, tansy, ergot, and seneca snakeroot to abort pregnancies. One woman wrote how she had “twice taken Savin; once boiled in milk and the other time strayned through a Cloath.”
1600s – During slavery in the U.S, many African women were known to take the cottonwood plant as an abortive remedy in order to rebel against their masters and spare their children a life of misery.
1600s – Dr. Gabriele Falloppio recommended condoms to prevent the spread of “The French Disease”, referring to syphilis. Dr. Falloppio conducted a trial with 1100 men who all used linen condoms treated with a chemical solution. He claimed that none contracted the disease.
1540s – When England broke with the Catholic Church in 1540, abortion was no longer considered a crime under common law.
1500s – Brantôme, the French historian, wrote about wives who didn’t mind their husbands “making merry inside of them” as long as they didn’t receive any of the semen. “Disport yourself and give me pleasure; but take care not to sprinkle inside, not with a single drop, or it will be a matter of life or death.”
1500s - Women have been fumigating their vaginas with contraceptive vapors for thousands of years! Kettles were used inthe 16th century, but the method dates back to an Egyptian medical text from 1850 BCE.
1400s – Men during the Ming Dynasty practiced the “stream of life”, with the semen supposedly whizzing back up the spinal cord to the brain by gripping part of the testicles to avoid ejaculation.
1380s – In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer referred contraception as the same as murder. He described the withdrawal method in the Parson’s Tale by saying that when men “shedeth hire nature in manere or in place ther as a child may nat be conceived… yet is it homycide.”
1318 – While St. Thomas Aquinas opposed abortion as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage. However, unless the fetus was “ensouled” at approximately 30 days after conception, it was not a sin because it was not a human being.
1200s – The mercury plant was used as an abortive herb in the 13th century. A manuscript drawing depicts a man offering the plant to a pregnant woman who holds her skirt aside to show him she’s not bleeding.
1100s - Al-Jurjani, the royal physician from Iran, wrote, “When the male does come apart from her, he should order her to have a good shake seven times. When they get up, he should again try to make her expel the semen. For this he should cause her to sneeze.”
1100s – Al-Ghazali, an Islamic scholar, wrote in “Good Manners Concerning Coitus” that the withdrawal method was necessary in cases of “financial hardship” or when the husband’s “continued enjoyment of marital rights” was being put in jeopardy.”
1000s – In the Middle Ages, artemisia was known as the “mother of all herbs” and used to cure female ailments. The Bishop of Rennes in France wrote, “it stimulates menstra, and whether drunk or applied, stimulates an abortion.”
1000s – Avicenna, the physician and Islamic philosopher, wrote a medical textbook that became a standard for 500 years, in Islamic and Latin cultures. It included a chapter entitled “Regimen for Abortion and the Extraction of the Dead Fetus” and another, “The Prevention of Pregnancy” covering contraception.
1000s – Pennyroyal has a long history as an abortive herb. Two women are pictured using it in an herbal manual from the Middle Ages, one who is grinding it with a mortal and pestle and the other, seemingly pregnant.
1000s – The Classic of the Immortals described coitus obstructus as, “When, during the sexual act the man feels he is about to ejaculate, he must quickly and firmly press with fore and middle finger of the left hand the spot between scrotum and anus, simultaneously inhaling deeply and gnashing his teeth scores of times, without holding his breath.”
900s – In the Irish Cannons, the penance for having intercourse with a woman was seven years and intercourse with a neighbor woman was nine to fourteen years. However, penance for “destruction of the embryo of a child in the mother’s womb” was three and one half years.
900s – Al-Rhazes wrote in the Quintessence of Experience of two methods for preventing semen from entering the womb, “The first is that at the time of ejaculation the man withdraw from the woman so that the semen does not approach the os uteri. The second is to prevent ejaculation, a method practiced by some.”
418 – St. Augustine condemned abortion because it broke the connection between sex and procreation. However, in the Enchiridion, he wrote, “But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified.” He, and most theologians at that time, felt that abortion wasn’t homicide.
400s – In Talmudic law, there were three classes of Jewish women who should use contraceptives: young girls, pregnant women, and lactating women. The law is suggested they use a contraceptive sponge, coitus interruptus, or perform twisting and violent movements following intercourse.
300s – Theodore Priscianus, a 4th century Roman doctor, documented a mixture of aloe, opopanax root, and myrrh to induce an abortion. He described using it when a woman was too young or the opening of the womb was too small. Aloe boasted over thirty different medicinal uses in ancient times, and was used by midwives and pharmacists to “stimulate” menstruation in the 1800s.
200s – Tertullian, the prolific Christian theologian and writer, described two surgical methods used for abortion at that time; “a copper needle or spike and a blade and hook device.”
150s – The mythical king of Crete named Minos used a female condom made from a goat’s bladder to protect his sexual partner from the serpents and scorpion in his semen.
100s – The Didache, an early Christian document, asks two questions concerning abortion: Is abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery, and does the fetus have a rational soul from the moment of conception, or does it become an “ensouled human” at a later point?
100s – Juvenal, a well known Roman poet from the 2nd century, remarked in a poem that abortion was most common with the wealthy classes.
100s – Soranus wrote in his text Gynaecology that “the woman ought, in the moment during coitus when the man ejaculates his sperm, to hold her breath, draw her body back a little so that the semen cannot penetrate into the os uteri, then immediately set up and sit down with bent knees, and in this position, provoke sneezes.”
100s – Roman gynecologist Soranus wrote, “A contraceptive differs from an abortive, for the first does not let contraception take place while the latter destroys what has been conceived. Let us therefore call the one abortive and the other contraceptive.”
300s BCE – A colony in northern Africa called Cyrenne became rich from exports of silphium, a plant well-known for its abortive and contraceptive qualities. It was said to be a gift from Apollo. After six-hundred years, over-harvesting drove it to extinction.
300s BCE – Soranus, a Greek physician and medical writer, wrote about the silphium plant. He suggested that women drink the juice once a month because “it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing.”
300s BCE – The birthwort plant was craved into the background of an Egyptian vase found in Thebes and was known for its abortive and contraceptive properties. Ancient Greeks also knew of birthwort. Dioscorides, the Greek physician suggested birthwort be put in a suppository with pepper and myrrh to provoke menstruation or to expel a fetus.
300s BCE – According to Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist, the chaste tree “destroys generation as well as provokes menstruation.” The plant’s petals, fruit, and seeds were made into anti-pregnancy wines and teas.
300s BCE – The Greek philosopher Plato commented on population in the Roman Empire. He wrote, “There are many devices available. If too many children are being born, there are measures to check propagation.”
300s BCE – Aristotle wrote that people should produce more abundantly if the city was too small, or use birth control measures if it was too large.
400s BCE – The Hippocratic Oath remained the standard medical oath until the 1970s. It stated, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”
1500s BCE – The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medial text, listed a recipe for a spermacidal plug made from the acacia plant, lint, and honey. This combination produces a lactic acid similar to that found in modern spermicides.
1850s BCE – The Petri Papyrus, a medical text from Ancient Egypt, listed three different vaginal contraceptive methods; gummy substances made from honey, sodium carbonate, and crocodile dung.
2700s BCE – Emperor Shen Nung of China, who laid the foundation for traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, wrote some of the earliest recipes for contraception and abortion, many of which were quoted well into the 16th century.
3000s BCE – The Royal Archives of China hold the earliest written record of an abortion technique.
When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973, by Leslie J. Reagan
The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, by Linda Gordon
Sacred Choices, by Daniel C. Maguire
Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West, by John M. Riddle
Curious History of Contraception, by Shirley Green
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by Dorothy E. Roberts
Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, by Susan S. Weed
From private vice to public virtue: The birth control movement and American society since 1830, by James Reed