" Not the Church, Not the State. Women should decide their fate." Pro Choice Picket Line Chant.
The right of women to abortion is often cast as a battle of secular freedom over her body and reproduction versus religious zealots wanting control. This is often true. There is no doubt that religious fundamentalists in the Christian west and in the Islamic world oppose a woman's right to abortion. Less examined is the role of secular and state opponents of abortion rights.
Of course, the state through law and its police powers, often caters to the religious opposition. This is particuarily true in the United States. by flexing their political muscles in the courts , state legislatures and the Congress, the Religious Right has shown itself a formidable obstacle to women's right to abortion.
But there are times when opposition to abortion rights become purely secular matters. The major reason for secular opposition is manipulation of population growth. Usually, the state feels a need to increase population or certain sectors of the population. Sometimes secular opposition is to obtain an economic benefit for some sector of economy.
The US carried on the English Common Law of a woman's right to abortion. Under this law , abortion was not criminal if done during "quickening" or roughly the first trimester.
In 1820, Conn. was the first state to out law abortion. By 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, 20 states had anti-abortion laws. The rationale for banning them was pushed by doctors who claimed abortions were dangerous medical practices. Of course, this eliminated women midwives as rivals to doctors .
From the 1870s into the 20th Century, the US entered into frenzied opposition to abortion. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Laws. These laws made it illegal to send pornography, information on birth control including abortionns through the mails.
Comstock laws also proved to be weapons against radical dissent.In 1878, anarchist Ezra Heywood was convicted for sending literature in the mails questioning traditional marriage. In 1904, radical feminist Lois Waisbrooker was convicted under Comstock. In 1916, Benjamin Reitman, anarchist and lover of Emma Goldman, was convicted for distributing birth control information. Comstock was ruled unconstitutional in parts in 1938.
From the 1870s onward, the US began a wave of immigration from Southern and eastern Europe. Poles, Italians, Russians, Hungarians, ect. pured into the US.
This alarmed many native born, Western European descended Americans. In their eyes, these newcomers were not quite white enough for American standards. This began calls for more babies from native white Americans.
A 1911 eugenics book by Dr. Charles Davenport (Davenport's work was supported by John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil fame) descriped prevailing views of the time :
"... On account of the great influx of blood from SE Europe, rapidly becoming darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex immorality." From Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Davenport.
In Europe, in two countries, barriers against abortion came tumbling down during the 1920s. However, in the 1930s, these countries would go retrograde on these issues.The two countries were the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic of Germany.
When the Communists took power in 1917, they instituted laws promoting sexual equality. They allowed women into the economic and political sphere. They legalized abortion as well.
A woman's right to abortion became yet another victim of the Stalinist purges. Stalin's apparatus banned abortion in 1935. The reason given was to insure the birth of more proletarians. Abortion became legal again during the khruschev era.
Soviet apologists have often cited a woman's right to abortion in the Soviet Union as a great advancement. Abortion did become a favored method of birth control in the post Stalin era. This was not from enlightenment of women's abortion rights but more of a sign of Soviet backwardness in birth control research and production.
The 1920s also produced a period of liberalization of abortion rights in Germany under the Social Democrats of the Wiemar Republic. When the Nazis under Hitler took power in 1932, this period came to a repressive halt. Nazis had no sympathy for wormen's rights or equality.
The Nazis created the Office of Abortion and Homosexuality to combat abortion. This office was ruthless in its goals of elimination abortion. Fascism just bared its teeth at women's rights and never faked its contempt.
From the 1870s to the 1960s, abortion rights entered a dark age in the US. Abortion was never eliminated just driven underground. Illegal, often dangerous and brutal, abortions continued in the US underground.
In the 1960s , things began to change in the US. Women began demanding a wide spectrum of rights including abortion. It was a rebirth of Feminism and a sexual revolution in sexual values.
A major companion to abortion has always been birth control methods. The birth control pill revolutionized sex in America. Now birth control was in the hands of women.
The first state to ban abortion was involved in the first to leagalize birth control as a unwilling defendant. In 1965, Deirdre vr. Conn ruled the state could not stop married couples from using birth control. This case and its emphasis on privacy, was a major stepping stone towards abortion legalization in 1973 in Roe v. Wade.
In 1973, the US Supreme Court , declared abortion legal in Roe v. Wade. This set the stage for religious inspired opposition to women's abortion rights. This battle continues today.
It is too easy to say abortion rights would be automatic if religious opposition was eliminated. The period of abortion prohibition in the US that lasted from Comstock Laws in 1873 to Roe v Wade in 1973 was waged on secular grounds. Religious opposition became the leading factor after Roe.
Secular ideologies, Fascism and Communism, have shown that the secular state will destroy women's right to abortion to pursue their own agendas. Capitalist states have also bared their teeth at abortion rights.
In the end, abortion rights, like all rights must be fought for time and time again.