From the Desk of Alicia Gutierrez-Romine: What the History of Abortion Should Teach Us

Alicia Gutierrez-Romine is an assistant professor of history at La Sierra University. She is the author of From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920-1969 (Nebraska, 2020).

In 2015, on the first major research trip for my doctoral dissertation, I strayed away from the project I thought I was going to research and stumbled down a rabbit hole. While I knew I wanted to write about medical history, I thought it was going to be a project about race, discrimination, and segregation in professional medicine; in the end, the rabbit hole I fell into, that I ultimately ended up writing about, was about illegal abortion.

I’m almost embarrassed to say that I never really gave abortion much thought before that week at the California State Archives. I am a millennial, I was born in the 1980s, I have only known the world since Roe v. Wade. However, as I scanned through these documents, I suddenly had a very jarring and unsettling realization of what it was like for women trying to access abortion before Roe.

In the last few years, and particularly since the Dobbs decision was announced in June, there has been an increased effort to restrict access to legal abortion across several states in the U.S. Historians know all too well that abortion restrictions do not stop abortions. When abortion was illegal in California, women accessed the procedures illegally from physicians, induced miscarriage themselves, or subjected themselves to unknown practitioners. For some women, their illegal abortions were successful. For many women, these black-market procedures were dangerous, or even fatal.

When I wrote a piece for California History a few months ago, I mentioned of the newer abortion restrictions popping up in state legislatures across the country that they were reminiscent of previous abortion laws that had been discussed, debated, and found void in California years before Roe. There is no consensus on what it means to have a fetal anomaly; there is no consensus on what it means for a procedure to be acceptable only if the mother’s life is at risk; and there is no consensus on, or truly measurable, gestational age. When these phrases were in our statutes decades, and even a century ago, physicians and legislators did not have a clear definition of any of those terms. In our present age, with greater technology and greater opportunities to spread misinformation, we are less capable of defining those terms now.

As we survey the legal landscape emerging in the post-Dobbs world, I would invite everyone to acquaint themselves with this history of when abortion was illegal. I would encourage people to read the dying declarations and court testimony of women who desperately sought abortions. We immediately saw the ramifications of abortion restrictions when women who were miscarrying had to wait for treatment until hospital doctors, administration, and lawyers felt safe enough—in other words, the woman’s life was at peril enough—for them to perform the dilation and evacuation. I would encourage those who are against abortion to listen to obstetricians and gynecologists when they say that these laws restricting abortion will affect them, their patients, and their ability to make ethical decisions. Abortion is not a procedure that only “irresponsible” women need. Abortion is healthcare that has become politicized.

If my research has taught me anything, it’s that the overwhelming majority of women who seek abortions make these decisions carefully and after much consideration. And for the women unfortunate enough to require abortions due to fetal anomaly or illness, society’s black-and-white treatment and discussion of abortion just adds insult to injury. Abortion may seem like a polarizing topic, but when you step back and focus less on the hyperbolic extremes, Americans share many feelings. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans support abortion access in some or all instances. [1] We can see this in red-state Kansas, for example, where Kansans just overwhelmingly voted to protect legal access to abortion. Perhaps Kansas is our opportunity to see the ground we share in common.


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