Reproductive rights, or the rights of individuals to control and make decisions related to reproduction and childbearing, especially contraception and abortion, have been contested in the United States since the mid-19th century. Before 1840, abortion was a widespread procedure for many American women and one that was legal before “quickening” or the time when women could feel the movement of the fetus. By 1910, however, abortion was illegal in all states even though most allowed for therapeutic exceptions when the mother’s life was in danger. This exception gave physicians extraordinary power to perform abortions at their own discretion, while also creating a large market for illegal abortions.
The reproductive rights landscape shifted dramatically with the emergence of the modern feminist movement and efforts to legalize abortion by the doctors, lawyers and clergymen affiliated with Planned Parenthood. Linking women’s rights with reproductive rights pushed state legislatures to reform abortion laws: Colorado was the first to loosen restrictions in 1967, followed by California, Oregon, and North Carolina. In 1970, Hawaii legalized abortions on demand, followed by New York, Alaska, and Washington. By 1973, in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to an abortion was protected By 1973, in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to an abortion was protected as a right of privacy founded in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The modern pro-life (anti-abortion) movement, initially centered in the Catholic Church, emerged as states began liberalizing abortion laws. After 1973, pro-life activism changed, developing new tactics and messages focused primarily on fetal personhood. Evangelical Christians revitalized the pro-life movement in the 1980s with their rescue operations, while other right-to-life activists worked for the passage of state laws to restrict abortion access or for the nomination of judges and Supreme Court justices who might challenge Roe. These efforts intensified after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade but upheld most Pennsylvania provisions restricting abortion access. Casey thus played a pivotal role in weakening constitutional protections for abortion while opening the door for state level restrictions, as long as they did not impose an “undue burden” on individuals seeking the procedure. The FDA’s approval of the abortion pill (RU-486) in 2000 gave women a non-surgical option for terminating pregnancies, further energizing the anti-abortion movement. In 2022, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and declared that the Constitution does not confer the right to an abortion. Abortion rights would then be decided on a state-by-state basis.