Abortion Before and After Legalization

It is easy for Americans to forget that illegal abortion was common before the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that legalized the procedure across the nation—and that denying women access to legal abortion does not prevent them from having abortions, but just increases the likelihood that they will resort to an illegal abortion carried out under unsafe conditions. In a 1976 article, researchers from the Center for Disease Control examined national abortion data from the three years surrounding the rulings and estimated that the number of illegal procedures in the country plummeted from around 130,000 to 17,000 between 1972 and 1974. The number of deaths associated with illegal abortion decreased from 39 to five in that same time period; women who died as a result of illegal abortions typically were black, were more than 12 weeks pregnant and had self-induced in their own community. The researchers concluded that abortion services need to be improved and available more widely, especially for women at high risk for seeking illegal abortions, because “any actions which impede their access to legal abortion may increase their risk of death.” More than 40 years later, their words are a potent reminder of the dangers of restricting abortion access.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine