Reproductive Rights: Law and History

The ability to reproduce is a as basic as life but the constitution has not always protected the right to decide whether to have off springs or bring pregnancy to full term. States have over the years imposed some limitations on these rights.

The Law

Over the years, there have been many changes to federal and state laws on reproductive rights mainly due the changes in social and religious norms and beliefs as well as pressure from activists and political groups. In the early decades of the 18th century, there were no restriction on the use of reproductive planning methods and women had access to legal abortion. However towards the latter half of the century, the views towards sex changed and sex was considered immoral. Many lawmakers felt that only married couple could engage in sexual activity and as a result the access to contraceptive becomes limited.

In 1965 the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment passed in Griswold v. Connecticut held that mmarried couples have a constitutional right to use contraceptives.


There were no laws on abortion until the 1800s. During those days women did not have the right to vote and could not become doctors. The American Medical Association (in those days, women could not become members) along with religious leaders strongly argued for a ban on abortion. In those days, abortion technology was medieval and rather unsafe. Even if the abortion was successful, the woman was generally left sterile. By the 1880s states across the United States had laws banning abortion. It was a criminal offense then and remained so until the 1960s.

During the 1960s and 70s women’s groups together with doctors and attorneys started a movement for a change in the abortion laws. The 1972 judgement of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade is seen as the main decision on abortion laws in the United States. The Supreme Court held that a woman can terminate the pregnancy up to 12 weeks using abortion but post 12 weeks; the state has a greater interest in regulating the right to privacy.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger is seen as a pioneer in the movement for reproductive rights. Most of the change she had fought for occurred in the last two decades of Mrs. Sanger’s life, after she had retired from official leadership in the birth control movement. At the time she “left the front,” as she put it, in 1943, the most commonly used contraceptives were still intravaginal devices and chemicals. By the time of her death, millions of women all over the world regularly took oral contraceptives. That development Mrs. Sanger promoted both indirectly and directly. Not only did it reflect her long years of propagandizing for a simple, inexpensive contraceptive; it also owed in large part to the financial and organizational support she made possible in the post-World War II years to research in hormonal anovulants. Mrs. Sanger’s career in behalf of birth control embraced a period in American history during which contraception was first advocated in an organized way, initially rejected, at least officially, and finally accepted both privately and publicly. One of her most famous articles “What Every Girl Should Know” was deemed obscene when it was published. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States. The clinic was considered illegal and shut down. She passed away in 1996 but before her death, the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgment in Griswold v. Connecticut.

Modern Laws

The use of federal funding for abortions is limited and only available if the abortion is required to save the life of the woman. State laws have imposed other limitations on access to abortion including the need for parental consent and notification (in case of minors), counseling and waiting period. Partial birth abortions are illegal under federal law. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act passed in 2003 established personhood for fetuses in the womb.

Mifepristone or RU 486 was created in the 1980’s by a French doctor and is commonly referred to as the abortion pill as it can be used to end pregnancies less than 49 days gestation. It is available in the United States ever since it was approved by the FDA in 2000.

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