Abortion: The Issue

By Focus on the Family Issue Analysts
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Andrey Popov
As one of the most controversial and culture-changing issues of our time, abortion affects all Americans - directly or indirectly.

History in the United States

  • In the mid-to-late 1800’s, all states passed laws making it illegal to perform or attempt to perform an abortion. These laws were supported by the medical community, which noted abortion’s moral implications and danger to women.
  • During this time period, notable activists in the women’s suffrage movement, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, spoke out against abortion in their efforts to protect women and children.
  • The term, “back-alley abortion,” became slang for illegal abortions.

In 1959, efforts to liberalize state abortion laws were mounting, and model legislation to legalize abortion in limited cases was proposed at the state level. Abortion advocates often cited as many as ten thousand illegal abortion deaths each year as reason for legalization. However, statements from those on the forefront of this movement reveal that this number was, at best, unsubstantiated and, at worse, purposefully exaggerated. Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America, Doubleday, 1979, p.193; Lucinda Cisler, “Birth Control” in Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, Vintage Books, 1970, p. 260.

Another argument for legalizing abortion was that it would enable licensed physicians — rather than unlicensed amateurs — to commit the act. However, in 1960, before abortion was legal, Mary Calderone, former president of Planned Parenthood, wrote that trained physicians performed “90% of illegal abortions.” Source: M. Calderone, “Illegal abortion as a public health problem,” American Journal of Public Health, July 1960, 50 (7): 949.

  • In 1968, Colorado, California, North Carolina and Oregon reformed abortion laws to allow abortion in some cases.
  • Between 1969-1970, a dozen other states followed suit.
  • On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down every state abortion law through two rulings, Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton.

Current Status

  • The number of annual reported abortions in the U.S. peaked in 1990 at 1.4 million abortions before dropping in subsequent years.
  • More than one million abortions are performed in the U.S. each year.
  • Based on current abortion rates, about one in three women will have an abortion by age 45.
  • Fourty-four percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. had at least one previous abortion. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Abortion Surveillance 2004 Report,”November 23, 2007, accessed online August 13, 2008, 2008 at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/ss/ss5609.pdf
  • Eighty-two percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. were unmarried. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Abortion Surveillance 2004 Report,”November 23, 2007, accessed online August 13, 2008 at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/ss/ss5609.pdf
  • Fifty percent of U.S. women having abortions are younger than 25 years old.

Recent public opinion polling indicates a majority of Americans support additional limits on abortion, including bans on late term abortions. They are not comfortable with the virtually unrestricted access it currently enjoys.

Most abortion laws are in effect at the state level. Since Roe and Doe, the US Supreme Court has granted states some latitude in regulating and restricting abortion. As a result, many states have passed measures mandating parental involvement in minor abortion decisions and uniform counseling with reflection periods. A federal ban on a specific type of late-term abortion, “partial birth abortion,” was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2007.


Copyright © 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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