With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Americans Sought Safer Abortions in Mexico Before Roe, Too

HNN Editor's Note: This article was published before the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Mexico to decriminalize abortion. 

Texas just became the first state in the nation to deny a pregnant person their constitutional right to an abortion. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a draconian abortion bill into law last May. Without a single court in the country halting it, the near-total abortion ban took effect Sept. 1 — and the Supreme Court allowed it. This latest restriction not only criminalizes people seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people even know they are pregnant, but it also deputizes private citizens to sue abortion providers and others supporting those receiving the procedure.

Of course, this news has serious and broad implications. But it’s no accident that Texas is leading the effort to end legal abortion. Texas has long been on the front lines of this debate. Roe v. Wade originated in the state after Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), with help from attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, sued then-District Attorney Henry Wade in 1969. And, in the years before the landmark Supreme Court decision, the Lone Star state became a gateway for U.S. residents seeking safe abortions in Mexico. This history reminds us that neither laws nor borders can stop people from seeking the abortion care they need.

Historians have established how abortion in the United States went from an unrestricted, frequently self-administered procedure, to one criminalized by the state. During the 1860s, physicians, in an effort to streamline their profession and wrest power from midwives and women themselves, led the charge to criminalize abortion. Scholars also suggest that falling birthrates among White women spurred the movement to end abortion. By the end of the century, there was an antiabortion law in every U.S. state.

And yet abortion never went away. It merely went underground. Backroom abortion providers existed in the shadows and for decades often operated with the tacit understanding of local doctors and law enforcement, both of whom had not yet figured out how to prosecute people for procuring or providing abortion. These were the days before sonograms and pharmacy-bought pregnancy tests; abortion regulations abided by the quickening doctrine, when women themselves established pregnancy after feeling the fetus move.

In the years after World War II, public frenzy developed over the proliferation of “abortion mills.” Across the country, well-known and at times well-respected abortion providers were raided and clandestine clinics closed. These aggressive tactics emerged during a period when, as one historian put it, there was “an assault on female independence” and an embrace of “traditional motherhood” as men returned from war looking for work and marriage.

While some women enlisted all-manner of grotesque tools or crude potions to end their pregnancies, others began traveling to Mexico for abortion services. Although the Catholic Church held some sway over the Mexican government’s position on birth control, there were fissures as the Mexican government sought to distance itself from the church in the early years of the 20th century. At the same time, the border region provided cover for such illicit activities as gambling, prostitution and alcohol consumption during Prohibition.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post