By the 20th century, people began to question these laws and work towards women’s healthcare. Margaret Sanger founded the first women’s health clinic in 1916, and later the American Birth Control League (ABCL) which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Though Sanger believed in Eugenics, the generation of women helping women embodied in Suffragist movement rarely discussed abortion and often ignored racial equality for Black women. However, they called for “voluntary motherhood” in which women could choose to be mothers. In Denver, Ruth Cunningham helped create the Denver Birth Control League in 1916, which by 1926 opened a clinic near 17th and Emerson serving over 150 women. By 1940, there were several hundred semi-legal birth control clinics in the US and those like Dr. John Rock, who founded one of the first family planning clinics in the US, helped legitimize birth control as part of the AMA. For the next two generations the best estimates of abortion ranged from several hundred thousand to a million per year. Yet, by 1930, abortion was listed as a cause of death for about 2,700 women, 18% of maternal deaths
that year, which declined steadily thereafter. In one study of women in New York City, 10% of poor women attempted home termination of pregnancy, and were “disproportionately affected” by lack of options to reproductive health. Another 40% said a relative had attempted abortion, while 77% knew someone who had attempted to “self-induce the procedure.” In the same study there was a 25% maternal mortality rate for white women, and a 50% rate for Puerto Rican women. The statistics got much worse for women of color by the 1970s. By 1972, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that the mortality rate for abortion was twelve times for women of color than it was for white women.
From 1950 to 1965, there were many changes to the growing chorus of voices for reproductive rights. In the 1950s, Margaret Sanger helped to fund the research into birth control pills with Gregory Pincus called Enovid. Yet, the trials for this first pill were done on women in the Worcester State Psychiatric Hospital and women in Puerto Rico who were not fully aware of the implications. By 1960, the first birth control pills were approved by the FDA. In 1965 in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut legalized contraception for married couples. In 1967, Colorado became the first state in the nation to decriminalize abortion in the case of rape or incest just as 19th century laws were slowly modernized.
In 1969, Norma McCorvey became pregnant with her third child, and became involved with Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee’s lawsuit arguing that women should have access to abortion based upon medical reasons. By 1972, the Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion in the landmark decision Roe V. Wade. In Colorado, women’s health clinics the Colorado Springs Women’s Health Services Collective went on to support over 40,000 women from 1970 - 1991 after closing due to financial issues with malpractice insurance.
Yet, women loving women, had always supported women’s healthcare. The lesbian feminist magazine Big Mama Rag regularly covered women’s healthcare rights around the world, while pointing out places where women could gain access to reproductive health in Denver as well as general women’s healthcare.
Studies from the Guttmacher Institute on abortion from 1972 - 2003 show a steady decline in surgical abortion with a racial split amongst Black, white, and Hispanic women from several hundred thousand to tens of thousands per year, due to increased access to birth control and contraceptives. Medical or pill abortion became much easier with different medications developed since the 1960s. The morning after pill RU-486 (Mifepristone) and medication abortion became available in the US in 2000. By 2020, medication abortion made up over 54% of all abortions in the US. Yet with the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision ending a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive health, the number of states where women can access reproductive healthcare has diminished, while the bulk of the US waits for a state-by-state battle to renew women’s healthcare.
In all these stories the one commonality is communities of humans caring for humans. While pro and anti-reproductive rights have been mired in racial controversy and privilege, the effect is one of women helping women. While fear of reproductive health is rooted in racism, power, patriarchy, and money, it is cured in the voices of women helping women.
Patriarchy is often defined as power based upon the control of women’s bodies by men. In the 19th century, anti-reproductive rights were built upon racism and power. In 1851, after giving birth to thirteen children, many of whom were sold into slavery, Sojourner Truth gave the “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech in which she condemned slavery, which was built upon the backs of enslaved, Black women. Through their bodies, their children became the property by which slavery was continued. Yet Black women played early roles as midwives in the US.
Contraceptives and abortion were legal in the US before 1870 and were used widely in both Europe and Colonial communities. Historians have identified dozens of cases in the 19th century of women seeking abortion, 60% were already married and had one child. Yet, from 1850 - 1880, abortion became the first sexual legal issue in American politics. Notable doctors and gynecologists, like Horatio Storer, saw midwives as unskilled labor who directly competed with them for profit. Storer wrote many letters and articles damning the practice of abortion as bad for women’s bodies, reducing it to nothing but “infanticide.” Storer even convened the American Medical Association’s (AMA) first panels on restricting abortion by 1870.
In the late 19th century, the furor over women’s reproductive rights was ensnared with increasing trepidation about women’s rights like the right to vote. In addition, movements like Eugenics were tied to declining birth rates and fears over so-called white racial suicide if non-white peoples outnumbered white people. By 1873, the Comstock Law forbade mailing information on abortion as “obscene literature.” In addition, the AMA categorically denied Black people entry to the medical profession, while undermining midwives. By 1870, every state in the Union banned abortion as a felony.