Abortion has generally been framed as an issue of gender rights, a question of whether women have the right to privacy and have jurisdiction over their own bodies.
This formulation has made abortion into a feminist cause. Any attempts to criminalize or otherwise infringe on abortion rights is viewed as a violation of the rights of individual women.
However, there is a side to this argument that often remains overshadowed.
Statistics show that majority of the women who have abortions do so for economic reasons (Pollitt 1997). Corollary to this, analysts believe that making abortion illegal or criminal would unduly burden minority and other marginalized women (Swomley 2002).
This paper examines the class bias that underscores laws that criminalize abortion. It focuses on the abortion laws that existed before the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, and how these laws particularly restricted the rights of poor women.
In the final section, the paper examines how this class bias continues today in laws restricting the rights of poor women to financial aid for the termination of pregnancy.
Prior to Roe vs. Wade, abortion had been illegal in the United States. This does not mean, however, that abortions did not occur. As early as the 19th century, many American women were having risky abortions done under potentially dangerous conditions. In fact, it was the death of a woman from a botched abortion that pushed Margaret Sanger to devote her life to the campaign for contraception.
In 1955, Planned Parenthood, the organization founded by Sanger, organized a conference called "Abortion in America." The conference discussed the restrictive state laws that continued to ban abortion and set the stage for future challenges to the constitutionality of these laws.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s helped usher in more open talk about abortion. The case of Sherri Finkbine, host of the children's television show Romper Room, brought further attention to the issue and helped highlighted many of the shortcomings of abortion law in the United States.
In 1962, a pregnant Finkbine learned that the thalidomide she had taken had caused serious birth defects in the fetus. Finkbine sought and was denied a therapeutic abortion. She later traveled to Sweden to obtain a legal abortion (Andryszewski 1996).
The Finkbine case reveals an underlying class bias in abortion law at the time. Finkbine could travel to Sweden, where she later recounted how "lucky" she was to be in a clean, medical clinic. She knew that other women who could not afford to obtain legal abortions outside the country would have to risk going to unlicensed physicians (Andryszewski 1996).
In addition to the lack of access to abortion, many of the pregnant single women would also have to contend with the social stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In fact, after her abortion was publicized, the film A Private Matter shows the consequences for the Finkbines, which included loss of employment, harassment and death threats.
The lack of access to safe abortion also causes under economic hardships for the women, many of whom seek abortions for economic reasons in the first place. Forcing economically marginalized women to have children they could not afford to raise further contributes to the cycle of poverty in many families.
The late 1960s saw growing support for abortion rights. In the wake of the thalidomide tragedy, early abortion activists included physicians, lawyers and even mainstream churches that protested the dangers of forcing women to bear children with birth defects.
However, women's rights and feminist groups were at the vanguard of the growing movement to provide legal protection for women's reproductive rights.
Across the country, it was now apparent that state laws - not federal law - made abortion illegal. Activists began to target these laws at the state level and won gradual victories. In fact, by the eve of Roe vs. Wade, only the states of Louisiana, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania prohibited abortion in all circumstances. Thirteen states had enacted laws allowing abortion in limited instances, such as when the fetus is deformed or there is a clear danger to the mother's health. Finally, Alaska, Washington, New York and Hawaii had the most liberal abortion laws. These four states permitted abortion for any reason before the fetus was able to survive outside the womb (Andryszewski 1996).
In addition to the state challenges, the restrictions on abortion already faced challenges on constitutional grounds. In its 1965 ruling on Griswold vs. Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down a statute outlawing the use of contraceptives. The Court ruled that the statute intruded into a "zone of privacy" for marital relations that were constitutionally protected (Andryszewski 1996).
In 1972, the Court extended this ruling to include unmarried individuals. In its decision, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to treat unmarried couples differently from married ones with regard to contraception (Andryszewski 1996).
These two rulings served as precedents for the Court's later decision on Roe vs. Wade.
Sarah Weddington, a young lawyer who herself had to go to Mexico to obtain an abortion, successfully argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. On June 22, 1973, the Supreme Court struck down all state laws regarding abortion and created one new law for the entire country. In the 7-2 ruling, the Court held that "the Constitution protects a fundamental 'right to privacy,' broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy" (cited in Guernsey 63).
Since this important decision, however, anti-abortion activists have been equally hard at work undoing the gains obtained since the 1960s. Most people associate the anti-abortion camp with noisy protests outside clinics.
Beneath these noisy campaigns, however, parts of the broad anti-abortion coalition mounted legal challenges to Roe vs. Wade. These challenges were far more successful and served to quietly erode several of the abortion rights formerly protected under Roe vs. Wade.
From 1981 to 1992, the federal courts were staffed by new judges who were picked by then Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who both publicly stated their stand against abortion. These paved the way for federal rulings that lent new interpretations to Roe vs. Wade that were generally more favorable to the anti-abortion camp (Tompkins 112).
In 1980, for example, Harris vs. McRae was filed in front of the Supreme Court. The class action lawsuit charged that current measures prohibiting the use of Medicaid to pay for indigent women's abortions violated the abortion rights of poor women. The Court, however, ruled that the government was not obliged to pay for the abortions or to "remove obstacles, like poverty, that were not its own creation" (Tompkins 113).
In 1986, under President Reagan, Congress passed a law barring abortions in publicly funded hospitals in Missouri. This law was struck down but was appealed to the Supreme Court where, in 1989, it was labeled Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. By this time, many of the justices who helped pass the Roe vs. Wade ruling had retired. The new Court had a Conservative majority, with three justices recently appointed by President Reagan (Guernsey 67).
As part of the Webster ruling, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Missouri law. Critics charged that the net effect was the sharp restriction of abortion services in the state. In addition, because the ruling allowed states to outlaw abortions in public hospitals and clinics as well as prohibit public employees from providing and assisting abortions, the law once again gave the states the legal foundation to restrict abortions in their jurisdictions.
These rulings thus serve to resurrect the same class bias problems that restricted poor women from obtaining safe abortions in the 1950s to the 1960s. Back then, many women could not afford to travel to Sweden like Finkbine or to Mexico like Weddington. Even traveling to other states may present…