The history of reproductive rights in the United States reflects the history of the nation’s shifting views on morality and gender roles. In a very real sense, legislature in this matter has traditionally been guided by mainstream thinking focused on a woman’s virtual obligation to have children, and within the confines of marriage. This has been so dominant that even the term “reproductive rights” is relatively recent, as the culture has long demanded that legal procreation take precedence over any other concern. Not unexpectedly, this has also reflected Western, and largely Christian, ideas centered on sex as proper only when recognized by the state and/or church. As the following will reveal, the history of reproductive rights is far from over, as a woman’s right to an abortion remains a fixed matter of intense debate.

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The Comstock Act of 1873 very much expressed a national concern for morality as linked to reproductive rights. The law made it illegal to manufacture or distribute in any way material that was considered “obscene,” with obscenity held as anything related to sexual activity. This of course included material about contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases, even as Congress was unwilling or unable to define “obscene” itself (Towers 34). Nonetheless, all material referring to sexuality was deemed immoral by the mainstream culture, which then essentially identified contraception with pornography. Remarkably, and some modifications notwithstanding, the Act remains in legal force to this day (Towers 34).

Margaret Sanger, an early women’s rights advocate, would famously challenge Comstock in the early 20th century. Sanger was determined to promote sex education, efforts which led to her being indicted for breaking the law . Nonetheless, she spent her life in defying such statutes and ideologies, insisting that only education could empower women to have their rightful control over their reproductive lives. Although a variety of other factors, such as the Industrial Revolution, were responsible as well, Sanger paved the way for a “sexual revolution” in the 1920s, in which women were becoming more aggressive in terms of sex and control in relationships with men. It is also important to note that, in 1916, Sanger founded the birth control clinic that would evolve into Planned Parenthood (Carroll 346), an organization devoted to providing couples with choices regarding reproduction, which is held to be their fundamental right.

The laws pertaining to reproduction, such as they were, went unchanged for decades, even as World War II saw the emergence of women as more independent than ever. What would radically shift thinking and generate controversy would come later, with the introduction of the birth control pill. In 1960, the first birth control pill was federally approved, and the repercussions on reproductive rights were enormous (Carroll 360). For the first time in history, women could independently control their reproductive processes, a reality clearly going to the rising feminism movement. Traditional ideas as to the woman’s obligation to have children within marriage were challenged, and simply because women themselves now had a choice.

This new reality of choice for women inevitably created conflict, and the Supreme Court was soon faced with challenges that would continue for decades, and which basically centered on the state’s – and the father’s or husband’s – right to dictate reproduction An early groundbreaking ruling came in 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court decided that a married couple had the right to decide on contraception without state interference. The focus then became more gender-specific in 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, which held that unmarried couples had the same right, and that a woman’s right to privacy and decision as to reproduction outweighed any state prerogatives (Rengel 199). It is hardly surprising that these years marked the rise of American feminism, and Roe v. Wade would follow as perhaps the most sensational case regarding reproduction. In their 1973 ruling here, the Court held that denying a woman an abortion was unconstitutional. Importantly, however, and leading to debates raging today, the Court added the proviso that, at some point in the pregnancy, the state has a legitimate interest in the fetus as a human being (Rengel 199). Just when this status of human being occurs has since been the basic argument in abortion debates, aside from concerns as to the morality of terminating a pregnancy at any stage.

Today, it seems the most consistently volatile issue in reproductive rights centers on abortion, with pro-choice and pro-life organizations in fierce conflict. Pro-choice supporters typically insist that they do not promote abortion, but rather that it is a necessary option and a woman’s inalienable right, as she has authority over her body. They do not support abortion, but they demand the woman’s right to choose. Similarly, many pro-life advocates do not seek to deny women reproductive rights; they believe, however, that legalized abortion translates to a dangerous weakening of contraception efforts, and consequently the tragic and unnecessary destruction of fetuses (Carroll 379). Other opponents of legalized abortion, of course, are more extreme and assert that a woman essentially surrenders any right to choose once she has become pregnant, because the potential life of the child is paramount. In this debate, as in the past, civil rights clash with moral ideologies, and it is a conflict with no end in sight.

A brief examination of the history of reproductive rights in the U.S. does reveal a trajectory of change. From the Comstock Act’s suppression of all sexually-related materials, the society has evolved to one in which safe abortions are legal choices available to women and couples. At the same time, this is no simple matter because strong feelings and thinking regarding the nature of human life itself come into play, which translate to a perpetual debate as to the “right” of a woman to “end a life,” or the right of a woman to simply maintain authority over her own body. Ultimately, then, the history of reproductive rights is one still evolving, as a woman’s right to an abortion remains the core of intense debate.

  • Carroll, Janell. Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
  • Rengel, Marian. Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. Print.
  • Towers, Sandi. Media and Entertainment Law. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2008. Print.