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What was the legal status of abortion in the United States before Roe v. Wade?

Dating back to British common law, the historical foundation of American law, abortion was illegal after “quickening”, when the mother could feel the baby begin to move. As early as 1871 the American Medical Association condemned abortion as “wholesale destruction of unborn infants.” By 1900, abortion was illegal throughout the United States through all nine months of pregnancy.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, individual states regulated abortion, with penalties typically imposed on the abortionists. In the 1960’s, in the midst of the sexual revolution and more widespread use of contraception, some sociologists and legal scholars proposed that abortion laws be liberalized to allow exceptions for rape, incest and other reasons never before considered to justify abortion.

Colorado legalized abortion for rape, incest, significant fetal anomaly or threat to the mother’s health in 1967. In 1970, New York passed the country’s most permissive abortion law, allowing abortion up to 24 weeks for any reason. By the time of Roe v. Wade, thirteen states had passed laws similar to Colorado’s. Most states allowed abortion only in cases where a woman’s life was said to be in danger. 

All of these state laws on abortion were rendered moot by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions in 1973. 

See also What did Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decide?


Dorland. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. St. Louis: Saunders, 1965.

Lewis, J., and Shimabukuro, Jon O. “Abortion Law Development: A Brief Overview.” Almanac of Policy Issues. January 28, 2001. http://www.policyalmanac.org/culture/archive/crs_abortion_overview.shtml.

Quay, Eugene. Justifiable Abortion: Medical and Legal Foundations. Washington: Family Life Bureau, National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1961.

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