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When Abortion Was a Crime

Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

Leslie J. Reagan (Author)


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ISBN: 9780520922068
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ISBN: 9780520922068
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As we approach the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's crucial to look back to the time when abortion was illegal. Leslie Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion, which although illegal was nonetheless widely available, but always with threats for both doctor and patient. In a time when many young women don't even know that there was a period when abortion was a crime, this work offers chilling and vital lessons of importance to everyone.

The linking of the words "abortion" and "crime" emphasizes the difficult and painful history that is the focus of Leslie J. Reagan's important book. Her study is the first to examine the entire period during which abortion was illegal in the United States, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Although illegal, millions of abortions were provided during these years to women of every class, race, and marital status. The experiences and perspectives of these women, as well as their physicians and midwives, are movingly portrayed here.

Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion. While abortions have been typically portrayed as grim "back alley" operations, she finds that abortion providers often practiced openly and safely. Moreover, numerous physicians performed abortions, despite prohibitions by the state and the American Medical Association. Women often found cooperative practioners, but prosecution, public humiliation, loss of privacy, and inferior medical care were a constant threat.

Reagan's analysis of previously untapped sources, including inquest records and trial transcripts, shows the fragility of patient rights and raises provocative questions about the relationship between medicine and law. With the right to abortion again under attack in the United States, this book offers vital lessons for every American concerned with health care, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom.
Leslie J. Reagan is Professor of History, with affiliations in gender and women's studies, law, media and cinema studies, and medicine, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America (UC Press) and coeditor of Medicine's Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television.
"Exploiting legal as well as medical records, Reagan has retrieved the history of women who struggled for reproductive autonomy and provides our best account of how the practice and policing of abortion evolved in relation to medicine, the state, and the condition of women. [This] is a major contribution to social history."—James W. Reed, Rutgers University

"This is a fascinating book—energetic, even urgent in its narrative. It is based on entirely new material, making ingenious and enlightening use of criminal trials, inquests and newspaper accounts. Both creative and painstaking in her research, Reagan persuasively establishes historical patterns in the availability of assisted abortion, and documents a striking anti-abortion backlash in the 1940-50s. In addition to the book's value for scholars, it will undoubtedly be valuable to feminists, lawyers, doctors,and others intersted in the conditions of abortion today."—Nancy Cott, Yale University

"A first-rate exposition of the changing cultural and legal climate regarding abortion in America."—Thomas Szasz, Washington Post

Willard J. Hurst Prize for the best book in legal history, Law and Society Association

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