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Illegal abortion: Back to the future?

Forty-two years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that most restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional. The reasonable compromise of Roe v. Wade has been under attack ever since. 

The Roe v. Wade decision cited an individual’s right to privacy and a physician’s right to practice medicine without government interference “in the absence of compelling state interests.” The court defined state interests as including the health of a woman and the potential life of a fetus after six months’ gestation. 

The ruling allowed a woman to decide for herself during the first trimester whether to terminate her pregnancy. During the second trimester, regulations related to clinical settings could be imposed in the interests of protecting the woman’s health. In the third trimester, when viability of the fetus (ability to live outside the womb) was assumed, the state could restrict abortion except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman.

This wise decision is being shredded out of existence through public funding cuts; parental and spousal notification laws; mandatory waiting periods; compulsory, unscientific “counseling”; bogus, invasive screening procedures; onerous restrictions on abortion clinics; intimidation of patients and clinic personnel; assassinations of doctors.

What awaits us if abortion is again criminalized?

In the decades before Roe, up to 1.2 million American women obtained illegal abortions every year. Five thousand women — mothers, daughters, sisters, wives — died annually as the result of illegal abortions, whether self-induced or performed by any unqualified hack looking to make a buck. 

Thousands more women were injured seriously enough to require medical care. 

The results of desperate do-it-yourself and back-alley abortions could be perforated uteruses, internal burning and scarring from caustic substances like lye, and life-threatening sepsis.

“Pro-life” activists display big, colorful pictures of fetuses to dramatize their position. Pre-Roe legalization advocates had more horrific pictures to share: gruesome photos of women’s dead bodies, naked, contorted, bleeding out, abandoned in basements and alleyways.

The highly publicized ordeal of Sherri Finkbine in 1962 spurred public concern.

Finkbine, the mother of four children, worked as “Miss Sherri,” the host of the local version of Romper Room in Phoenix. Suffering from nausea and insomnia with her fifth pregnancy, she took a drug her husband had obtained in Europe — a toxic drug later banned for use by pregnant women: thalidomide.

Finkbine felt worse as her pregnancy progressed and tests revealed the fetus to be seriously deformed. Finkbine requested a therapeutic abortion (the only type available and rarely granted). An Arizona hospital first assented, then reneged. Finkbine appealed to a judge, who dismissed her case. She had to travel all the way to Sweden to finally obtain an abortion.

By 1970, only two states allowed abortion in the first months of pregnancy. Outside New York and Hawaii, only women who could afford the cost of travel to those states could obtain abortions. Women who self-aborted or obtained illegal abortions were criminals, risking prosecution, endangering themselves and living in fear and shame.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, safe, legal abortion saved thousands of women’s lives. Since 1980, abortion rates have declined due to more effective contraception and access to family planning services. 

In Wisconsin today, Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislators are destroying both family planning and abortion services. To resist these backward, damaging efforts, go to and get involved. 

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