The First Abortion Law in the History of the United States

Andrei Tapalaga
In the early 19th century, most New England homes would have had a copy of “Domestic Medicine” by William Buchan, pictured here.National Institute of Health

History has seen abortion as an extremely contentious act. Religion was once employed as a political framework to govern communities before to the advent of modern politics, and many faiths claimed that abortion was one of the greatest crimes. The normalization of abortions globally, or at least in the western world throughout the 19th century, resulted from many people abandoning a life based on religious convictions and following a more personal calling as society progressed and changed.

The historic Connecticut statute that aimed to penalize anyone who gave women drugs to induce abortion was passed in 1821. That was the first bill to outlaw abortion globally, not just in America. All of this began with a Connecticut preacher who used to lure several ladies just for his personal gain. In the 1790s, he had a connection with a woman named Asenath Smith, who was the object of his last seduction. Episcopal priest Ammi Rogers had a problem with women, which made him unpopular.

The 1818 criminal case of a Connecticut minister named Ammi Rogers who was accused of impregnating Asenath Smith, a young woman to whom he was not married, and then giving her an abortion-inducing substance.

Due to procedural and substantive difficulties in prosecuting Rogers, Connecticut is said to have created the nation's first abortion-related statute in 1821. The Ammi Rogers case marked the beginning of a process in which social, religious, and sexual autonomy were constrained by formal law. Following the Rogers case, abortion restrictions spread across the nation. The motivation for many abortion laws appears to be the capacity of a rising number of people to exercise sexual autonomy through knowledge about and access to abortion services, so regaining control over their own lives. In other words, sexism, drug use, and rock and roll were the primary motivators of many legal limits on abortion.

Interestingly enough the state of Arizona had used a 121-year-old law to enforce a total abortion ban. The law banning abortion was created more than a decade before Arizona became a state in 1912. It was part of a set of laws called the "Howell Code" which states that any person who provides abortion care — unless necessary to save the person's life — "shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not less than two years nor more than five years."

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, is another significant statute that was the outcome of a court struggle that determined all abortion regulations enacted across the United States from the 18th century all the way up to the 21st century. The United States Supreme Court made a historic ruling in this case, concluding that the right to an abortion was guaranteed by the US Constitution. The women of the United States gained access to abortion on January 22, 1973. Although the first abortion law is still debatable, it was one of the first steps taken to restrict or halt one's own bodily autonomy.

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