Prior to Roe, Abortion Legalization by State (1960’s and 1970’s)

Researched by: Carole Novielli

Prior to the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that forced abortion on the nation, abortion was illegal in a majority of states, except to save the life of the mother. At that time the decriminalization of abortion was left up to states to decide.

Laws legalizing abortions by state began in the late 1960’s as follows:

1966: Mississippi allows abortion for rape

In 1966, Mississippi altered its existing abortion law by adding rape as an indication for hospital abortion, according to the CDC’s first abortion surveillance report in 1969.

Image: State Laws Abortion (Image credit: CDC 1969)

State Laws Abortion (Image credit: CDC 1969)

1967: Colorado becomes first state to decriminalize abortion further, followed by North Carolina and California

On April 25, 1967, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize abortion, along the lines proposed by the American Law Institute (ALI.) The bill was introduced by then Representative Richard D. Lamm. According to the Associated Press:

“On April 25, 1967, Colorado became the first state to allow abortion for reasons other than rape or an imminent threat to a woman’s health. The bill passed a Republican-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Love despite strong objections from many constituents…Love said the new law requires that abortions be performed only in accredited hospitals and that each operation must have the unanimous consent of a special three-man board of physicians… Colorado law previously allowed abortions only in cases presenting a severe threat to the physical health of the mother or in pregnancies resulting from forcible rape. The new law permits the ending of pregnancies presenting a severe threat to the health — mental or physical — of the mother. It allows the termination of pregnancies resulting from incest or from any of the classifications of rape — including statutory rape.”

Image: 1967 Colorado legalizes abortion

1967 Colorado legalizes abortion

According to a report by the New York Times, in 1966, only 50 abortions were committed in the state and permitted if the mother’s life was endangered. In the first 14 months of legalization, more than half of the abortions were reported for reasons of “mental health” and only 32 for “medical reasons.”

Abortions rose in Colorado over the years as follows:

  • 1967 (last half of year) – 140
  • 1968 – 500
  • 1969 – 946

In May of 1967, North Carolina liberalized its abortion statutes, similar to the Colorado law.

Image: 1967 North Carolina liberalizes abortion laws

1967 North Carolina liberalizes abortion laws

In June of 1967, the California legislature also passed abortion law reforms. The law was signed by then Governor Ronald Reagan on June 14, 1967. The so-called Therapeutic Abortion Act took effect November 8, 1967 and restricted abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Image: 1967 California liberalizes abortion laws

1967 California liberalizes abortion laws

According to the National Review, there were 518 abortions reported in the state that same year, and the New York Times reports that by the first half of 1968, 2,035 legal abortions were reported. A separate New York Times report states that by 1969, 14,000 abortions were reported. Sadly, the National Review claims that by the end of Reagan’s remaining years as Governor, the number of abortions would soar to an annual average of 100,000. Reagan later admitted that abortion had been “a subject I’d never given much thought to.”  

By 1971, a state appeals court ruled that all abortions could be legal in the state of California.

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon claims this was “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.” Reagan’s longtime adviser and Cabinet secretary Bill Clark called the incident “perhaps Reagan’s greatest disappointment in public life.”

Ronald Reagan went on to become the most pro-life president the US has had since the legalization of abortion through the Roe v. Wade decision.

1968: Georgia and Maryland become fourth and fifth states to legalize abortion

In 1968, Georgia became the fourth state to legalized abortion. The bill passed the House 144 to 11 and the Senate 39 to 11.

Image: 1968 Georgia legalizes abortion

1968 Georgia legalizes abortion

Maryland also passed a similar law that same year.

1969: Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oregon pass abortion legislation

By 1969, twelve states in addition to Colorado and California had legalized abortion, most for very restrictive reasons, according to the Willkes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued their first abortion surveillance report noting that in the same year, five states had passed new abortion legislation (Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, New Mexico and Oregon) and 24 other states considered new bills.

According to the Abortion Surveillance Report Annual Summary 1969, published by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare… National Communicable Disease Center, “Oregon became the first state to follow the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology [ACOG], which makes the following allowance, “In determining whether or not there is substantial risk (to the woman’s physical or mental health), account may be taken for the mother’s total environment, actual or reasonably foreseeable. The other four states enacted laws based on the American Law Institute Penal Code.”

Image: 1969 CDC and HEW report on states that legalized abortion

1969 CDC and HEW report on states that legalized abortion

In June of 1969, New Mexico liberalized its abortion law.

Image: 1969 New Mexico liberalizes abortion

1969 New Mexico liberalizes abortion

According to Jonathan B. Sutin:

“New Mexico’s 1969 abortion law… makes it unlawful for any person to produce an untimely interruption of a woman’s pregnancy with intent to destroy the fetus. Yet termination of the pregnancy is justified, under certain consensual and medical requirements, in the following instances:

  • The continuation of the pregnancy … is likely to result in the death of the woman or the grave impairment of the physical or mental health of the woman; or
  • The child probably will have a grave physical or mental defect, or
  • The pregnancy resulted from rape… or
  • The pregnancy resulted from incest.

According to the CDC, “In 1969, four of the nine states with recently changed abortion laws reported *12,417 legal abortions to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).” (*See end as numbers were later updated).

This same year, the Supreme Court of California rendered a decision in the case of People vs. Belous, which, according to the CDC, invalidated the pre-1967 California abortion law and raised the issue of constitutionality of state abortion statutes. Also in 1969, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia decided on the case of Dr. Milan Vuitch, a Washington abortionist indicted for illegal abortions. The court ruled that the State’s law labeling abortion as a felony was unconstitutional.

Image: 1969 CDC Judicial Decisions affecting abortion

1969 CDC Judicial Decisions affecting abortion

Next, we will detail abortion legalization by state in the 1970’s.

1970: New York, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska legalize abortion

In 1970, eleven states, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina, had reform laws similar to the ALI’s Model Penal Code. And, according to Time.com, “four more lifted all abortion restrictions — New York, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska — before 1970.”

By 1970, more than *180,000 legal abortions were reported to the CDC from 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Abortion Surveillance Report published that year. (*See end as numbers were later updated).

The following table shows reported legal abortions for 14 states and the District of Columbia:

Image: 1970: CDC reported abortions in 14 states plus DC.

1970: CDC reported abortions in 14 states plus DC.

In April of 1970, New York decriminalized abortion (by one vote) up to the 24th week. The law went into effect on July 1st.

Image: 1970 New York legalizes abortion CDC

1970 New York legalizes abortion CDC

At that time, the state had a Republican Governor and Republicans controlled both Houses of the legislature, according to the New York Times. During the debate to liberalize abortion in New York in 1970, the false claim that thousands of  women died annually from unsafe abortions one representative to change his vote on the floor, opening the door to abortion on demand in New York.

More states followed: South Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Washington

An American Law Institute (ALI) type law became effective in South Carolina on January 27, 1970 and Virginia on June 27, 1970.

Although Kansas passed its abortion reform law in 1969, it did not become effective until July 1, 1970. In March of 1970, Hawaii changed its law on abortion allowing for no restrictions on the reasons why a woman might obtain an abortion. Shortly thereafter Alaska followed suit and their law became effective on July 29, 1970.

Image: 1970 states that liberalized abortion laws CDC

Washington State’s abortion law change was enacted by a referendum held during the November 1970 general elections and went into effect December 3, 1970, according to the CDC.

Also on March 17, 1970, a woman by the name of Norma McCorvey  signed affidavit challenging the Texas law on abortion. Oral arguments in that case were heard before a  three judge district court in Dallas in May of that same year. By June, the court ruled the Texas statute unconstitutional, opening up the challenge that led to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973.

1971: 24 states plus Washington, D.C., liberalize abortion laws – and abortions nearly triple

In 1971, *480,259 abortions were reported to the Center for Disease Control from 24 states and the District of Columbia. (*See end as numbers were later updated).

 

Image: 1971 reported number of legal abortions to CDC

1971 reported number of legal abortions to CDC

At this time 79.2% of all legal abortions were performed on White women and 18.9% were performed on Black women or women of other races, according to the CDC’s 1971  Abortion Surveillance Report.

Image: 1971 reported number of legal abortions to CDC

1971 reported number of legal abortions to CDC

Although several states attempted to liberalize or change their abortion abortion statutes, most failed due in part to strong pro-life sentiment. Author and researcher Daniel K Williams reports:

In 1971, twenty-five states considered abortion legalization bills. Every one of them failed to pass. In 1972, the pro-life movement went on the offensive and began campaigning for measures to rescind recently passed abortion legalization laws and tighten existing abortion restrictions.

In 1971, several important court decisions were also rendered as follows:

  • Illinois: Doe v. Scott
  • North Carolina: Corkey v. Edwards
  • District of Columbia: United States v. Vuitch
  • Wisconsin: Babbitz v. McCann

1972: 27 states plus Washington D.C. have abortion laws on the books, and abortions are rising

By 1972, *586,760 legal abortions were reported to the CDC from 27 states and the District of Columbia. (*See end as numbers were later updated).

  • 75.7% were White
  • 22.6% were Black or other races
Image: 1972 reported abortions by state to CDC

1972 reported abortions by state to CDC

In 1972, the Supreme Court heard two cases, Roe v. Wade and the companion case Doe v. Bolton. The court, made up of nine male justices, ruled by a vote of seven to two to legalize abortion and released their decision on January 22, 1973.

Although Norma MCCorvey, the plaintiff in the Roe case claimed she was gang raped, and thus needed an abortion, she later recanted the claim admitting, “[I] made up the story that I had been raped to help justify my abortion.”

In 1995, Norma Joined pro-life movement.

Image: Roe in abortion case joins pro-life groups (Image credit: New York Times 8/11/1995)

Roe in abortion case joins pro-life groups (Image credit: New York Times 8/11/1995)

In like manner, Sandra Cano, a/k/a/ “Doe” in the companion case to Roe later claimed that she was unaware her name had been used in this case and that she never sought or had an abortion. 

Image: Sandra Cano was Doe in the Doe v Bolton Supreme Court abortion case

Sandra Cano was Doe in the Doe v Bolton Supreme Court abortion case

Cano told members of the media, “The case brought by my lawyer in the name of Mary Doe was a fraud upon the Supreme Court of the United States and the people of America. My mother and my lawyer wanted me to have an abortion. Not me.”

In 2003, Norma filed an unsuccessful motion to have Roe V. Wade overturned, it was denied in 2005.

*NOTE: In the 1973 CDC Surveillance Report, abortion numbers in previous years were updated as follows:

  • 1969: 22,670
  • 1970: 193,491
  • 1971: 485,816
  • 1972: 586,760
  • 1973: 615,831
Image: CDC Abortion Surveillance Report 1969 to 1973

Abortion stats by CDC prior to 1973

 

The following years abortions reported to the CDC, increased:

  • 1974: 763,476
  • 1975: 854.853
  • 1976: 988,267
  • 1977: 1,079,430
  • 1978: 1,157,776
  • 1979: 1,251,921
  • 1980: 1,297,606
Image: CDC Abortion numbers 1969 to 1980

CDC Abortion numbers 1969 to 1980

 

One Response to “Prior to Roe, Abortion Legalization by State (1960’s and 1970’s)”

  1. […] Click here for more details on state legalization prior to Roe. […]

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