A Woman’s Right to Choose


Abortion Rights in America

The anti-abortion movement in the US portrays itself as “pro-life,” “pro-family” and conservative, in the wholesome American sense, whatever that sense may be.

On different matters – for example, the sacred right of all Americans to carry automatic weapons that can kill hundreds of people in minutes — many pro-lifers see themselves as advocates of unrestricted individual freedom.

Not far beneath the surface of the “right-to-life” movement, however, something darker bubbles – a wellspring of racism and misogyny, and the conviction that certain individual freedoms should be restricted.

Among these, a woman’s right to receive a highly safe, federally approved non-prescription drug through the mails.

On May 17, at the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, a trio of justices heard oral arguments that FDA approval of mifepristone — the most commonly prescribed drug to terminate pregnancy — should be suspended or scaled back, and that the mail order deliver of the drug violates the Comstock Act.

Named after Anthony Comstock – 19th century Christian moralist, US Postal Inspector and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice — the 1873 federal statute prohibits the delivery of “lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile” articles through the US mails.

Obscure legal rationales for criminalizing abortion — or making the procedure difficult, if not impossible to receive — are not the exclusive province of organizations like the co-plaintiffs in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA (the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations).

In his majority opinion striking down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, last June, US Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito cites a 13th-century treatise stating that if someone “struck a pregnant woman, or has given her poison, whereby he has caused abortion, if the foetus be already formed and animated, and particularly if it be animated, he commits homicide.”

Closer to the present day, in search of reasons to  restrict a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, Justice Alito cites a 2008 reference by the US Center for Disease Control to the “domestic supply of infants.” 

“[N]early 1 million women were seeking to adopt children in 2002,” the CDC report stated, “whereas the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted had become virtually nonexistent.”

Justice Alito’s perspectives on the domestic supply of white infants is unknown – although, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “race suicide” was certainly on the minds of Americans (some of them eugenicists) who opposed birth control, abortion and other reproductive rights exercised by women themselves.

So says Lauren MacIvor Thompson in her conversation with the GPM below.

Thompson is an Assistant Professor of History at Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Georgia, and a historian of early 19th century women’s rights and public health at Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Law, Health & Society.

Read articles by Lauren Thompson here and here.

Listen to and watch our conversation here.