A legal and widespread practice in the United States until the 19th century, abortion remained commonplace, although driven underground, in the last part of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1950s various women's and civil liberties groups, as well as some doctors, began to call for the repeal of laws that made abortion a crime.
In the 1960s the feminist movement made a woman's control over her body, including the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, a central demand of modern feminism. In response to these changed public attitudes, several states repealed or modified their anti-abortion statutes. By 1970, in New York, where laws banning abortion had been struck down, one fetus was being aborted for every two live births. In most states, however, abortions continued to be banned entirely or were severely restricted. The Supreme Court changed that situation by ruling in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade that women, as part of their constitutional right to privacy, could freely choose to abort a fetus in the first three months (trimester) of pregnancy. States were given the right to restrict second-trimester abortions only in the interest of a woman's safety. During the third trimester, the law protects a fetus that is "viable" (able to survive outside the womb). This means that the woman's life or health must be endangered in order to abort the pregnancy.
The Roe decision did not settle the issue for Americans, however. Opponents of the ruling (particularly the Roman Catholic Church and many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants) squared off against Roe supporters (a broad coalition of Americans led by feminist organizations) in the political arena. Frequently, a person's position on abortion became a test of his or her qualification to hold office. Both the "right to life" and the "pro-choice" sides ferociously argued their positions when a challenge to the Roe decision came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. In its decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that year, the Supreme Court upheld its basic ruling in Roe by a 5-to- 4 vote but also supported a Missouri law prohibiting public employees and facilities from counseling women on abortion or performing abortions in cases where the woman's life was not in danger.
In another 5-to-4 decision, the Court in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) again reaffirmed the constitutionality of Roe while also upholding the right of states to regulate abortion, as long as the regulations did not present an "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure.
Operation Rescue -- one of the most dramatic groups in the right-to-life, or anti-abortion, movement -- organizes "rescues" at abortion clinics, where members protest and often block the entrances. The 1990s have seen the movement turn more violent with clinic bombings, harassment of patients, and the murder of doctors and clinic staff. The pro-choice movement has countered the violence of Operation Rescue through federal legislation -- the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act -- that bans the use of force, threats, or blockades in order to interfere with access to health care, including abortion. The Supreme Court has upheld this act. Because of the physical threat to doctors, nurses, and clinic staff, however, the number of physicians performing abortions has continued to decline; by 1996 84 percent of the counties in the United States did not have even one abortion provider. Because of the legal, religious, and ethical questions surrounding abortion, it has remained an important and highly charged issue in American politics, affecting every Presidential campaign since the 1970s. In 1995 Henry Foster, President Bill Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, was rejected by the Senate for having performed legal abortions during his medical career. Given the uncompromising positions of those on both sides of the debate, it is...