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A historical look: abortion access in Virginia

Wellness GM / Flickr, Creative Commons: flickr.com/photos/130100316@N04/15728773073/

In 1973, the landmark ruling in Roe versus Wade overturned existing laws that restricted abortions to certain kinds of cases. But, the origin of Virginia's law prohibiting abortion goes back much further.

In the 1840’s, abolitionists were pressing for the end of slavery, and that created a reactionary movement. Professor Joanna Lahey at Texas A&M says it was in that context that Virginia outlawed abortion in 1847.

"In the 1840’s, we started seeing this idea that abortion might be morally wrong and that life begins before the woman can feel it," she explains. "And they started having these new kinds of anti-abortion laws that punished women and punished doctors who gave abortions."

She says it's no coincidence that the Virginia General Assembly took action as abolitionists were gaining influence.

"People are pushing against slavery," Lahey says. "And you've got a whole lot of turmoil happening in terms of these views of are people chattel?”

Abortions were legal under British common law, she says, but in the 1840’s opinions started to shift.

"If you read a lot of the things people are writing, they're very explicit about this," she adds. "They're saying middle-class white women are not having enough babies. They're demonizing particularly married women with children who aren’t doing their duty by having more children."

By 1970, lawmakers in Virginia were moving in the other direction, allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest. A few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutionally protected right to abortion.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.