Roe v. Wade and Prohibition
Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that held state laws prohibiting abortion are unconstitutional.
That’s right, Roe was a Prohibition case. Until that case was decided, a thriving black market in abortions existed in all of the states, and it exhibited the flaws of all other black markets, including that for drugs now nourished by drug Prohibition laws.
Most of today’s population is too young to remember pre-Roe America, and many of them assume that abortions first became common after that date; but just as drugs did not disappear with the Harrison Tax Act, abortions took place frequently in the days before and people drank beer before Alcohol Prohibition was repealed. Scholars may argue whether the total annual number of abortions went up or down after Roe (one of the problems with black markets is that reliable statistics do not exist), but prohibited abortions took place in the millions.
Just like prohibited liquor or drugs, prohibited abortions were dangerous. The plaintiff’s lawyer in Roe still wears a lapel pin crafted to show a coathanger covered by a cancellation sign. Women went to untrained, unlicensed back-alley abortionists who operated unsterilely. They tried to abort themselves by tumbling down stairs or ingesting poisons. For many, that coathanger was the instrument of choice. And many died. Or became sterile from botched procedures. Just as Switzerland saw overdose deaths disappear when they began distributing free, pure heroin to addicts, America saw abortion-related deaths disappear when abortions moved from the back alleys to the doctors’ offices.
Beyond the back alley butchers, illegal abortions built a thriving commerce, with transactions numbering in the millions. Women who were well-off could simply travel to other countries (or to a very few of the states) for abortions legal at those destinations. Ironically in light of its later role as a supplier of illegal drugs, Mexico was the abortion destination of those with less money. When I was a teenager in Texas, we joked about the boys going to Juarez for the live sex shows while the girls went to erase the results of live sex. Unscrupulous doctors managed to maintain abortion practices in the shadows, much like some doctors today run “pill mills”, selling opioid prescriptions to be filled by unquestioning pharmacists. One typical arrangement would be for cooperating OB/Gyn practitioners in different towns to refer patients for consultation and possible D&C procedures. The tissues removed by those D&Cs would almost always contain a fetus, quietly disposed of with the other medical waste from the examining room.
One other parallel should be noted. All of the Prohibitions are rooted in attempts of powerful groups to impress their religious beliefs on the behavior of others. The alcohol “temperance” movement, laws against prostitution and gambling, and drug Prohibition all sprang from the fundamentalist Christian activism of the nineteenth century, and the anti-abortion movement is an aspect of those more concerned with the immortal souls with which they believe fetuses are imbued with than with the health and safety of humans.
As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the end of one Prohibition, with the accompanying improvement of public health and safety, we must continue to work to repeal drug Prohibition as well.