With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

A Return to the 1960s "Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women"?

During one of my last visits with abortion activist Patricia Maginnis in 2015, she handed me The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women. Published in 1969 and coauthored by Maginnis and her friend and fellow activist Lana Clarke Phelan, The Abortion Handbook was a no-holds-barred assessment of the problem facing abortion-seeking women in the years before Roe. In the weeks after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, I picked up the handbook again, opened the cover, and read the inscription Maginnis had written to a friend in September 1969: “It’s been a loooong, hard struggle and I’m wondering if it will ever, ever end with women taking a serious role in determining their own reproductive fate.”

Initially, Maginnis’s words rang in my mind as I read recent reports of people seeking information about “DIY abortions,” or what researchers refer to as self-managed abortion care. Google searches for self-managed care are on the rise, especially in places where people are already facing legal and economic barriers to careAbortion doulas, those who support people in finding clinics, provide accompaniment, or help people through the process of self-managed care, are in greater demand than ever. Articles documenting transnational travel for access to abortion medications, such as misoprostol and mifepristone, reveal a marked increase in people seeking ways to manage and support their own abortion care as restrictions rise across the country. People living in states like Texas and California are no strangers to crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for various kinds of medical care, including abortion. As I have documented, there is a long history of people seeking access to abortion care in northern Mexico that framed the demand for the legalization of abortion and gave us Roe v. Wade nearly fifty years ago.

For decades, the internet has been a crucial resource for self-managed abortion information–and now, in the shadow of Roe’s repeal, resources for self-managed care will become ever more important. As we have seen, however, conservatives are open to all manner of constraints, including criminalizing people for accessing abortion medicationbanning people from traveling for abortions, and monitoring online searches of abortion care and contraception as evidence for prosecutions.

Advocates and activists, like Patricia Maginnis and her crew, have always found a way to disseminate resources about reproductive care. For centuries before the internet, people passed this information in various forms. Midwives, apothecaries, and well-versed women knew what might help prevent pregnancy or induce a miscarriage. In the United States, Black and Indigenous women, Asian women, white women, and Latinas have all passed and saved reproductive health information via oral traditions, as well as the written word.

By the early twentieth century, as physicians seized reproductive knowledge from lay practitioners and women themselves, birth control activists, like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, wrote and distributed information about menstruation, reproductive health, puberty, sex, and hygiene. Sanger did this despite it being illegal; the Comstock Laws (1873) had made it unlawful to send or distribute anything considered immoral or indecent, and information concerning reproduction fell under this provision.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio