Letters penned 100 years apart show attitudes to abortion haven’t changed

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe

The landscape of abortion rights in America has changed dramatically over the last 100 years.

When Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, opened the doors to its first birth control clinic in 1916, both abortions and contraception were illegal.

Since then, the two have been legalised, with contraception being legal in the US since 1972 and the historic Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 finally legalising abortions.

However, with a Trump presidency threatening access to abortions and major cutbacks in funding for Planned Parenthood, how much has really changed for women seeking an abortion over the last century?

Chillingly, a comparison of letters written to Planned Parenthood in 1917 with emails written to an online abortion provider, Women on Web, suggests that, when it comes to control over their own bodies, women still don’t have the agency they deserve.

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger fighting for birth control legislation in 1934

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger fighting for birth control legislation in 1934

The original letter, written in 1917, was published in Birth Control Review, a monthly magazine edited by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

It reads:

“I’m in the family way again, and I'm nearly crazy, for when my husband finds out that I'm going to have another baby, he will beat the life out of me... Please write to me and help me."

In comparison, an email written to Women on Web, and published earlier this month by Broadly, reads:

"I am in need of help desperately. I am pregnant and cannot have this baby. My husband is very abusive and did it on purpose because I want to leave. I need help... Please help me."

The Women on Web homepage

The Women on Web homepage

In both pieces of correspondence, the women have become pregnant against their will, and both are clearly afraid for their safety.

And with access to abortions already so restricted in the US – 27 states, for example, require a “waiting period” between mandatory counselling and the actual abortion itself – it’s easy to feel the situation hasn’t progressed. 

Additionally, research into the number of abortion pills being bought online seems to suggest that women still don’t feel they have ownership over their bodies: Women on the Web receives more than 10,000 requests a month for abortion pills.

Even here in the UK, where abortions are available on the NHS, the number of women buying abortion pills online has sharply increased, with police seizing 375 of the illegal pills in 2016 compared to just five in 2013.


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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