Abortion: History and Statistics

The practice of pregnancy termination – abortion – became legal in the United States in 1973 after the Supreme Court's decision during the Roe v. Wade trial. Since then, nearly 50 million abortion cases have been documented in the United States. However, pregnancy termination has actually been practiced for centuries.

As early as 9th century B.C., Cambodian women underwent abusive and painful pregnancy termination. These abortions were extremely different than modern Western procedures. One of the most startling facts is that the abortion wasn't performed until the baby was nearly full-term. Practitioners waited until the fetus was big enough to be massaged out of the womb prematurely, causing its skull to crack.

Abortifacient herbs, such as silphium, were also used to terminate an unwanted or socially unacceptable pregnancy in ancient times. Such herbally-induced abortions were more similar to today's legalized morning-after pill and RU-486.

United States records indicate 1.2 million officially documented abortions occurred in 2008, down from 1.3 million the previous year. The pro-choice Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that 35% of all U.S. women will have had an abortion by age 45. As the political/religious/moral debate over reproductive rights rages on, some degree of social stigma arguably remains attached to having an abortion, despite its national legality. Partly because of this stigma, many people may not realize how common abortions are: Nearly 50 million abortion cases have been documented in the U.S. since 1973. (This averages out to 1,315,789 abortions per year over 38 years.)

Over the last decade, the surgical abortion rate has significantly dropped due to the development of RU-486, the so-called abortion pill. Approved by the FDA in 2000, RU-486 is the generic name for mifepristone, the most commonly used non-surgical abortion method. The abortion pill may be administered in the first 63 days of the first trimester. It works by blocking a hormone needed for a pregnancy to continue.

January 10th, 2011 marked the 38th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. President Obama released the following statement: "Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women's health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I am committed to protecting this constitutional right." Things have certainly changed since 800 B.C.

BODIES...The Exhibition displays a fetal gallery that guests are invited to either explore or bypass, as we realize it is a sensitive subject for many. The fetal specimens were all stillbirths (as abortions destroy the fetus). Our galleries show the two stages of prenatal development: embryonic growth and fetal growth. Each stage has a distinct growth pattern. The fetal specimens are not polymer-preserved like the rest of the Exhibition, but are chemically preserved in liquid.


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