Abortion: Legal, Medical, and Historical Perspectives

Email a Friend
Letterhead for the weekly panel discussion series "Maincurrents."

This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.

Moderator Lee Graham

Opens with quote from a New York Times article calling "New York's 83 year old abortion law cruel and unrealistic in common with the laws of most other states it prescribes that an abortion can only be performed if the mother's life is in danger. This restriction is among the principle reasons why more than a million illegal abortions are performed every year in this country bringing death or lifelong injury to thousands of young mothers." The New York Assembly has decided to hold public hearings on this problem.

This episode of Maincurrents aims to provide legal, medical and historical information on abortion so that listeners may form their own opinion on the topic.

Guests include Alfred Julien, New York attorney; Dr. Robert Hall, President of the Association for the Study of Abortion, and Lawrence Lader, author of the forthcoming book "Abortion."

Dr. Hall expresses his concerns that the current law prevents physicians from practicing "good medicine." Protecting the life of the mother is too narrow, he believes protecting the health of the mother should also be protected.

They then go on to discuss the difficulties of quantifying "hidden" activities. Though there are 8,000-10,000 hospital abortions per year, 1 million illegal abortions is only an estimate.

Julien believes this is a bad law because of the restrictive language which has lead to millions of illegal abortions.

Finally, Lader, who previously wrote a biography of Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement. He considers the current laws defy a woman's basic right to decide if she should or should not become a mother. It is a basic human right that cannot be taken away from her.

The panel go on to discuss proposed changes in the law, which allow for a "therapeutic abortion," that allow for abortion in cases of protecting mental health, and for cases of incest or rape. Likewise, if the child may be born with major birth defects abortion may be considered.

Birth control was once totally illegal, however in 1936 there was a complete reversal of the federal birth control law.

There is further discussion of cases when a child's birth defects may warrant the termination of a pregnancy.

Lader notes the right of the mother to bring into the world children she can care for.

The speakers note the opposition's view that life begins at the moment of conception and that that life has rights (perhaps even constitutional rights?).

Lader goes on to describe the historical aspects of abortion. He argues that abortion was not always a crime (and is not a crime in Japan and parts of Europe). Abortion was outlawed as the power of the Roman Catholic church grew. Reference to St. Augustine saying that the male fetus has a soul 40 days after conception, while the female fetus has a soul 90 days after conception.
He moves on to discuss early American laws related to abortion, based on English law. No state passed a law outlawing abortion before quickening until about the Civil War, the laws of this era were mild.

They speak of various religious groups views of abortion. Specifically mentioned are the views of Catholic and Orthodox Jews, as well as protestants.

They then move on to discuss various country's laws - Japan and the Communist countries where abortion is legal and the Scandinavian countries where abortion laws are very liberal.

Distinctions in opinion are made between abortion based solely on the woman's choice vs. those based on the outlined criteria. The panelists disagree on how liberal laws should be.

Lader is passionately pro-choice and states that the women of America should be "out in the streets screaming like they did for the vote."

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection

WNYC archives id: 72278
Municipal archives id: T3117