The Alley Behind First Street, Northeast: Criminal Abortion in the Nation's Capital 1873-1973

Published in 11 William & Mary J. of Women & L. 1 (2005).


The thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade found our country no less divided over abortion than it was during the era of its prohibition. As the bitter struggle over judicial nominations throughout the present administration suggests, abortion’s future remains at the forefront of American political debate.

In their push for increased limitations, abortion opponents generally overlook the historical consequences of prohibition. Abortion rights proponents often invoke history in their opposition to new restrictions, but tend to do so superficially, and only in a manner that supports their position.

This article attempts a more complex study of criminal abortion’s legal and social history. Focusing on the District of Columbia as a case study, it examines the various statutes that have governed abortion during the District’s 203-year history. It begins by seeking out the philosophical and theological origins of these laws, tracing the development of abortion restriction in the Common Law from ancient to early modern times. Next, it details the nineteenth-century physicians’ campaign that engendered the District’s first anti-abortion statute, and inquires into the possibly self-interested motivations of the American Medical Association in restricting abortion to its members’ control. Finally, it constructs a lively narrative history of local criminal abortion experiences from the published opinions of D.C. courts.

The article’s choice of focus was motivated by the author’s belief that a history unfolding in the very neighborhoods where national leaders live and work will prove especially compelling. It was also motivated by the author’s interest in the legal and social history of Washington, D.C., as circumscribed by its often contradictory roles of national showpiece and functioning metropolis.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Family Law | Health Law and Policy | Law and Gender | Law and Society | Legal History | Medical Jurisprudence | Religion Law | Sexuality and the Law

Date of this Version

August 2004