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AZ abortion ban: What we didn’t know about labor & birth in 1864

AZ abortion ban: What we didn’t know about labor & birth in 1864

A timeline of advances since the law was written, a time when many doctors didn’t find value in hand washing

  • Nearly all abortions are banned in Arizona because of a law written in 1864 that a judge said last week is now in effect, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. When the law was written, doctors didn't understand how pregnancies happened or that washing their hands saved their patients' lives.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comNearly all abortions are banned in Arizona because of a law written in 1864 that a judge said last week is now in effect, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. When the law was written, doctors didn't understand how pregnancies happened or that washing their hands saved their patients' lives.

When the law that bans virtually all abortions in Arizona originated in 1864, obstetrics was so far removed from what it is today that it wasn’t even common practice for doctors to wash their hands before they delivered a baby. 

A doctor in Vienna in 1847 began requiring physicians at his hospital to wash their hands between performing autopsies and delivering babies, resulting in fewer infections and deaths. But when he presented his findings to the Vienna Medical Society in 1850, his theories were rejected as going against the accepted science of the time.

The following is a timeline of important developments in obstetrics and birth control between 1864 and 2022, along with a few important historical markers for context.


Arizona’s original abortion ban is enacted by its Territorial Legislature, one year after Arizona became a U.S. territory. The law bans all abortions, except to save the life of the mother. 


Slavery is abolished in the U.S. 

The Civil War ends. 

Late 1860s

More doctors begin to employ infection control methods, like washing their hands before delivering babies. 

The vast majority of women give birth at home, with the help of a midwife. 


U.S. Congress passes the Comstock Law, which lists contraceptives as obscene material and outlaws their dissemination. Prior to this, many forms of birth control had been available, including condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps. 


Scientists find definitive proof that human reproduction starts at the cellular level with an egg and sperm joining together. 


Abortion restrictions are on the books in all states, with some exceptions to save the life of the mother. 

Late 1880s

Dr. James Marion Sims, who was previously heralded as the “father of modern gynecology” in the U.S., began using surgical techniques to repair post-birth openings between the bladder and vagina that caused incontinence. These practices are still used today. He also developed a precursor to the modern speculum. However, according to his own autobiography, he developed these techniques by experimenting on slave women, who did not consent to these procedures. 


Less than 10% of births happen in a hospital and around half of births are attended by midwives instead of doctors. 

Early 1900s

A method of anesthesia using the drugs scopolamine and morphine called “twilight sleep” becomes popular, but it makes women forget childbirth entirely and puts the infant at risk if the person administering it is not properly trained. This method remains in use at some hospitals until 1958, when an article in Ladies Home Journal exposes how cruelly women in this state are treated and how much pain they still experience, even if they can’t remember it. 


Arizona’s 1864 abortion ban is reauthorized by the Territorial Legislature. It comes with a possible penalty of between two and five years in prison for health care workers who provide abortions. 


The first maternity hospital is opened in the U.S. 

Margaret Sanger coins and publishes the term “birth control” in the June issue of her magazine, The Woman Rebel. She advises women about circumstances during which they should avoid pregnancy, including when they are ill or living in poverty. She is indicted for violations of the Comstock Law and flees to England.


Women get the right to vote. 


Sanger opens the first legal birth control clinic in the country. A previous attempt in 1916 was shut down after 10 days and all birth control methods were confiscated by police. 

Mid 1920s

Scientists working independently of one another in Japan and Austria create a “rhythm method” of birth control that works, telling women to abstain from sex about halfway through their menstrual cycle, during their most fertile days. Previously, women using the rhythm method had been instructed to abstain in the days during and around their period, which are typically a woman’s least fertile days, making the previous method highly ineffective. 


Obstetrics becomes a specialty. It was previously performed by general practitioners. 

Illegal abortions result in the deaths of 2,700 women this year.

The Roman Catholic Church, issuing its first official stance on the matter, said it opposed all forms of artificial birth control. 

Late 1940s

Around 75 percent of births happen in hospitals and are attended by an obstetrician, causing an increase in infant deaths caused by birth injuries, likely due to an increase in unnecessary medical interventions. Fathers typically do not attend the births of their children. 


The Catholic Church announces that the church approves the rhythm method of birth control, when it previously only approved abstinence. 

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America operates around 200 birth control clinics. 


A fetal ultrasound is first used in a clinical setting. The practice wouldn’t become popular in the U.S. until the 1970s. 


Enovid, the first birth control pill, was approved for use by the FDA, but only for the treatment of menstrual disorders. 


President Dwight Eisenhower says that birth control is not the business of the government, saying it “is not a proper political or government activity or function or responsibility.”

By late in the year, more than 500,000 women in the U.S. are taking “the pill,” likely for off-label contraceptive purposes. 


The FDA approves the birth control pill for contraceptive uses, but only for two years at a time. 


Around 2.3 million women in the U.S. are using birth control pills. 


President Lyndon Johnson pushes legislation for the federal government to fund birth control for the poor.

Pills become the most popular form of reversible birth control in the U.S. 

Eight states still ban the sale of contraceptives. 


Epidurals become a popular way to deal with the pain of birth. 

Intrauterine devices, or IUDs become available to the public for long term birth control, but there are valid safety concerns, including risk of infection. Their popularity decreases in the 1980s and 90s and then increases in the 2000s to present when new, safer options are introduced. 


Arizona’s abortion ban, originating in 1864, is blocked after the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision in Roe v. Wade, making abortion a federal right. 


Nearly 80% of Catholic women in the U.S. are using contraceptives, and it has a significant impact on the workforce, with around 60% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. employed. 


Plan B emergency contraception is approved for sale in the United States. 

Early 2000s

Around one-third of deliveries are done via cesarean section, and more than half of women who deliver vaginally are given an epidural or spinal block.


Arizona’s abortion ban, dating back to 1864 is reinstated, blocking virtually all abortions in the state, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This puts a law into place that was created before scientists knew how ovulation worked, or had even understood that pregnancy was caused when a sperm and egg fuse. It was a decision made at a time when many doctors thought hand-washing was unnecessary prior to treating patients. 

Around 31% of births happen via cesarean section, and only about 1.3% of births happen at home, according to the most recent data available. On average, around 67% of women receive epidurals for labor pain.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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