Abortion is a modern day issue fueling the “culture war,” and the South, as usual, is “behind” the rest of the country in championing safe, legal access to abortion. At least, that’s one narrative that appears over and over again. But this narrative isn’t true.
Both the history of abortion itself throughout human existence, and the modern history of abortion in the Southeast United States reveal a much richer reality than many give it credit for. Hanne Blank, a writer and historian currently in the Emory University Department of History, is researching the history of abortion clinics and feminist health centers in the South, and spoke with Better Georgia about what she’s found so far.
“This incredibly ordinary, incredibly necessary medical procedure — one among many that feminist health care services provide — is something that has always been here,” Blank explained.
“It’s something that women in the South have cared deeply about, they’ve cared deeply about providing it to other women in a way that is safe and supportive, and that is also a real part of what being in the South is, of what Southern culture is,” she added.
She’s uncovered at least 100 clinics that operated across the South at some point after Roe v. Wade, the landmark supreme court decision that legalized abortion. This is about four times as many as historians previously estimated. Blank emphasized that despite the belief that abortion access and the Bible Belt must be incompatible, her research is pointing to the reality that women in South have been fighting to have and protect access to abortion care.
“What I get thrilled by are the strategies that women have developed to create and maintain clinics, and to fight back against the various types of obstruction and resistance that they get for trying to create women controlled healthcare,” Blank said, citing a Tallahassee abortion clinic that filed an anti-trust lawsuit (and won) when the nearby hospital sought to prevent the women-run health clinic from providing abortions.
The history of accessing abortion care extends well, well before the Roe v. Wade case. As Blank said, “this is not a 20th century invention, by any stretch of the imagination.”
To her point, women have literally been regulating their fertility and managing their reproductive health for as long as people have been around, something that is well documented in the last 4,000 years of human history.
“Abortion is a minor surgical procedure that has been done in one way or another since the dawn of time. I mean literally the first medical text that we have which is the Kahun Medical Papyrus, it’s — I forget exactly how many years BCE it is, but quite a few, like over a thousand — has instructions for inducing an abortion,” Blank shared.
The Kahun Papyrus, which indeed dates to 1800 BCE, is the earliest medical text we have, and it’s a text about gynecological health! In addition to recommending treatments for various ailments thought to be related to the womb, it includes instructions for managing fertility and inducing an abortion. A nearly 4,000 year old text — one that predates all the Abrahamic religions — has instructions for having an abortion.
In light of this, Blank said, the important question becomes what should access to abortion care look like?
“The question is not whether it will happen, but how it will happen. And the how is important, the how is important especially in terms of justice,” she said, speaking to the barriers and relative privilege people have impacting their ability to access an abortion.
“Because rich, white women have always been able to get access to some form of abortion somewhere,” she went on to explain. “But in general if you have the money and you have the social capitol you can find a way to abort, and that’s always been true.”
Both before and after this country legalized abortion, finances can be the biggest determinant of someone’s ability to access abortion care. In part, this is because money drives access to any form of healthcare in a country where health insurance, let alone health care, are not guaranteed.
Blank highlighted that despite the beliefs people often have about the South, it’s a place with a rich history of people who have been working to keep abortion legal and make abortion accessible.
“It’s not all moonlight and magnolias,” Blank said of the South. “There are also a lot of people here who really get it that this [abortion] is a health access issue, that this is about quality of life for people who live here.”