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Women and Health

Inadequate access to comprehensive health care and lack of health education, as well as underrepresentation in clinical research studies, characterized the situation for women of the Second Wave. In response, women created health clinics, fought for better and safer childbirth options, and demanded policy changes for the greater healthcare community.

In 1960, the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive for use in the United States. Within five years, one out of every four married women in America under the age of forty-five had used the pill. The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare created a program to provide contraceptive services for low-income, married women. Amendments to the Social Security Act required that at least 6% of the annual appropriations for maternal and child health care be earmarked for family planning and that family planning services be provided to public assistance recipients who requested them.

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Control over reproduction offers women greater freedom to make life choices, options that include both planned pregnancies and, since 1973, legal abortion.

Up until the 1970s, breast cancer was treated in a standard way.  A breast lump was biopsied, and if malignant, the surgeon then performed a radical mastectomy immediately. This was considered a life-saving procedure.  

In the 1970s, women began to question this method of treating breast cancer. In 1972, Babette Rosmond wrote The Invisible Worm, which discussed her breast cancer experience and her pursuit of an alternative treatment known as breast preservation. Rosmond was one of the first to publicly question the views and dismissive attitudes of surgeons treating women with breast cancer.



Childhood actress Shirley Temple Black was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972 and was the first public figure to write about her experience.


Like Rosmond, she emphasized her right to decide what was done to her body and her choice to have a biopsy prior to any needed surgery. Her statement, “the doctor can make the incision; I’ll make the decision” empowered countless women in mainstream American to question their once passive role in the patient-physician relationship.


For centuries, up until the late 1800s, abortion was legal and widely practiced in the United States. In 1880, anti-abortion legislation arose out of the backlash against the growing movements of suffrage and birth control. This allowed the government to tighten control over women’s health care, confine women to traditional childbearing roles, and boost the diminishing population of white, US-born citizens.

Laws prohibiting abortions subjected women to fear, shame, and desperation. Poor women and women of color suffered disproportionately, as the ability to obtain a safe abortion often depended on economic situation, race, and location. Too often, women resorted to dangerous, sometimes deadly, methods of ending their pregnancies.

The women's movement took the subject of abortion public.  They marched, rallied, and lobbied for abortion on demand. Civil liberties groups and liberal clergy joined in these efforts to support women.

In October, 1969, six attorneys filed a class action lawsuit aimed at overturning the New York state law that made abortion a crime. New York became the country’s abortion refuge when State Assemblywoman Constance E. Cook’s expanded abortion bill passed in 1970.  After the passing of the bill, women throughout the US traveled to New York to pay for a legal abortion, where they did not have to rely on such tactics as feigning a mental disorder, illness, or rape.


On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all existing criminal abortion laws in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. The court found that a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester was protected under the “right of privacy… founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty.”

The Court allowed states to place restrictions in the second trimester to protect a woman’s health and in the third trimester to protect a viable fetus. However, the Court held that if a pregnant woman’s life or health were endangered, she would not be forced to continue the pregnancy at any stage.


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