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What we can learn from Texas' past with abortion rights and restrictions


Texas has played a key role in abortion legislation. Roe v Wade, the landmark case the Supreme Court overturned, started in Dallas. Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two young North Texas lawyers, were the driving force behind Roe in 1973. Stephanie Cole, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington spoke with KERA reporter Stella Chavez about what we can learn from this history.


Texas passed a law in 1854 making it a crime to perform an abortion, except in the case of saving the life of a mother. When did abortion become a crime in the U.S.? What led to this?

The idea that abortion was problematic doesn’t really developed till the end of the 19th Century, so Texas would have been way ahead of schedule…

I associated it a lot with also sort of the rise of thinking about birth control and, for lack of a better word, prudery…The Comstock law, which was the law that forbade using the federal mail [system] for anything pornographic, which then birth control got wrapped into. It was on the books federally between 1868 and 1933.

So it was a criminal act by 1900 everywhere in the United States.

Was it purely by chance that the case known as Roe v. Wade had its origins in Texas?

I like to use it as a good example of the twists and turns of the Women’s Right’s Movement broader speaking. I don’t think it was an accident that it happened in Texas, because all through the middle of the 20th Century, there was an active women’s movement in Texas. These women were active and a force to be reckoned with.

Another thing that I think a lot of people don’t know is that the state of Texas created the Texas Equal Rights Law for women prior to the Equal Right’s Amendment being passed federally.

Of course, the fact that Texas laws are also on the other end, fighting with Mississippi to be the undoing of Roe is also not surprising because of the twists and turns of politics in the years after 1970s.

What lessons can we learn from what's happened in Texas regarding abortion? What would you like people to think about going forward?

One of the things that I think is important to try to keep in mind is that Texas was a part of this case early one because of the activism and the connection between women who fought hard and organized well, and laws limiting women’s ability to do what they wanted with their bodies and with their money were abundant in Texas up through the mid-20th Century, up until the 1960s.

And it was the activism and smart networking between a number of women who got those laws changed. And I hope that people sort of keep that in mind…we need to keep those women’s models in mind.

Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.

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Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.