Abortion: The Irrepressible Conflict
by Eric Rudolph
History of Abortion
Copyright 2008, Eric R. Rudolph
All rights reserved.
One of the first categories Stalin marked for death was the historian. Stalin understood the dictum, “He who controls the past controls the future.” In keeping with Stalin, the Leftist Establishment in this country relies upon a distorted version of history to rationalize the legalization of abortion. To understand how Roe v Wade came to be law it is essential to examine the actual history of abortion in America.
When Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the decision in Roe v Wade, he claimed to have put aside his personal prejudices:
In reality, Blackmun’s decision was anything but objective. Especially disturbing was the historical material he used to support his ruling. One of the briefs that Blackmun relied upon was submitted by Cyril Means, a leftwing lawyer known for his “creative” work with the facts. At the time, Means was chief counsel for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. In the late 1970s James C. Mohr, a Professor of History at the University of Maryland, expanded upon Cyril Means’ argument in his book, Abortion in America. Among the leftwing Establishment Mohr’s work is now the orthodox history of abortion in America. Basically Mohr’s argument is that prior to the enactment of the anti-abortion statutes of the mid-nineteenth century abortion was widely practiced, was legal under the common law, and was accepted in the mainstream of society. This, Mohr said, was especially true of abortions performed before “quickening.”2 “Quickening” was the Old English term for that period when a pregnant mother begins to feel the child moving in her womb, occurring late in the fourth or early in the fifth month of pregnancy. Before quickening, argued Mohr, abortion was perfectly legal and there was no moral condemnation associated with the practice. And in some cases abortions were performed after quickening. The “chief problems associated with abortion in the 19th century were medical rather than moral.”3
Prior to the nineteenth century, said Mohr, medicine was unregulated and practiced by a wide assortment of individuals; some were educated while others were quacks. Then starting in the 1850s medical science made tremendous advances. Many of the doctors who studied medicine at University wanted to regulate the profession. These “regulars” wanted to push the “irregulars”-midwives, snake oil salesman- out of the profession. So they organized doctors into groups such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and started to put pressure on the state legislatures to pass laws regulating the profession and licensing physicians. Since abortion at that time was largely in the hands of “irregulars,” the “regulars” wanted the states to pass anti-abortion laws to destroy their competition. Thus, said Mohr, the anti-abortion statutes enacted between the 1860s and 1880s were about medical regulation and eliminating economic competition. The Texas statute that Roe v Wade overturned was such a law. Basing his decision on this lie, Blackmun claimed that Roe was not a break with precedent; rather it was a return to the common law as it was practiced before the greedy physicians perverted it:
It is thus apparent that at common law, at the time of the adoption of our Constitution, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, abortion was viewed with less disfavor than under most American statute currently in effect. Phrasing it another way, a woman enjoyed substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy than she does in the states today. At least with respect to the early stage of pregnancy and very possibly without such a restriction, the opportunity to make this choice was present in this country well into the 19th century.4
If you ever have the misfortune of being educated in one of our nation’s public universities, this is the version of history you will get with respect to abortion in America. The facts tell a very different story.
The practice of infanticide is as old as mankind. Among the Yanomamo of the Amazon or the Kombai of New Guinea the life of the individual is hardly considered apart from his place in the group. Next to his family and band, the individual is nothing. His strength, wisdom, and contributions to the group determine his worth. This is the organic social system in its crudest form. The weak and dependent have always been subject to the abuses of the strong. This is especially true of female children, tabooed children, or children born into a lower class family. If a child is born with a defect (cleft palette), if there is a taboo associated with him (twins are routinely killed in some African tribes), or if there are already too many mouths to feed-newborns are exposed, starved, or have their heads smashed in with a rock. In society at its basic level, humans serve the purposes of the group or they are disposed of.
Even in higher cultures where religion and law have sought to curb the arbitrary abuse of the weak, infanticide and abortion are still common. The extent of protection afforded to infants and the unborn depends on a culture’s view of the individual. Abortion was condemned as far back as the twelfth century B.C. by the Assyrians and Hittites. The early Hindus and the Buddhists of India forbade the practice.5 And the Oath of Hippocrates, written in ancient Greece, forbade doctors to perform abortions.6 Blackmun was aware of these facts, submitted by Eugene Quay, but he chose to ignore them in his decision. However, these prohibitions were sometimes honored only in the breach or confined to the upper classes. Slaves, the poor, the lower class, or females were subject to a different standard, especially in Eastern cultures.
In India women, children, and members of the lower castes are treated like dirt. Hindus believe in an uncreated, all-encompassing principle called brahman. Hindus sometimes conceive of brahman as a personal high god (Vishnu or Siva), but actually brahman is more like an impersonal force or principle. Brahman consists of both being and non-being, and is the cause of all existence. All living beings, including humans, contain a Self (Atman), which is the individual expression of brahman. The chief purpose of the Hindu is to merge his atman with brahman, to achieve nonexistence. But merging with brahman depends on karma. Karma is the law by which the atman attaches itself to existence in an endless cycle of rebirths (samsara). Often misunderstood by Westerners, karma is a morally neutral law, which teaches that every action produces a reaction. What you put out in the universe will comeback to you. Activities are not “evil” in the western sense. What makes an act bad is the desire associated with it, because it is desire that triggers the law of karma and attaches your atman to this existence. The chief desire from which all other desires flow is the desire to live. Therefore, if you put nothing out in the universe, nothing will come back to harm you. Certain Jain, Buddhist and Hindu ascetics take this teaching to the extreme. They isolate themselves and avoid interactions with humans, animals, and even insects to avoid the possibility of producing bad karma. The object is to suppress desire, overcome karma, and achieve ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth (moksha). Dharma (law) are the practices that you need to follow to suppress desire and achieve moksha.
Buddhists share the basic Hindu beliefs in karma, samsara, and moksha. But they differ with Hindus over the belief in the self (atman). The atman is an illusion, they say. And the Buddhist calls the release from samsara, Nirvana (“blowing out”). Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are that life is suffering; the desire to live is what causes suffering; that you can overcome desire, escape samsara, and achieve Nirvana; and that the way to do it is through Buddha’s dharma of right living and meditation (Eightfold Path). Life is conceived of as a candle, and Nirvana is the final blowing out. For Westerners raised on the Beatles and the pop-culture, rebirth seems like an attractive doctrine because it gives you the opportunity to live many lives. But for the Hindu and the Buddhist, the object is never to be reborn.
Along with these highly negative beliefs, Indians still practice an unjust social system based on the traditions of caste and the Laws of Manu. A caste is a hereditary group of families, bearing a common name, following the same hereditary calling, and practicing the same customs. There are four major castes and over 3,000 minor ones. There is a strict hierarchy of castes along with prescribed methods for interaction between castes. Hindus consider intermarriage and inappropriate contacts between the different castes as a religious pollution, a violation of dharma. Most impure are the untouchables, the exterior or scheduled castes. At the very bottom of the social ladder are females. The Laws of Manu give women very little weight. In Indian society cows, which are sacred to Hindus, are treated better than girls.
With such a negative view of life and an unjust social system, it is no wonder that social justice has never been that important in Hindu and Buddhist societies. If life is nothing but suffering, then there really is no point in sincerely trying to alleviate its problems.
As a consequence, infanticide and abortion are widely practiced in Hindu and Buddhist countries. In her book Brief Lives, Miriam Johnson documents infanticide in rural India. Sons are prized in Hindu culture, so most children killed are poor and female. According to Hindu tradition, you can’t merge with Brahman unless your son lights your funeral pyre. And in order to attract male suitors, families are forced to attach dowries to their daughters. Once a daughter is married off, she is expected to join her husband’s family. For poor peasants, the birth of a girl is often a time of mourning. “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s plants,” says an old Indian proverb. Consequently, girls are often the victims of infanticide. The Indian Medical Association estimates that between three to five million female children are disposed of through infanticide every year. In some areas the ratio of female to male is 800 to 1,000. Usually the parents hire a local midwife, who will kill the infant for a small fee. One of the common methods used is to drown the child in an earthen jar.7
Confucianism also gives little weight to the individual. According to the I Ching the universe is a harmony produced by conflicting vital energies, the yin and the yang. Harmony is the theme that runs through all Chinese thought. Harmony between man and heaven is the chief purpose in life. Through ritual observance of filial piety, which also produces social and spiritual stability, the individual can do his part in achieving universal harmony. The idea of the family in China included relatives and neighbors and even the Emperor himself, who was called the “Father of Heaven.” Chinese call this harmonious connection between the individual and the universe the Tao (“The Way”). Lao-Tzu’s interpretation of the Tao focused on creating harmony between man and nature (Taoism). Confucius focused on human interrelations. Doing one’s duty according to one’s place in society is wisdom, said Confucius. Social harmony depends on obedience to authority figures. Upsetting social harmony is the greatest sin. Those at the bottom of the social scale - peasants, poor, females - were less important in the big picture, said Confucius. He called women “little people.” Thus treatment of the “little people” was often arbitrary and brutal.8
As the bottom rung on the social ladder, female infants were often the victims of infanticide in China. Among the peasants exposure of unwanted female children has been practiced for thousands of years. European travelers to China in the 19th century were horrified when they saw dead or dying female infants left on the side of the road, and Chinese passing by as if nothing was wrong. These attitudes have not changed with time or ideology. In the twentieth century under Mao Tse-Tung China instituted a one-child policy in an attempt to halt overpopulation. Women that have more than one child are now subject to fines or, in some cases, they are forced to have abortions. Limited to just one child, Chinese try to maximize their investment by having male children. And those that can afford it get sonograms in order to eliminate females. Life is rough on girls in the orient.
In the West the individual has center stage. No other culture has elevated the individual’s worth to such a position. Christianity is the cause. In Greece and Rome rationalist philosophers wrote and talked about the individual, but in their minds “individuals” were from the upper classes. Aristotle, for instance, thought some men were born to be slaves. And he was unsure if women even had souls.9
Only in Christendom does one find the equality of souls. According to Christian teaching, the individual, no matter the sex, age, or class is made in the image of God. Every soul is equally precious in the sight of God, and every soul will be treated equally before God’s judgment seat at the end of time. Christians believe that if God considers the individual to be special, society ought to do likewise. But this teaching is difficult to apply.
For society to function, group interest must outweigh individual interest. Also, in a world of natural human inequalities, it is not easy to treat everyone equally. Under the weight of the Christian ethic, a balancing test was born. Throughout Western history, on questions of law and policy, individual interests were weighed against society’s interest. Even in feudal times, the Church was forever admonishing the nobility about their obligations to care for the peasants. Indeed the present conflict over abortion has both sides - conservatives and egalitarians- arguing their positions based on individual equality. For conservatives, the unborn child’s soul has equal weight to the soul of his mother; therefore, killing him is the same as killing her. To egalitarians, women need abortion to achieve equality in a sexist society. Both positions have their origin in the Christian teaching on the equality of souls. Egalitarianism is a late, radical interpretation; conservatism is the traditional interpretation. Western conservatism is actually a synthesis between the traditional culture’s emphasis on subordinating the individual to the group, and the Christian teaching that all souls are equally precious. Applied to abortion, the mother should not murder her child because she owes the child care out of a social obligation to her group, and she also owes the child respect as an equal soul.
For a thousand years theologians and philosophers and lawyers debated about when the soul entered the unborn child, when life began in a Christian sense. In an age of primitive science, this was not easy to determine. There was much conjecture. Nevertheless, when the soul was thought to be present, legal protections were applied. Abortion, as we understand it, was never tolerated, and infanticide was a capital offense. In the 1100s Gratian’s Canon Law held that the soul was present when the body of the infant was formed. However, when exactly this happened in a mother’s womb was a mystery before the advent of embryology. The sixth week after menses had stopped was when Augustine and Jerome believed “the scattered elements” were brought together. Without any real knowledge as to what was happening inside the womb, quickening was the traditional marker midwives used for when it was certain that a women was with child. Whether life began before quickening was a matter of opinion before the 1820’s.
Despite the uncertainty about when the soul was present in the unborn child, condemnation of abortion and infanticide was universal. In the Greek version of the Bible (Septuagint), the book of Exodus decrees capital punishment for abortion. A first century A.D. text called the Didache - “Teachings of the Twelve Apostles” - condemned abortion as well: “You shall not slay the child by abortion. You shall not kill what is generated.” In the East, St. John Chrysostam and St. Basil of Cappadocia spoke out against the practice. In canon law, a decretal of Gregory IX said of abortion, “Let it be held as homicide.” After the Reformation, Protestants were just as concerned with mothers killing their children. Calvin taught that “though enclosed in the womb of its mother, [the child] is already a human being and should not be robbed of life.”10 Calvinists condemned “those who, by the same forbidden lust or violent abortions of offspring, destroy it before it is born. . . .”11
In the seventeenth century quite a few scientists started to espouse the Pre-Formation Doctrine, which was widely accepted until the 1800s. Leeuwenhoek developed this doctrine after observing sperm through a microscope. Microscopes in those days were new and not very powerful. The miniature world of creatures that suddenly jumped out at those who looked through the microscope caused them to develop many peculiar theories. After seeing that sperm were motile, Leeuwenhoek called them “animalcules.” He believed animalcules were actually small people, and once planted in the uterus they grew into big people. For those who accepted this doctrine, legal protections for the little people ought to extend back to conception. There was even talk of charging Oninists with manslaughter.
Europeans brought their values with them to the New World. As Marvin Olasky documents in his book Abortion Rites, abortion in Colonial America, even before quickening, was a criminal offense, and infanticide was a capital offense. Neonates conceived out of wedlock were the usual targets of abortion. This was rare, though. Typically a shotgun wedding was performed before a women started to “show.” Even though as many as 40 percent of children were conceived out of wedlock, only 1 to 3 percent were born illegitimate.12 Communities were small and rural; the pressures on a young man to do the right thing were heavy. A Massachusetts law passed in 1688 asked women to identify the father of her illegitimate child. If identified, he had to either marry the girl, or pay child support.13
In the rare instance that a woman couldn’t get her lover to tie the knot, and did not want the stigma associated with illegitimacy, a crude abortion or infanticide was attempted. The penalty if caught was severe. Abortifacients such as tansy oil and savin were commonly used. Surgical abortions were rare before the nineteenth century. In 1652 a member of the Maryland governor’s council, Captain Will Mitchell, was brought up on murder charges for forcing an abortifacient on a young girl, Susan Warren, whom he impregnated. Along with “adultery and fornication,” the colony charged that Mitchell had “murtherously endeavored to destroy or murder the child by him begotten in the womb of Susan Warren.”14 The prosecutor couldn’t prove the case, but Mitchell was disgraced and dismissed from the council, nevertheless. In another case out of Maryland (1663), Jacob Luibrozo was charged with felony for administering an abortificent. The girl “was with child when John Luibrozo, he did give her physick to destroy it. . . .”15 He escaped punishment only after marrying the girl, thus disqualifying her as a witness against him.16 Between 1670-1807 there were fifty-one convictions for infanticide in Massachusetts. A woman named Mary Martin was executed in 1648 for infanticide. A famous ballad of the day was loosely based on her case, “The Cruel Mother”: “She took a pen-knife keen and sharp and pierced the baby’s tender heart.”17
Without the testimony of the mother it was difficult to prosecute abortion cases in those days. And before the mid-nineteenth century a climate of legal minimalism existed. Nevertheless, despite slavery and dueling both being legal, abortion was not. The chief problem with early abortion laws was that unless it was a case of outright infanticide, the state didn’t know how to prosecute something that took place in the womb. Delaware’s early abortion statute (1719) was typical of most of the colonies: “If any person or persons shall counsel, advise or direct such women to kill the child she goes with, and after she is delivered, of such child, she kills it, every such person so advising or directing, shall be deemed accessory to murder, and shall have same punishment as the principle shall have.”18 Georgia’s Penal Code of 1811 is similar: “That if any person or persons advise or counsel another to kill a child before its birth, or the child be killed after its birth, in pursuance of such advice, such advisor is or are declared an accessory to murder.”19 New York enacted an ordinance (1716) that forbade midwives to “give counsel or administer any herb, medicine, or potion, or any other thing to any women being with child whereby she should destroy or miscarry. . .before her time.”20 None of these laws said anything about quickening, but they were too general and science was too inadequate for them to be effective.
It was not until the nineteenth century that science could explain the process of pregnancy. Karl Ernst von Baer’s discovery of ova in dogs (1827) was a breakthrough. The Pre-Formation Doctrine was discarded, and conception, the union of sperm and the egg, was recognized as the beginning of life. It is precisely at this point in the 1820s that moral arguments started to demand better legislation to protect fetal life from the moment of conception. The quickening doctrine was heard no more.
James Mohr’s contention that abortion was mainstream is a lie. But conservatives are also wrong when they talk about the “good ‘ole days,” when abortions never happened. On the contrary, one of the reasons for the new, tougher anti-abortion statutes was to combat the increase of illicit abortions. Abortions, especially in the large cities of America, reached alarming proportions in the mid-nineteenth century, and better laws were needed to attack the growing problem.
To understand the anti-abortion crusade of the nineteenth century it is important to point out that before this period the state considered most social matters outside of their domain, something citizens should work out between themselves. The nanny-state didn’t exist back then. There was a climate of legal minimalism called laissez faire (“leave alone”). This attitude effected social as well as economic issues. Slavery and dueling, for instance, were considered private affairs. The government did little beside protect the nation from foreign invasion and prosecute common crime: murder, robbery, rape, etc. The rest was up to individuals, churches, or private associations.
Enlightenment ideas, industrialism, population growth, and the growing interdependence of the economy created the need for more regulations. Starting in the 1830s, in Europe and America, “progressive” movements sought to curb the abuses and correct the problems of the new society. Pretty soon a whole host of reforms were in the works: slavery, dueling, women’s rights, child labor, electoral laws, social hygiene, government corruption, minimum wage laws, and collective bargaining for labor unions. In America the big issue was the abolition of slavery. Both the anti-abortion movement and the feminist movement were offshoots of the progressive movement of the nineteenth century. Many of the anti-abortion crusaders, such as Dr. Horatio Storer, started as abolitionists. And in one of those twists in history, many of the radical feminists, socialists and spiritists - Henry Ward Beecher, William Loyd Garrison, Victoria Woodhull, Ralph Waldo Emerson - who would influence the pro-abortion cause, started as abolitionists also.
Thus the Doctors Crusade against abortion grew out of the anti-slavery cause. Like the abolitionists, the doctors motives were moral, relying on the language of a Christian crusade. The anti-abortion statutes were reform measures meant to close the cracks that abortionists were slipping through in the climate of legal minimalism. Unlike the crusade against slavery, there was no opposition. The only obstacle the doctors ran into was inertia. There was no “principled” pro-abortion stance. To have taken a public stand in the 1860s for what we know today as abortion-on- demand would have been politically untenable as well as physically hazardous.
Mohr argues that “abortion entered the mainstream in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and was relatively common.”21 Abortion did increase dramatically in the 1800s, but it was never “mainstream.” It grew exponentially for a variety of reasons. Probably most abortions were had by prostitutes. The cities of America grew at an alarming rate in the 1800s. In every large city there were enclaves of pimps and prostitutes. Contraceptive knowledge being what it was, abortions were frequent. Most prostitutes used barriers such as a rag or a cut sponge. These devices were no more than 20 percent effective. Given the fact that pregnancy occurs in a healthy woman 1 out of every 33 times she has sex, and accounting for the overall bad health of the average prostitute, a full-time prostitute was impregnated about once every year. Out of an estimated 50, 000 prostitutes nationwide, there were probably 50 to 100 thousand abortions every year in America among prostitutes alone.22
Prostitution in the nineteenth century was not the glamorous profession that Hollywood portrays in its films. It was an ugly business that used up women and threw them into the gutter. Hollywood portrays the madam and her whores as early feminists, using their money-makers to escape the drudgery of Victorian family life. Actually prostitution in nineteenth century America was much like it is today in places such as Bangkok and Calcutta. If a prostitute couldn’t escape the life within a year or two, chances were she would be dead of physical abuse, botched abortion, or she would have contracted syphilis.
Ideology was another cause for the increase of abortions. Under the influence of socialism, feminism, and especially spiritism the upper classes of America started to experiment with pro-abortion ideas. This was the closest abortion came to the mainstream in the 1800s. Indeed, those movements laid the foundations for the current pro-abortion ideology. By the 1850s it seemed like spiritism would overrun the country. Many of America’s most prominent men and women attended séances: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, and Senator Charles Sumner. Perhaps 2 million out of 30 million Americans were influenced by spiritism.23 Unitarianism, transcendentalism, and spiritism - all gave sovereign power to the individual’s conscience. During the 1850s and 60s spiritists often met in convention and passed resolutions. At the so-called Free-Convention (1858) in Vermont spiritists proposed:
(1) that the authority of the individual soul is absolute and final in deciding questions of what is true and false in principle, or right or wrong in practice; (2) that slavery is wrong; (3) that communication between the bodied and disembodied human spirits is both possible and actual. . . (6) that the most sacred and important right of women, is her right to decide for herself how often and under what circumstances she shall assume the responsibilities and be subject to the care and sufferings of maternity. 24
Henry Wright’s The Unwelcome Child and Harmon Root’s Lover’s Marriage Lighthouse expounded on resolution number six. Wright believed that good men slept with women “not by an enactment, ceremony of license of the church or state. . . nor by any contract or bargain,” but only out of desire.25 A spiritist was looking for an “affinity mate.” And to find one he had to sleep with as many women as it took. More often than not an “affinity mate” was not found in the traditional marriage. Wright believed that any child conceived by parents who were not “affinity mates” would rebel against being brought into the world and would likely end up “a miser, a robber, a slaveholder, a murderer, a pirate, or an assassin…”26 Therefore, a woman who has conceived a child in “hate” was justified if she aborted him. There is no “greater sin against the child, against herself, against society, and against humanity than to give birth to it when her whole heart loathes its existence.”27 Wright explains how one woman justified her abortion: “God & human laws would approve of killing children before they were born, rather than curse them with an undesired existence.”28 Now we’re getting close to the Planned Parenthood position.
Harmon Root argued that traditional marriage was sunk in “the religious pools of filthy water repugnant to man’s natural tastes.”29 Sexual relations needed an overhaul. People should sleep with whomever they want, whenever they want. His advice to a woman who was in an “unsatisfying” marriage: “Adultery brightens up a woman’s nature.”30 If pregnancy should occur while you’re sleeping around, don’t sweat it: Dr. Thomas Nichols, Root’s fellow spiritist, declared, “Since women alone have the right to decide whether her ovum shall be impregnated, she must also have the privilege of determining the circumstances which justify the procurement of abortion.”31 Root himself sold his own brand of “Uterine Regular Pills,” which “will bring on contractions and produce evacuations of the contents of the womb, commonly known as miscarriage, no matter at what stage of gestation.”32 What a great guy!
Victoria Woodhull was a famous member of Boston’s elite. She combined communism, spiritism, free love doctrine, and feminism into her own special blend of nonsense, and then served it up in her Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Like Wright and Root, Woodhull didn’t advocate abortion openly, but made apologies for it: “It is one of those things against which almost everyone willfully shuts his eyes and professes to know nothing about. Some wives [of spiritists and free lovers] have abortions every year.”33 Trying to stop abortion is just as immoral as abortion itself because “man-made laws or legal ceremony is not the tribunal of the free born, the spiritually unfolded, the free-love soul. . .”34 And although objectionable, the profession of the “abortionist ought to be looked upon as a blessing rather than a curse to the community.”35
Respectable opinion stood up and took notice of these ideas. Dr. Henry Gibbons, president of the California Medical Society, said that abortion was not a crime of ignorance. “It rather grows out of a certain kind of knowledge which has become popular of late. . .the obscene literature of free love, the delirium of spiritism, the impulse of passion, the concealment of shame.”36 Former spiritist Dr. B.F. Hatch said that spiritists have declared themselves free of “social convention and the superstitions of Christianity.”37 They contend that “no external authority, and no code of human laws can justly bind their affections, or interfere with their liberty to follow the impulses of their personal affections.”38
Luckily most who experimented with spiritism and socialism were just upper class dilettantes trying on new ideas for the sake of novelty. The nineteenth century was a time of change. Millions attended séances and thousands went to live in socialist communes like New Harmony, Indiana. Pushing against the boundaries of stuffy Victorian society was hip. But very few who talked about free love and abortion actually engaged in this behavior. This would come in later generations. Back then these ideas were expressed in private associations, or in books. There were no political interest groups seeking to translate abortion-on-demand into law.
All these new ideas were indicators of a coming split within the reform movement. Influenced by socialism, feminism, unitarianism, transcendentalism and spiritism, the egalitarians took one road to the left. Conservatives kept the Christian tradition and stayed on the right, morphing into various shades of classical liberalism. Egalitarians caused the split when they broke with the Christian tradition. Transcendentalism and unitarianism started the crack early in the nineteenth century, when Emerson and Thoreau discarded the Bible and created an amorphous deistic socialism. Then at mid-century Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, John Stuart Mill’s teaching on liberty, and Karl Marx’s scientific socialism repudiated Christianity as superstition and started to develop a completely materialistic world view. Their ideas gave birth to a generation of intellectuals and activists who were determined to rebuild society from top to bottom with the goal of destroying all classes and inequalities, satisfying all material needs, and basically bringing about Jeremy Betham’s “greatest good of the greatest number.” No doubt the origins of modern egalitarianism go back further to Voltaire and Rousseau and the French Jacobins and Thomas Paine, but American socialism gets its peculiar fruitcake flavor from Emerson and Thoreau and the moonstruck crackpots of New Harmony and Boston. There is a leftward progression from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to Victoria Woodhull, to Eugene Debs, to Margaret Sanger, to Noam Chomsky. There is also a right ward progression from Horatio Storer, to William Jennings Bryan, to Pat Buchanan.
Illegal surgical abortions were rare in the 1800s. Crude exercises, rough handling (punching in stomach), and abortifacients were the abortionist’s weapons of choice. Several substances were used “to restore menses flow and prevent blockage”:39 hellebore, tansy, aloes, savin, cotton root. Along with the increased number of prostitutes went the sellers of abortificants. Medicine was just coming into the modern age, and so was mass advertisement. For only a pittance snake oil salesman could advertise in the penny-press to a wide audience. Most of the substances sold were ineffective and all of them were unregulated. The Food and Drug Act wasn’t passed until 1905. In those days anyone could sell just about anything. Abortificants were one of the items that started to appear in the penny-press.
Abortifacients and information about how to procure an abortion always appeared in disguised language. Typical advertisements from that era sold “French pills,” or potions designed to “keep woman regular,” to “prevent blockage,” to “take care of all female complaints.” Madame Restelle was probably the leading abortificent seller from the 1830s to the 1870s. From her base in New York City, Restelle sold her “French Pills” throughout the country. And for those who could pay, she ran a referral business for doctors who performed illegal surgical abortions. The laxity of regulations that went with legal minimalism allowed her to stay in business for half a century. That, and she was also protected by some of the most corrupt politicians in history down at Tammany Hall. She was prosecuted twice in the 1840s, but the difficulty of proving crime in an abortion case allowed her to go free.
As her name suggests, Madame Restelle was a red light district operator. This was true of most abortificent sellers. The business of abortion was hardly “mainstream,” as Mohr contends. Like prostitution, abortion was an illicit enterprise on the margins of society. The euphemistic language these pimps used to sell their abortificants demonstrates this fact. Madame Restelle’s “French Pills” advertisements are a good example: Her method, she said, was designed to address “all female complaints, such as suppressions. . . . Dr. Carswell’s method of treating these ailments is said to remove the difficulty in a few days. . . . Strict secrecy observed, and no pay unless cure is performed.”40 In another, Dr. Peters’ “French Removing Pills” were advertised with a warning attached that the pills were “a blessing to women. . .and although very mild in their operations, pregnant females should not use them, as they invariably produce miscarriage.”41 Of course, the ulterior motive of those selling and taking the pills was to produce a “miscarriage.” One of the underground books that listed the commonly used abortificants was Brevitt’s Female Medical Repository. But even in listing them the writer felt compelled to camouflage his intentions with this warning: “I feel constrained to note here, the horrid disparity in wretches lost to religion and morality, and that natural attachment that mother has for a child, who seek to procure the means of abortion.”42 If abortion was “mainstream,” why use such deceptive advertisements?
The fact is that abortion was not mainstream. And as mainstream society noticed the growth of the abortion business, it started to search for ways to end the bloody practice. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal was alarmed at the advertisements: “The law has not reached them and the trade of infanticide [abortion] is unquestionably considered by these thrifty dealers as a profitable undertaking.”43 Across the nation state legislatures started to focus on abortion. The New York legislature revisited its anti-abortion statutes ten times between 1828-1844.44 As each new loophole opened up, the legislators would try to close it. First, abortificents were outlawed. Second, laws were toughened on punishing the women as well as the abortionist. Third, surgical instruments commonly used to perform abortions were outlawed or severely regulated to ensure their legitimate use. During the 1840s thirteen states outlawed abortion at any stage of gestation.45 By 1868 twenty-seven states had passed laws that specifically punished abortion before quickening.46
In the two decades between 1840 and 1860 the states moved slowly. The focus at that time was on slavery and secession. But after the Civil War ended, the legislatures returned to abortion and quickly passed a series of tough new laws. They passed with overwhelming majorities. Minnesota’s anti-abortion statue (1873), for example, sailed through the Senate on a 37 to 0 vote; and in the House the vote was 55 to 1.47 Those who voted against these bills did so on libertarian grounds. South Carolina’s bill, for instance, passed in the Senate 17 to 15. The opposition was against the bill solely because it called for the creation of a state board of health to license physicians.48 No one opposed the anti-abortion laws for what we would call “pro-choice” reasons. And there certainly wasn’t a “pro-choice” lobby pressuring the legislators to stay away from women’s bodies.
These laws were not changing precedent; they were closing loopholes in older laws that in some cases dated back to the colonial period. The laws needed to be brought into conformity with the latest science on embryology. And they needed to focus on the new situation created by the growth of prostitution, the penny-press, and pimps and madams such as Restelle and their “French Pills.” Also, many still believed in the concept of quickening, and the laws needed to specifically debunk that myth once and for all.
Because those leading the fight against abortion were physicians, the movement was called the “Doctors Crusade.” First on the agenda was demolishing the quickening doctrine. One of the leading medical authorities of the day, Dr. John Beck said the quickening doctrine had a “direct tendency to countenance abortion, at least in the early stages of gestation.”49 Doctors realized that conception inaugurated a continuous process of development, which would produce a newborn baby if left uninterrupted. Contradicting his central thesis that the abortion laws were created for economic reasons, Mohr admits that “this scientific reasoning confirmed the regulars’ moral opposition to abortion at any stage of gestation. Regulars believed it immoral, in other words, to make a life and death decision on the basis of a distinction that they could demonstrate had very little relation to life or death.”50
Leading the fight against abortion were some of America’s most prominent physicians. And the language they used was moral, not economic. Dr. Meigs, one of the finest physicians of the day, instructed his interns that if they were approached to perform an abortion they should say “by common law such is an act of felony, and by the law of God murder.”51 Dr. O.C. Turner of Massachusetts blamed the idea of quickening for a lot of the abortions:
Surely the child is alive. It cannot be the mere act of tying the cord that produced life. Then when did life begin? With respirations? This is only one added function. . . . The period of quickening varies, and I do not see why a fetus is not quite as much alive just before it moves or just after . . .52
The American Medical Associations (AMA) took over the fight against abortion after the 1850s. Walter Channing, Harvard professor and brother of William Ellery Channing, was prominent in the movement. Hugh L. Lodge was also instrumental in getting better laws on the book. No one, however, was more outspoken than Horatio Storer, a doctor of gynecology and obstetrics. Storer is one of the great unsung heroes in American history. Between 1860 and 1880, during the crucial period, Storer was the driving force behind the Doctors Crusade.
At the AMA’s Louisville, Kentucky Convention in 1859, Storer called for action. He identified three causes for the increase in abortion. First, was the “wide spread ignorance of the quickening as a stage of gestation.” Second, was the fact that “the medical profession itself was careless of fetal life.” And third, was “the grave defect of our laws.”53 The solution, said Storer, was better education of doctors on the stages of gestation, and an organized campaign to tighten the abortion laws. Storer wrote two books that helped the cause tremendously: Why Not? A Book For Every Woman and Criminal Abortion. His best work, Criminal Abortion remained the most authoritative text on abortion for generations.
Another of Mohr’s assertions is that the churches were reluctant or indifferent to support the Doctor’s Crusade. This is nonsense. Pope Pius IX issued the Church’s definitive position on abortion and infanticide in 1869, which helped the cause significantly: “The murder of an infant before its birth is, in the sight of God and the Church, as great a sin as would be the killing of an infant after birth.”54 The Protestants chimed in soon after. Reverend Richard Beer of the Presbyterian Synod said, “the assembly regards the destruction by parents of their own offspring, before birth, with abhorrence, as a crime against God and against Nature.”55 Indeed, Christian morality drove the entire anti-abortion movement.
Mohr is trying to muddy the water here. In one sense he is correct; the Churches didn’t take the lead in the anti-abortion crusade of the nineteenth century. This is because they didn’t have to. Political interest groups run by religious figures like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson were unnecessary in those days. Back then Christian morality infused public debate in such a way that is difficult for us to comprehend, living as we do in an era where Christianity has been driven out of the public square. In those days, politicians, judges, prosecutors, virtually all community leaders, had to espouse a generalized Protestantism. Whether they genuinely believed in God, or were simply pandering to constituents, every public figure was expected to speak as if they were good Christians, who read their Bibles. A politician who couldn’t quote scripture was dead in the water. Political speeches often sounded like sermons (Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address). The abolitionist movement, the anti-prostitution movement, the anti-abortion movement, and the prohibitionist movement were all infused with an evangelical spirit. Hymns and prayers were often heard before any speech against slavery, abortion, or the “Devil’s drink.” The churches themselves didn’t have to organize the anti-abortion crusade because the doctors and politicians who did lead the fight all held the same views as their preachers. There were no Jerry Falwells back then because most mainstream politicians held comparable views to Jerry and had no notion of separating those views from public policy. Those who fought against abortion believed they were battling against crime, against a moral evil. Their opponents were apathetic physicians who wanted to keep their profession unregulated. Whoremasters such as Madame Restelle didn’t have a legitimate voice in the public square in the nineteenth century.
Storer got the ball rolling; many others picked it up and ran with it. While Storer concentrated on pressuring the states to pass better anti-abortion statutes, Anthony Comstock, head of New York’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, succeeded in convincing the federal Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Act. Murder belonged to the states, but the feds controlled the mails. Comstock’s Act prohibited anyone using the mails to traffic in pornography, contraceptions, and abortificants. In an era when the mail was the primary means of communication, the act had a devastating impact on abortificent advertisers. It brought the considerable resources of the federal government to bear on abortionists. Child murderers like Restelle were forced underground, and had to advertise on private cards and rely on word-of-mouth.
Using the act, Comstock arrested Madame Restelle twice. She barely escaped a lynch mob outside the courthouse after being released for lack of evidence. She was finally brought to ground after Comstock’s undercover agents purchased abortificent from her. Facing years in prison and possible lynching, she committed suicide by slitting her own throat.
The newspapers joined the crusade. The same courageous journalists (George Jones and Editor Louis John Jennings) who used the New York Times to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed gave extensive coverage to the abortion problem. The paper was soon filled with stories about the horrors of prostitution and back alley abortion mills. Jennings sent a reporter, Augustus St. Clair, undercover to expose the illicit abortion trade in New York City. In a series of hard-hitting articles, St. Clair exposed the bloody business.56
Coincident with the anti-abortion crusade was the war against “white slavery”- prostitution. Maternity homes for pregnant prostitutes and abandoned women sprang up all over the country. John McDowell set up maternity shelters in New York City’s notorious Five Points area (1831). With the financial help of businessmen Arthor Tappan, McDowell founded the Magadelan Society. Helen Mercy Ward also worked with abandoned women at Erring Women’s Refuge in Chicago. These shelters were common until the 1940s. The age of consent was another problem that needed reform. Until 1874, for instance, Delaware’s age of consent was seven! By the 1870s most states had raised the age of consent to between sixteen and eighteen.
From start to finish, James Mohr’s thesis is a distortion. Marvin Olasky was right when he said Mohr went looking for history “with a handful of assumptions.”57 This is true of most Marxist historiography. Like any agenda-driven scholar, Mohr forced the facts to fit his preconceptions. First, if, as Mohr contends, abortion was widespread and accepted and the Doctors Crusade was simply a crass attempt by “regulars” to drive away their “irregular” competition, why didn’t the regulars simply ask the state legislature to make abortion a procedure that could only be performed by a licensed physician? By toughening the abortion laws they severely limited their ability to make money. If it was only about money, then why not monopolize abortion for themselves?
Second, in those days surgery was still a specialized knowledge. Abortificants were the most common way abortionists performed their service. It was common for women poisoned by abortificants to then seek the help of a “regular.” Doctors who worked in large cities had to deal with shoddy abortions on occasion. If they were not going to monopolize abortion for themselves, why would they try to crack down on a practice that brought them more patients?
Third, at no time before or during the mid-nineteenth century campaign for better abortion laws was there a “pro-choice” lobby. The pro-abortion position doesn’t show up until the twentieth century. The socialist, feminist, spiritist minority were the only people in the 1800s talking about tolerance for abortions. But there was no pro-choice agenda. Those who imbibed Marxist or spiritist thought did so in private. They never dared to carry this nonsense into the halls of Congress or the state legislatures. To have argued in public for abortion-on-demand would have been hazardous to your health, as evidenced by the treatment given Madame Restelle. Before the twentieth century abortion was practiced primarily by prostitutes in back alley whorehouses, by spiritists and Marxists behind closed doors. It was something the mainstream considered immoral and on the filthy edges of society. Those who performed abortions were disreputable doctors, snake oil salesman, and the dispensers of toxic abortificants. The only opposition to the statutes came from libertarian doctors worried about more regulation. When these bills were debated, no one stood up in the state legislatures and insisted upon a “women’s right to choose”; no one demanded that the state should “keep away from women’s bodies”; no one warned the state to “stay out of its citizens bedrooms.” These hollow arguments would emerge from the sewers later on.
By 1880 every state in the Union had new statutes outlawing abortion at any stage of gestation. The Doctors Crusade was part of a larger reform movement of the nineteenth century. For the most part the anti-abortion effort was informed by the Christian ethic in the classical liberal tradition. Abortion and infanticide were never legal and acceptable in the West. But due to legal minimalism and the poverty of scientific knowledge, abortion had seeped through the cracks in American society. The Doctors Crusade was meant to push it back through, from which it would hopefully never return. Their hopes were overly optimistic. Things were changing fast. New perspectives were evolving. The anti-abortion legal regime would remain intact into the mid-twentieth century, when Roe v Wade overturned the Texas statute passed during Storer’s Crusade so many years before.
Chapter 1 References
1. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
2. James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.16
3. Ibid. p. 75
4. Roe v. Wade
5. Eugene Quay, Justifiable Abortion, (P.T. 2) 49 Georgetown Law Review 395 (1961)
6..“What the Supreme Court Didn’t Know: Ancient and Early Christian Views on Abortion,” 1 Human Life Review, 1975, 5, 13
7. Miriam Johnson, Brief Lives
8. Confucius, Analects
9. Richard McKeon, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle, (New York: The Modern Library, 1941)
10. Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Broker Book House, 1981), p. 42
11. Andre Rivet (1573-1651) in Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, (Monongehela, PA,: Zimmer, 1989), p. 87
12. Marvin Olasky, Abortion Rites: A History of Abortion in America, (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1992) p. 31
13. Ibid, p. 30
14. Propriety v. Mitchell, in Archive of Maryland vol. 10 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1936) pp. 182-185
15. Propriety v, Lumbrozo, in Archive of Maryland vol. 53 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1936) p. 21
16. Olasky, Abortion Rites, p. 26
17. “The Cruel Mother,” in B.H. Bronson The Traditional Times of the Child Ballads, vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959) p. 292
18. Delaware Laws Chapter 22, section 6, p. 67 (1797)
19. Georgia Penal Code, section 17 (1811)
20. Minutes of the Common Council of New York City, vol. 3, p. 122
21. Mohr, Abortion in America, pp 102, 172
22. William Sanger, The History of Prostitution (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858) pp. 579-80
23. Olasky, Abortion Rites, p. 67
24. Proceedings of the Free Convention of Rutland Vermont, July 25-27, 1858 (Boston: J.B. Yerrington, 1858) p. 9
25. Ibid., p. 10
26. Henry C. Wright, The Unwelcomed Child, (Boston: Beta Marsh, 1858) p. 21
27. Ibid, p. 114
28. Ibid, p. 102
29. Harmon Knox Root, The Love’s Marriage Lighthouse, (New York: Root, 1858) p. 8
30. Ibid, p. 348
31. Grace Adams and Edward Hutter, The Mad Forties (New York: Harper and Brother, 1942) p. 289
32. Root, Love’s Marriage Lighthouse, p. 194
33. “The Slaughter of the Innocent,” Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, (August 29, 1874), p. 8
34. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, (August 29, 1874) p. 9
35. “Down With Babies,” Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (November 29, 1873)
36. Henry Gibbons, “On Feticide,” Transactions of the California State Medical Society, vol. 8 (1877-78) pp. 27, 212
37. Benjamin F. Hatch, Spiritualist’s Iniquities Unmasked (New York: Hatch, 1859) p. 24
38. Ibid, p. 29
39. Mohr, Abortion in America, pp. 4, 8, 9
40. Boston Daily Times, (Jan. 4, 1845-Jan. 11, 1845)
41. Boston Daily Times, (Jan. 4, 1845)
42. Joseph Brevitt, The Female Medical Repository (Baltimore,1810) p 117
43. Boston Medical and Surgical Journal XXX, No. 15 (May 15, 1844) pp. 302-303
44. Olasky, Abortion Rites, p. 96
45. Ibid, p. 102
46. Ibid, p. 102
47. Journal of the Senate of the Fifteenth Session of the Legislature of the State of Minnesota (St. Paul, 1873) p. 198, 271, 343, 356, 358, 391
48. The News and Courier, (Charleston), December 5, 11, 13 1883)
49. John Beck, “Infanticide,” in Theodore Romeyn Beck, ed., Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (Albany, 5th ed., 1835) p. 199
50. Mohr, Abortion in America, pp. 35-36
51. Charles D. Meigs, The Philadelphia Practice of Midwifery, (Philadelphia, James Kay, 1842) p. 134
52. O.C. Turner, “Criminal Abortion,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal vol. 5 (April 21, 1870) pp. 299-300
53. Horatio R. Storer, et. al., “Report on Criminal Abortion,” Transactions of the American Medical Association, XII (1859) pp. 75-78
54. Pius IX, “Apostolic Sedis,” part II, (1869)
55. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, XVIII (Philadelphia, 1869) p. 937.
56. “The Evil of the Age,” in New York Times (Aug 30, 1871)
57. Olasky, Abortion Rites, Introduction, XIV
|One’s philosophy, one’s experiences, one’s exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one’s religious training, one’s attitude toward life and family and values and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one’s thinking and conclusions about abortion.1