Abortion Almost half of American women have terminated at least one pregnancy, and millions more Americans of both sexes have helped them, as partners, parents, health-care workers, counselors, friends. Collectively, it would seem, Americans have quite a bit of knowledge and experience of abortion. Yet the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract: we might be discussing brain transplants. Farfetched analogies abound: abortion is like the Holocaust, or slavery; denial of abortion is like forcing a person to spend nine months intravenously hooked up to a medically endangered stranger who happens to be a famous violinist. It sometimes seems that the further abortion is removed from the actual lives and circumstances of real girls and women, the more interesting it becomes to talk about. Opponents often argue as if the widespread use of abortion were a modern innovation, the consequence of some aspect of contemporary life of which they disapprove (feminism, promiscuity, consumerism, Godlessness, permissiveness, individualism), and as if making it illegal would make it go away. What if none of this is true? Historical advertisements: The Granger Collection, New York. When Abortion Was a Crime, Leslie J.
Reagan demonstrates that abortion has been a common procedure — part of life — in America since the eighteenth century, both during the slightly more than half of our history as a nation when it has been legal and during the slightly less than half when it was not. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business — including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press — was booming. In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians. The American Medical Association’s crusade against abortion was partly a professional move, to establish the supremacy of regular physicians over midwives and homeopaths. The physician and anti-abortion leader Horatio R. Storer asked in 1868.
This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation. (It should be mentioned that the nineteenth-century women’s movement also opposed abortion, having pinned its hopes on voluntary motherhood — the right of wives to control the frequency and timing of sex with their husbands.) Nonetheless, having achieved their legal goal, many doctors — including prominent members of the AMA — went right on providing abortions. women were often able to make doctors listen to their needs and even lower their fees. And because, in the era before the widespread use of hospitals, women chose the doctors who would attend their whole families through many lucrative illnesses, medical men had self-interest as well as compassion for a motive. Thus in an 1888 expos undercover reporters for the Chicago Times obtained an abortion referral from no less a personage than the head of the Chicago Medical Society. Unless a woman died, doctors were rarely arrested and even more rarely convicted.
Even midwives — whom doctors continued to try to drive out of business by portraying them, unfairly, as dangerous abortion quacks — practiced largely unmolested. What was the point, then, of making abortion a crime? Reagan argues that its main effect was to expose and humiliate women caught in raids on abortion clinics or brought to the hospital with abortion complications, and thereby send a message to all women about the possible consequences of flouting official gender norms. Publicity — the forced disclosure of sexual secrets before the authorities — was itself the punishment. Reagan’s discussion of dying declarations makes particularly chilling reading: because the words of the dying are legally admissible in court, women on their deathbeds were informed by police or doctors of their imminent demise and harassed until they admitted to their abortions and named the people connected with them — including, if the woman was unwed, the man responsible for the pregnancy Unsurprisingly, the Depression, during which women stood to lose their jobs if they married or had a child, saw a big surge in the abortion rate. Well-connected white women with private health insurance were sometimes able to obtain therapeutic abortions, a never-defined category that remained legal throughout the epoch of illegal abortion. Even for the privileged, though, access to safe abortion narrowed throughout the fifties, as doctors, fearful of being prosecuted in a repressive political climate for interpreting therapeutic abortion too broadly, set up hospital committees to rule on abortion requests.
Some committees were more compassionate than others. Moderate reforms had already been tried: twelve states permitted abortion in instances of rape, incest, danger to physical or mental health, or fetal defect, but since most women, as always, sought abortions for economic, social, or personal reasons, illegal abortion continued to thrive Legalizing abortion was a public-health triumph that for pregnant women ranked with the advent of antisepsis and antibiotics. Anti-abortion zealots have committed arson, assault, and murder in their campaign against abortion clinics. Similarly, the general lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting those who perform abortions and the almost total failure to prosecute and jail women for having them suggest that whatever Americans may consider abortion to be, it isn’t baby killing, a crime our courts have always punished quite severely. it seems absurd to suggest that the overburdened mothers, desperate young girls, and precariously employed working women who populate these pages risked public humiliation, injury, and death for mere convenience, much less out of secular humanism or a Lockean notion of property rights in their bodies.
It’s even more preposterous — not to mention insulting — to see them as standing in relation to their fetuses as a slaveowner to a slave or a Nazi to a Jew. Reagan suggests that the abortion debate is really an ideological struggle over the position of women. How much right should they have to consult their own needs, interests, and well-being with respect to childbearing or anything else? Arguments Abortion as philosophical puzzle and moral conundrum is all very well, but what about abortion as a real-life social practice? Since the abortion debate is, theoretically at least, aimed at shaping social policy, isn’t it important to look at abortion empirically and historically? Historical advertisements: The Granger Collection, New York. Copyright 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; May 1997; Abortion in American History; Volume 279, No. 5; pages 111-115. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/97may/abortion.h tm May 11th, 2000 A fetus is not a person and not the subject of an indictment for manslaughter, Boston’s Superior Court Judge James P.
McGuire told the jury. I will continue to do abortions. They are a woman’s right, he said after his conviction, Women since they’ve been on this earth have been making that choice, whether they want to carry that baby or not…The only humane thing we can do is make sure that when they make that choice they have the opportunity to make it under t …