previous chapter
next sub-section

Common Law and the Criminalization of Abortion

Abortion was not always a crime. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, abortion of early pregnancy was legal under common law.[22] Abortions were illegal only after "quickening," the point at which a pregnant woman could feel the movements of the fetus (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). The common law's attitude toward pregnancy and abortion was based on an understanding of pregnancy and human development as a process rather than an absolute moment. Indeed, the term abortion referred only to the miscarriages of later pregnancies, after quickening. What we would now identify as an early induced abortion was not called an "abortion" at all. If an early pregnancy ended, it had "slipp[ed] away," or the menses had been "restored."[23] At conception and the earliest stage of pregnancy before quickening, no one believed that a human life existed; not even the Catholic Church took this view.[24] Rather, the popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies.

Colonial and early-nineteenth-century women, historians have learned, perceived conception as the "blocking" or "obstructing" of menstruation, which required attention. The cessation of the menses indicated a worrisome imbalance in the body and the need to bring the body back into balance by restoring the flow. This idea of menstruation corresponded with medical and popular understanding of sickness and health. The body was a delicate system of equilibrium that could easily be thrown out of balance—by a change in weather or diet, for example—and that then needed to be restored through active interven-


tion. A disruption in the healthy body, in the worldview of patients and physicians, required a visible, often violent, physical response to treatment in order to restore equilibrium. This theory underlay eighteenth-and nineteenth-century regular medical practice, which emphasized heroic measures—bleeding, blistering, purging, and puking—in response to sickness. The response to the blocking of the menses was part of this shared understanding of the body: women took drugs in order to make their menses regular and regarded the ensuing vomiting and evacuation as evidence of the drugs' effective action.[25]

Restoring the menses was a domestic practice. The power of certain herbs to restore menstruation was widely known. One colonial woman who feared pregnancy had "twice taken Savin; once boyled in milk and the other time strayned through a Cloath." Savin, derived from juniper bushes, was the most popular abortifacient and easily acquired since junipers grew wild throughout the country. Other herbs used as abortifacients included pennyroyal, tansy, ergot, and seneca snakeroot. Slave women used cottonroot. Many of these useful plants could be found in the woods or cultivated in gardens, and women could refer to home medical guides for recipes for "bringing on the menses."[26]

Both of these concepts, blocked menses and quickening, must be taken seriously by late-twentieth-century observers. Blocked menses cannot be dismissed as an excuse made by women who knew they were pregnant. Quickening was a moment recognized by women and by law as a defining moment in human development. Once quickening occurred, women recognized a moral obligation to carry the fetus to term. This age-old idea underpinned the practice of abortion in America. The legal acceptance of induced miscarriages before quickening tacitly assumed that women had a basic right to bodily integrity.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the most common means of inducing abortion—by taking drugs—was commercialized. The availability of abortifacients was so well-known that a common euphemism described their use. When Sarah Grosvenor, a Connecticut farm girl, confided to her sister in 1742 that she was "taking the trade," her sister understood.[27] That Grosvenor successfully conveyed her meaning to her sister in three metaphoric words tells us a great deal about the world of mid-eighteenth-century New England. Many New Englanders, including these sisters, knew of the possibility of inducing an abortion by purchasing and ingesting drugs. The need for a euphemism tells of the difficulty of speaking openly about sex and reproductive control and of the need for secrecy. Yet it reveals an awareness that women could and


did regulate their own fertility through abortion. Furthermore, abortifacients had become a profitable product sold by doctors, apothecaries, and other healers.

The first statutes governing abortion in the United States, James Mohr has found, were poison control measures designed to protect pregnant women like Grosvenor by controlling the sale of abortifacient drugs, which often killed the women who took them. The proliferation of entrepreneurs who openly sold and advertised abortifacients may have inspired this early legislation, passed in the 1820s and 1830s. The 1827 Illinois law, which prohibited the provision of abortifacients, was listed under "poisoning."[28]

It is crucial to recognize what these early-nineteenth-century laws did not cover: they did not punish women for inducing abortions, and they did not eliminate the concept of quickening.[29] Even as poison control measures, they said nothing about growing the plants needed in one's own garden or mixing together one's own home remedy in order to induce an abortion. The legal silence on domestic practices suggests that the new laws were aimed at the commercialization of this practice and, implicitly, retained to women the right to make their own decisions about their pregnancies before quickening.

By the 1840s, the abortion business boomed. Despite the laws forbidding the sale of abortifacients, they were advertised in the popular press and could be purchased from physicians or pharmacists or through the mail. If drugs failed, women could go to a practitioner who specialized in performing instrumental abortions. Advertisements and newspaper exposés made it appear that what had been an occasional domestic practice had become a daily occurrence performed for profit in northern cities. Madame Restell, for example, openly advertised and provided abortion services for thirty-five years. Restell began her abortion business in New York City in the late 1830s; by the mid-1840s, she had offices in Boston and Philadelphia and traveling agents who sold her "Female Monthly Pills." Restell became the most infamous abortionist in the country, but she was not the only abortionist.[30] The clientele of these busy clinics were primarily married, white, native-born Protestant women of the upper and middle classes.[31]

In 1857, the newly organized AMA initiated a crusade to make abortion at every stage of pregnancy illegal. The antiabortion campaign grew in part, James Mohr has shown, out of regular physicians' desire to win professional power, control medical practice, and restrict their competitors, particularly Homeopaths and midwives. "Regular," or "orthodox,"


physicians, practitioners of "heroic" medicine, had come under attack in the 1820s and 1830s as elitist. They faced competition from a variety of practitioners from other medical sects, collectively known as "Irregulars." Through the 1870s, regular physicians across the country worked for the passage of new criminal abortion laws. In securing criminal abortion laws, the Regulars won recognition of their particular views as well as some state control over the practice of medicine.[32]

Though professional issues underlay the medical campaign, gender, racial, and class anxieties pushed the criminalization of abortion forward. The visible use of abortion by middle-class married women, in conjunction with other challenges to gender norms and changes in the social makeup of the nation, generated anxieties among American men of the same class. Birth rates among the Yankee classes had declined by midcentury while immigrants poured into the country.[33] Antiabortion activists pointed out that immigrant families, many of them Catholic, were larger and would soon outpopulate native-born white Yankees and threaten their political power. Dr. Horatio R. Storer, the leader of the medical campaign against abortion, envisioned the spread of "civilization" west and south by native-born white Americans, not Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Indians, or Catholics. "Shall" these regions, he asked, "be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation."[34] Hostility to immigrants, Catholics, and people of color fueled this campaign to criminalize abortion. White male patriotism demanded that maternity be enforced among white Protestant women.

The antiabortion campaign was antifeminist at its core. Women were condemned for following "fashion" and for avoiding the self-sacrifice expected of mothers. "The true wife," Storer declared, did not seek "undue power in public life, . . . undue control in domestic affairs, . . . [or] privileges not her own."[35] The antiabortion campaign was a reactionary response to two important efforts of the nineteenth-century women's movements: the fight to admit women into the regular medical profession and the battle to make men conform to a single standard of sexual behavior. The antiabortion campaign coincided with the fight by male Regulars to keep women out of their medical schools, societies, and hospitals. Boston and Harvard University, Storer's hometown and alma mater, were key sites of struggle over women's place in medicine, and Storer was personally engaged in the battle against female physicians.[36] Advocates of women in medicine argued that women doctors would


protect women patients from sexual violation.[37] Regular male doctors degraded female physicians by accusing them, along with midwives, of performing abortions.

The relative morality of men and women was of crucial importance to this campaign. For the specialists, whose interest in the female reproductive system raised questions about their sexual morality, the antiabortion campaign was a way to proclaim their own high morality in contrast to their competitors, their female patients, and even the ministers who tolerated abortion.[38] It was at the same time a backlash against the women's movement's critique of male sexual behavior and feminist claims to political power. Nineteenth-century feminists expressed their anger with male sexual domination and promiscuity in a number of movements, including the campaigns against prostitution and slavery and the fight for temperance. All sections of the women's movement advocated "voluntary motherhood," a slogan that addressed both men's sexual violation of their wives and women's desire to control childbearing. Women saw themselves as morally superior and urged men to adopt a single standard—the female standard of chastity until marriage, followed by monogamy and moderation.[39] The campaign against abortion challenged this feminist analysis of men by condemning women for having abortions. Indeed, Storer compared abortion to prostitution and, in so doing, called into question all claims made by middle-class nineteenth-century women on the basis of moral superiority. "There is little difference," he proclaimed, "between the immorality" of the man who visited prostitutes and the woman who aborted.[40] The nineteenth-century women's movements never defended abortion, but activist women and women doctors were blamed for the practice of abortion nonetheless.

The antiabortion campaign attempted to destroy the idea of quickening. As physicians targeted quickening, they discredited women's experiences of pregnancy and claimed pregnancy as medical terrain. "Quickening," as Storer described it, "is in fact but a sensation." A sensation that had emotional, social, and legal meaning was thus denigrated. Quickening was based on women's own bodily sensations—not on medical diagnosis. It made physicians, and obstetricians in particular, dependent on female self-diagnosis and judgment. Quickening could not be relied upon as an indicator of fetal life because, Storer argued, it did not occur at a standard moment. "Many women never quicken at all," he joked about women's perceptions, "though their children are born living."[41] Storer's propaganda aimed to erase the distinctions be-


tween earlier and later stages of pregnancy, thereby redefining the restoration of the menses. What had previously been understood as a blockage and a restoration of the menses prior to quickening was now associated with inducing a miscarriage after quickening by labeling it abortion. Furthermore, Storer equated abortion with infanticide.[42]

Regular medical men had entered the debate about sexual politics by attacking the female practice of abortion as immoral, unwomanly, and unpatriotic. In giving abortion new meaning, the Regulars provided a weapon that white, native-born, male legislators could use against the women of their own class who had been agitating for personal and political reform. Regular physicians won passage of new criminal abortion laws because their campaign appealed to a set of fears of white, native-born, male elites about losing political power to Catholic immigrants and to women. Class privilege did not protect middle-class white women from public policy designed to control them. Although the criminalization of abortion was aimed at middle-class white women, it affected women of every, class and race. The new laws passed across the country between 1860 and 1880 regarded abortion in an entirely different light from common law and the statutes regulating abortifacients. In general, the laws included two innovations: they eliminated the common-law idea of quickening and prohibited abortion at any point in pregnancy. Some included punishment for the women who had abortions.[43] The "Comstock Law" passed in 1873 included abortion and birth control in federal antiobscenity legislation; states and municipalities passed similar ordinances.[44]

The antiabortion laws made one exception: physicians could perform therapeutic abortions if pregnancy and childbirth threatened the woman's life. A bill criminalizing abortion unless done for "bona fide medical or surgical purposes" passed the Illinois state legislature unanimously and was signed into law in 1867. A few years later, Illinois passed another law prohibiting the sale of abortifacients but made an exception for "the written prescription of some well known and respectable practicing physician." Physicians had won the criminalization of abortion and retained to themselves alone the right to induce abortions when they determined it necessary.[45]

Through the antiabortion campaign, doctors claimed scientific authority to define life and death. In so doing, they claimed the authority of religious leaders. In leading this moral crusade and thoroughly criticizing the ministry's lack of interest in abortion, regular doctors set themselves above religious leaders as well as above the general popu-


lace. The medical profession's claim to moral purity and the authority of the clergy was a stepping-stone to greater social authority. Regular physicians won an important victory when they persuaded the nation's states to criminalize abortion. Physicians entered a new partnership with the state and won the power to set reproductive policy. In the process, women's perceptions of pregnancy were delegitimated and women lost what had been a common-law right.

previous chapter
next sub-section