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March 12, 2013 / Sandy Asher


Reposted from Shea Magazine,

The American debate on abortion will not be decided by legal rights or moral wrongs. These kinds of arguments, strident though they may be, have varied at different points in American history. Answers to “the abortion question” in our country have always been influenced by a less audible background chorus of influences: shifting economic, psychological, and political considerations.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, abortion was legal, at first in the colonies, and later, in the states, a choice supported by the general population, politicians, and most churches. Colonial Americans, including seventeenth century Puritans, made little distinction between spontaneous and induced abortions before quickening, defined as the moment when the mother first felt the fetus move, the only sure way to tell if a woman was pregnant. According to an article by James Mohr in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, after quickening, usually at the midpoint of gestation, “the expulsion and destruction of a fetus without due cause was considered a crime because the fetus itself had manifested some semblance of a separate existence: the ability to move.”

Abortions, performed primarily by midwives, took place covertly not because the termination of pregnancy itself was deemed blameworthy but because it was seen as an extreme action designed to hide a prior sin—sex outside of marriage. Strikingly absent from public opinion was outrage over the destruction of the fetus or denunciations of those who would arrest nature’s course. Adultery, on the other hand, was cause for damnation.

Beginning in the 1820s, state laws made abortion illegal, a process complete by the closing decades of the century. Doctors supported the bans on the grounds that abortions were immoral and dangerous. Less touted was their interest in preserving their exclusive rights to practice medicine, a monopoly that was being increasingly challenged by midwives and homeopaths.

Anti-abortion sentiment also came from the growing fear that higher birthrates of newly arrived immigrant women threatened to overwhelm the Anglo-Saxon population. And yet, almost in defiance of the prohibition, between 1840 and 1880 the number of abortions among married, native-born Protestant wives of middle- and upper-class standing markedly increased. These women turned to abortion—usually with the agreement of the spouse—to postpone family responsibilities. They could afford to pay midwives and doctors willing to perform the now illegal procedure.

Criminalization of abortion and of information about it did not reduce the number of women who sought to end an unwanted pregnancy; it just denied them access to the services readily available to their colonial sisters. On the eve of the Civil War, around 160,000 abortions were undertaken among a population of 30 million (James Mohr, Abortion in America, 1978; Martin Olasky, Abortion Rites, 1995); higher proportionately than the number of abortions performed today, which has leveled off at 1.2 million per year out of a population of 307 million.

The majority of nineteenth century abortions involved poor women. Many of them were self-induced or performed by back alley practitioners operating under unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Mortality rates were high. Techniques included the use of knives, knitting needles, and sticks, untested drugs, herbs, and chemicals, and horseback riding. It was also believed abortion could be induced by jumping high enough so that one’s heels touched one’s buttocks. Moral and legal considerations – and even the possibility of death — were of minor importance to those in desperate circumstances undertaking desperate measures.

In 1873 Congress passed An Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, better known as the Comstock Act, named after its chief lobbyist. The legislation, which outlawed the dissemination of information on any form of birth control, reflected growing worries about increases in pre-marital and extra-marital sex and the changing status of women, more and more of whom were entering the workforce and challenging their role as exclusively wives and mothers. Moreover, as mentioned above, middle class, white women were just not producing enough “true American” babies.

For the next hundred years or so, abortion remained illegal despite the efforts of birth control advocates like Margaret Sanger, a tireless crusader for women’s health issues from the 1920s until her death in 1966. The sixth of eleven children born to a mother who went through eighteen pregnancies and died at the age of fifty, Sanger founded the Birth Control League in 1921 to distribute information (illegally) on contraception to doctors and social workers, but also to mostly poor women who had no choice about carrying through unwanted pregnancies forced on them by their husbands’ sexual demands. Even the courageous Sanger had her shadow motives: She was sympathetic to the eugenic movement’s efforts to prevent the wrong kinds of women – immigrants, blacks, and the poor – from diluting the Anglo-Saxon population dominance.

Birth control and abortion issues were not the priority of early twentieth century feminists. Obtaining the right to vote dominated their agenda, while the Great Depression and WWII led them to focus on economic matters, including jobs lost after the “boys” returned home. The big call to legalize abortion came from the feminist movements of the 1960s as one item on a lengthy to-do list. The right of women to control their own bodies is best seen as part of an ongoing, broader agenda of economic and legal equality. Their efforts influenced the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v Wade whereby the Supreme Court allowed unrestricted abortions in the first trimester. (Only as recently as 1965 had it struck down state laws prohibiting married couples from practicing birth control, and in 1972, afforded the same freedom to unmarried couples.)

Opponents of Roe v. Wade saw it as the final blow in a series of attacks against the familiar way of life in which women played their roles as wives and mothers, and shunned divorce, promiscuity, and non-traditional family structures. A common response when one’s belief system is threatened is not to rethink the belief system but to defend it more and more vigorously.

In the 2011 Republican presidential debates, the candidates emphasized their “pro-life” credentials, and nearly all of them pledged to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider (despite the fact that 97% of its budget goes to providing general healthcare services for its often poor clients). One of them went as far as to condemn the practice of contraception as a “license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

The Republicans lost the election of 2012 largely because women voters rejected the hard line they took on women’s rights, especially on abortion, including requiring mandatory invasive ultrasound examinations for those choosing to terminate a pregnancy. Given the tendency of factors other than legal and moral arguments to determine America’s stand on abortion, we can predict that politicians running for office in 2016, including those on the right, will be heeding instead the subtler beat of women marching toward the voting booths.



Leave a Comment
  1. Judy B / Mar 13 2013 12:15 am

    Thanks, Harvey, for your interesting history. Unfortunately the struggle for abortion rights has to be ongoing.

  2. Meghan Ketterling / Mar 13 2013 12:24 am

    “Like”… thank you.

    Meghan Raymond Ketterling (Old friend of Alina and Max)

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Harvey Asher / Mar 13 2013 12:58 am

    You’re welcome, Meghan. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Maxim Matusevich / Mar 13 2013 1:39 am

    Great analysis, Harvey. It came to me as a surprise that there were no restrictions on abortion in colonial America. I think the Republicans have lost the women’s vote for sure but it’s also the changing demographics of the country that dooms them (unless they adjust and choose to become more modern). In fact, I don’t believe they have much of a choice…

    • Harvey Asher / Mar 15 2013 12:19 am

      Don’t bank on the Republicans losing the women’s vote for sure, Max. New tactics include supporting the Violence Against Women Act, avoiding outrageous statements about rape and abortion, and working at the state level to achieve what they failed to get at the national level. Remember, they don’t have to win a majority of the women’s vote but only reduce the wide margin Democrats now enjoy.

  5. Carol Simonet / Mar 13 2013 1:06 pm

    Excellent summary of the issue – I agree that it cannot be ‘solved’ by moral or legal means anymore than you can eat breakfast once and for all. The times have changed and we women can do it by voting with our feet. Thank you!

    • Harvey Asher / Mar 15 2013 12:22 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Carol. Yes, I agree that women can make a difference, but more women will have to vote in support of a woman’s right to control her own body.

  6. lynn hinds / Mar 13 2013 3:50 pm

    Great essay, Harvey! Interesting that the “quickening” concept either came from Thomas Aquinas or at least was adopted by him in his Summa Theologica. The Roe decision actually makes reference to Aquinas. He opined that quickening was evidence of the soul entering the body of the fetus. Since that occurs about the 6th month of pregnancy, Roe v. Wade squares with that.

    • Harvey Asher / Mar 15 2013 12:24 am

      Thanks for the interesting additional information about Aquinas, Lynn. Your comments are always appreciated.

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