The history of early abortion bans in the United States
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
This article is part of The Broad's short series in response to the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade. For more articles like this, search the hashtag 'Roe v Wade' on our website.
The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was based upon not only a long-standing contempt towards and desire to control women’s bodies, but also on a version of US history which was entirely misunderstood. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito claimed that the right to an abortion ‘is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions’ and has been punished as a crime ‘from the earliest days of common law’. This claim is entirely false. Comprehensive Abortion bans were first initiated in 1847 and were based upon fundamentally misogynistic and racist ideas. Prior to 1847, abortions were commonplace and not even deemed criminal by the Church. So, what changed?
In the nineteenth-century, women perceived abortions as the perfectly natural solution to early unwanted pregnancies. Contemporary newspapers and magazines advertised abortion inducing herbs such as savin, tansy and pennyroyal. Midwives and abortionists also used newspapers to advertise their services. Madame Costello, for example, was a female physician who took out an advertisement in the New York Herald in the 1840s which called to women who ‘wish to be treated for obstruction of the monthly period’. Indeed, unlike today, women of the nineteenth-century often saw early pregnancies – typically up to sixteen weeks – as merely the ‘suppression of menses’, as an interruption of the menstrual cycle which could be remedied through abortion. This is emphasised by Leslie Reagan, a professor at the University of Illinois specialising in the history of public health in the US. In her comprehensive history of abortion laws, When Abortion Was a Crime, Reagan highlights that if a pregnancy was terminated early, it had merely ‘slipped away’ or the menses had been ‘restored’. This was because a pregnancy was not fully recognised until the moment of ‘quickening’, which meant the first time a pregnant person felt the foetus move.
Furthermore, abortions were aided and performed overwhelmingly by women. Midwives provided the bulk of reproductive health care in the early nineteenth-century, and white male physicians had not yet inserted themselves into this medical realm. This aspect of healthcare was not limited to white women. According to Michele Goodwin in The Racist History of Abortion and Midwifery Bans, half of the women who gave reproductive care were African American women – some of whom enslaved – and many midwives were Native American. What this tells us is that abortion was not treated as an immoral, criminal violation as the Supreme Court has suggested. Instead, many women – especially women of colour – made careers out of aiding the termination of early pregnancies. It has to be noted, however, that this story is different for enslaved women. Blakemore has argued that for enslaved women, abortion was more tightly regulated as their children were treated as the property of slave owners. This does not mean that enslaved women did not induce abortions and act as midwives, but it bears reminding that, then as now, abortions often require a degree of privilege.
We have seen that abortion was much more widely accepted than Justice Samuel Alito has asserted, but what changed? In 1847, the American Medical Association was formed by a group of white male physicians. Almost as soon as it was formed, the AMA began to argue against abortions and groups such as the Physicians Crusade Against Abortion were founded. At this time, healthcare was professionalising, with doctors being formally trained through university as the new standard. As a result, the new wave of professional doctors sought to undermine and expel the midwives – especially women of colour - who had been providing reproductive healthcare. Banning abortions meant wresting control from both the women who provided this care as well as those who sought it. For these doctors, it was a win-win. But, why now?
The mid-nineteenth century was, unsurprisingly, rife with misogynistic and racist ideals. These were the pillars upon which anti-abortion arguments were founded. One man in particular, Horatio Storer, provides us with crystal clear evidence of this. As Chair of the Committee on Criminal Abortion and author of On Criminal Abortion in America – which remained official AMA policy until 1967 - Storer had penned many memorable quotes on the subject. For example, Storer asserted of women, ‘what she is in health, in character, in her charms, alike of body, mind and soul because of her womb alone.’ Here, Storer makes clear that the position of women in society should be restricted to that of the mother. This was a particular concern for Anglo-Saxon men because women in the mid nineteenth-century began to increasingly demand suffrage and to emerge from the home. Indeed, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Further, Storer placed himself and advocates against abortions as the rightful protectors of the role of the mother: ‘we are the physical guardians of women’. This suggests that women, naturally, do not have the capacity to decide what is best for themselves and explicitly demonstrates the desire of these men to control women’s bodies. What Storer exemplifies here is that abortion bans were wielded primarily to force women into their ‘natural’ role as mothers. It is no surprise that those seeking to ban abortions did so in order to control women; indeed, this is a continuous force that would dominate the conversation surrounding abortions for centuries after Storer.
In addition, anti-abortion arguments in the mid-nineteenth century perpetuated the racial superiority of white Anglo-Saxon protestants. This was a response to the significant increase in immigration to the United States during this period. Indeed, between 1851 and 1880, almost five million immigrants came to the Unites States. Contemporaries were especially concerned with the growing Irish population, and the ‘Celts’ were even deemed a separate and inferior race. Storer fretted in 1867 that ‘it has been found of late years that the increase of the population (…) has been wholly of those of recent foreign origin’. The AMA and associated groups argued thus: increased Irish immigration coupled with falling Anglo-Saxon birth rates would result in those of ‘foreign origin’ dominating political and social institutions in the US. Perhaps the starkest example of this racist ideology comes from a special committee on abortion in Ohio, who asked ‘shall we permit our broad and fertile prairies to be settled only by the children of aliens?’. This obvious nativism resulted in support for abortion bans in order to retain the racial dominance of the Anglo-Saxons. That this was achieved through forcing Anglo-Saxon women to have more children and to remain confined in the role of the mother demonstrates how the two pillars of misogyny and racism worked together within anti-abortion arguments.
This history reveals that the overturning of Roe V. Wade is not in line with the common threads of US history, but harkens back to a set of specifically racist and misogynistic aims and beliefs. That Justice Samuel Alito has been able to so completely ignore the very well documented history of legal abortions is a dangerous thing, and it is therefore more important than ever that we aim to educate ourselves.
On Abortion Access in Scotland - Statement by Anna Cowan, campaigner for Back off Scotland
The verdict of Roe v Wade represents a huge step back in the progress we have made for equal reproductive rights. Allowing abortion to be banned does not ban abortions - it bans safe abortions.
Although decisions like this may seem incredibly far away, in Scotland we are facing a fight against abortion access in the form of anti-choice protests outside of clinics which provide abortions. These protestors come from Texas-funded organised 40 Days for Life, who are an insidious and restrictive religious group who's sole purpose is to ban abortion.
In Scotland we must show our solidarity with our American sisters and siblings, while also being vigilant and fighting against anti-choice movements. If you want to be apart of the cause to establish buffer zones around abortion clinics, please fill out the Scottish Government consultation to enact this into law at bufferzones.scot
Please fill in Gillian Mackay’s consultation on buffer zones here, open until 06/08/22.
You can write to your MSP here.