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Abortion in America: A Brief History

There is a general assumption among pro-life advocates that abortion is a relatively new phenomenon in American life. Abortion advocates conversely present an argument that abortion as always been a necessary reality. Historical balance shows that abortion has been around for quite some time, but its acceptance by anything close to a majority is indeed a recent arrival in the annals of American history.

Maryland handed down the first known conviction for the “intention to abort” in 1652. In 1710 Virginia made it a capital crime to conceal a pregnancy and then be found with a dead baby. Delaware followed in 1719 with a law that made anyone who counseled abortion or infanticide an accessory to murder.

Early in American history, surgical abortion was generally a death sentence to mother and unborn child; infections most often cost the mother her life. One problem in convicting someone of abortion at that time was the difficulty aligned with confirming a pregnancy. Pregnancy was difficult to verify, and juries tended to sympathize with desperate and abandoned women. One factor that limited widespread abortion was the fact men tended to “act honorably” and offer marriage to a woman he impregnated out of wedlock.

From the time of John Calvin and on, religious communities consistently condemned abortion. Up until the mid 1800s, many doctors believed that babies existed in the egg before conception. It was also very difficult to confirm pregnancy in time for early abortions.

As populations became more spread out an isolated, abortion began to take a foothold. As it did, lawmakers stepped into express the will of the general populace. The first abortion legislation was passed in Connecticut in 1821. New York passed a number of anti-abortion laws in the early 1800s. Even so, abortion continued to rise.

The general consensus of both the public and lawmakers was that it wasn’t the women having abortions that should be prosecuted, but rather those performing them. As one observer of the time noted:

Some states gave immunity to women from all criminal liability, partly because women pregnant after seduction were considered desperate victims rather than perpetrators, and partly because of the search for any kind of edge in prosecution. New Jersey, New York, and other states gave women immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony…By providing either no or low penalties, so that a woman would testify that she had been pregnant, prosecutors had a chance to leap the evidentiary hurdles of convincing a jury an abortion actually had occurred.

Thirteen states passed laws forbidding abortion at any stage during the 1840s and 1850s. In spite of this, abortionists advertised heavily in papers like the Penny Press, though they never used the word abortion.

The biggest boon to the abortion industry was the boom in another endeavor, prostitution. Increased industrialization made business travel far more common for many American men, and the anonymity that went along with such travel gave them far more chances to seek out prostitutes. By the middle of the 1800s, there were around 60,000 prostitutes in America. With little birth control and an average of thirty to forty sexual encounters a week, frequent pregnancy was inevitable.

John Warren , a New York detective, observed that abortionists were “flourishing and growing rich from prostitution as a source of income.” One New York physician noted, “Our profession is not entirely clear of complicity in the crime of feticide. Tempted by thirty pieces of silver …individuals may be found in whom the honorable instincts and teachings of the guild are lost in the influence of unprincipled cupidity.”

Just as today, the majority of abortionists were driven by profit, not principle. Marvin Olasky estimates, based on a careful ten-point equation, that approximately 100,000 prostitution-related abortions were occurring each year at this point in American history. Along with such overwhelming numbers, a number of authorities began to advocate legalizing abortion.  Detective Warren observed, “Social crimes like infanticide, that were once placed on the same level as murder, are now not only looked upon with complacency… but are defended on principle by certain theorists.”

It was around the time of the Civil War that abortion began to be associated with married women for the first time. It is estimated that during 1860, there may have been as many as 45,000 abortions performed on married women. When these married women first began seeking abortions from Dr. Charles D. Meigs in 1842, the Philadelphia doctor described them as “persons so ignorant of their own moral duties, or so uninstructed as to the character and duties of medical men, [that they came to him] with a bold-faced proposition to procure an abortion.”

Dr. Meigs refused such requests on the ground that he believed abortion to be murder. But not all doctors agreed. Many churches of the time were uncertain what to do about abortion. Some were bold in their testimony, as evidenced by an 1868 Congregational church conference declaration on abortion:

Full one third of the natural population of our land, falls by the hand of violence; that in no one year of the late war have so many lost life in camp or battle, as have failed of life by reason of this horrid home crime. We shudder to view the horrors of intemperance, of slavery, and of war; but those who best know the facts and bearing of this crime, declare it to be a greater evil, more demoralizing and destructive, than either intemperance, slavery or war itself.

Only one denomination expressly condemned abortion and those that performed them during the 1860s. The Presbyterian Church in the United States issued an official proclamation that declared, “the destruction by parents of their own offspring before birth,” is “a crime against God and against nature.”

In the decades leading up to the 20th century, support for abortion began to lose ground. The American Medical Association began to pursue more rigorous anti-abortion laws. Abortion opponents began to comprehend that laws, by themselves, were not enough. Dr. Joseph C. Stone entered Congress in 1877 with the intention to “pass good laws when possible, but to stress conversion and education.” By the turn of the century, the pendulum had swung back toward eliminating abortion everywhere possible.

Much has changed about the abortion debate since its first surge or popularity. Some of the most outspoken and spirited abortion opponents were a part of the mainstream media. The National Police Gazette dedicated itself to exposing abortionists, and the New York Times emphasized that the fight against abortion was a fight against money and power: “Great mansions on grand avenues are occupied by disgusting ‘practitioners’ who continue to escape prosecution.”

At the turn of the century, there was a growing commitment to establish support measures to assist pregnant, unmarried women. Chicago had dozens of such shelters by 1895. Even so, abortionists were not about to give up their cash cow. Abortionists printed up thousands of business cards and distributed them in brothels and boarding houses. One reporter wote, “Chicago abortionists had their own legal department, with witnesses on tap and ready to swear that ‘the young woman had an operation elsewhere and the doctor was merely performing a life-saving operation.'”

One Chicago physician noted, “It is not possible to get twelve men together without at least one of them being personally responsible for the downfall of a girl, or at least interested in getting her out of her difficulty.” Clergy condemned abortion less and less, medical students were not sufficiently informed of the extent of the crime, laws went unenforced, and a general public apathy combined to have a snowball effect.

Dr. M.S. Iseman concluded in 1912 that “except in the formal letter of the statute books, the sanctity which nearly twenty centuries of Christianity has conferred upon the unborn human being is repudiated.” Dr. Matthew Liotta wrote in 1931, “Never before in all past ages has there been such merciless killing of innocent, helpless and unborn human beings as is going on at the present time.”

The moral framework that stood in opposition to abortion on demand began to erode in the early 1900s. Margaret Sanger’s The Woman Rebel actually championed what she called “the right to destroy.” Sanger celebrated the “virtue” of sexual promiscuity and attacked any women’s shelter which counseled otherwise. She went on to found Planned Parenthood, which remains the principal abortion provider in the United States.

Sanger saw triumph in the secularization of social work. She championed government funding that required the removal of all religious indoctrination, as professional social workers replaced what she called “evangelically-oriented matrons.” Helping people do what was right shifted to helping people do whatever they wanted to do.

The biggest shift in the public’s perception of abortion came in the 1960s. Anti-abortion laws became the reasons for illegal abortions rather than the responsibility of mothers and father. In 1967, Colorado and California became the first states to legalize abortion for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, for pregnancies that threatened the life of the mother, or for pregnancies of severely handicapped children. Over the next three years, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Virginia followed suit.

New York became the first state to offer unrestricted abortion during the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy in 1970. One year later, in 1971, Roe v. Wade came to trial. When the verdict was handed down in 1973, all state laws regulating abortion were stricken, and abortion on demand became the law of the land.

Just as in the 1860s, profit motive is still the real driving force of the abortion industry. Abortionists of 1860 New York lived in the finest houses on prime property. Nothing much has changed.

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