Friday, September 16, 2022
Historian's Study Uncovers Newspaper Reports of Abortion in the US from 1820 to 1860
Patricia Cohen, Married Women and Induced Abortion in the United States, 1820-1860
Results of a study of 225 publicized abortion cases in US newspapers from 1820 to 1860; with attention to married women who comprise a small fraction of the set.
From the conclusion:
My search for married women exercising reproductive choice produces glimpses of such women—in Luceba Parker’s and Mme Restell’s rooms and in Horatio Storer’s fevered brain. A series of inferences lend support to the trend. We know the birth rate was falling in this period, first and fastest in New England; some, maybe most of that was due to contraception, equally shunned by Storer. We know that missed menstrual periods were common and were thought to require treatment, including uterine penetration. My newspapers stories show that some doctors were willing to perform abortions, so similar to menstrual regulation techniques. And we know that early pregnancy was hard to detect and hard to prove. When done successfully and discretely, an abortion left few clues. Finally, there had to be some degree of activity by married women for Storer’s outsized claims to seem plausible.
What I am most struck by now, after having amassed all this material, are the crucial differences between then and now. In both eras, legal doors are closing. But back then, those new laws were rarely enforced. Few were prosecuted; fewer still convicted. It is clearly a very different world today, one shaped by powerful tools of surveillance, modern regulatory bureaucracy, unyielding religious beliefs, and determined enforcement.