Histories of Abortion

At least two historians have given us book length treatments of the history of abortion. James Mohr's Abortion in America was published in 1978. Marvin Olasky's Abortion Rites appeared in 1995 and is in some ways a reply to Mohr.

Mohr tells us that in 1800 there were no state laws against abortion. In his view, the common law held that abortion was not a crime prior to "quickening" (i.e., the first felt movement of the fetus) in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. After quickening, abortion was usually considered a crime; but it was not equated with murder.

There are no records on the number of abortions performed, but Mohr believes that it was not rare. A variety of pills, powders, and mechanical devices were used --all of which varied greatly in their safety and effectiveness.

Between 1821 and 1840, 10 out of 26 states enacted laws that included provisions on abortion. In five states these applied only to abortions after "quickening." The others applied prior to quickening, but were largely unenforceable because it was difficult to determine whether a woman was pregnant.

Between 1840 and 1860 it was widely believed that the number of abortions increased. Mohr estimates the number of abortions as one for every five or six live births. Again, the record is far from perfect, but several types of evidence suggest that there was a considerable increase. For example, there was a good deal of advertising for abortion services and for medicines and devices to do the job.

In Mohr's view, abortion also became more popular with married women and women of the middle and upper classes. The doctrine of quickening was still widely accepted. This alarmed some observers, especially the "regular" physicians with medical degrees and scientific backgrounds. The physicians had several concerns: moral doubts, scientific reasons to question the importance of quickening, the dangers of abortion for women, and the desire to rid themselves of some of the irregular competition in the medical field. Mohr believes that the physicians were a major force in the enactment of laws against abortion.

Beginning in the late 1850s, working through the American Medical Association (AMA) and other organizations, the doctors actively campaigned to get state legislatures to further restrict abortion. The physicians were supported by a number of other groups. The result was a series of over 40 laws between 1860 and 1880 that greatly restricted abortion and remained largely intact for a century. Abortion prior to quickening became a crime. Often both the woman and the abortionist were guilty. Although they contained exceptions, such as saving the life of the mother, these laws were far more restrictive than earlier legislation.

During and after this period abortion became much less visible. Advertising was suppressed as obscene. A sympathetic doctor might perform an abortion under another name. Others might justify abortion for the sake of the mother's health. A steady business in illegal abortions, some of which were incompetent and unsafe, continued. Eventually, the development of surgical abortion using standard antiseptic methods made abortion more effective and safer for the mother. The introduction of penicillin in the 20th century reduced the incidence of maternal death enormously.

By the mid 20th century, decisions about abortion often went to hospital review boards. There were also several groups arguing that abortion laws should be changed. In 1959 The American Law Institute proposed revisions that were used by a number of states. In the 1960s an outbreak of German measles (which often cause serious birth defects) led to more abortions. Some doctors, fearing prosecution, argued for more liberal laws.

In 1969 Planned Parenthood supported the repeal of anti-abortion laws. In 1970 Hawaii and New York repealed, but in 1972 a referendum to liberalize the law in Michigan was defeated. The sudden and far reaching change came only after 1973 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a Texas anti-abortion statute was unconstitutional.

Olasky's interpretation of the history of abortion is different from Mohr's on several important points. In general, he believes that popular opinion was not as sympathetic to early abortion as Mohr indicates.

More specifically, Olasky believes that there were cases in which the common law did prohibit abortion, that the distinction between abortion before and after quickening was not especially important, and that at least some men were convicted. He agrees with Mohr that the number of abortions increased in the mid 19th century; but he disagrees about who was having the abortions. In Olasky's view, abortion in the mid 19th century was chiefly confined to three groups of women: those seduced and abandoned by men, prostitutes, and those who accepted unorthodox religious views that he calls "spiritist." In short, abortion among married orthodox Christian women was rare.

Olasky also disagrees with Mohr on the political importance of the physicians and the AMA. He sees the physicians as internally divided over the abortion issue. The AMA, he believes, was able to lobby successfully only when popular opinion was on its side. Thus its success in the case of abortion testifies more to the depth of anti-abortion opinion than the power of the organization.

The differences between Mohr's account and Olasky's are striking. When political and ethical issues are hard fought, it is common for historians to disagree about the history of the problem. People on all sides often believe that a particular interpretation of historical shifts and trends supports their ethical or political view. In any case, Mohr's history is probably more congenial to pro-choice readers while Olasky's is more agreeable to those taking a pro-life view.

Reference: James C. Mohr, Abortion in America and Marvin Olasky Abortion Rites.