An Historical Analysis of Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America


            Nineteenth-century America was a period of significant change in attitudes towards women and sexuality.  One major sign of this is the change in attitudes towards contraception and abortion.  At the beginning of the century, abortion was largely a private, or a family decision and was generally acceptable prior to quickening.  As the number of abortions rose, it received progressively more public attention.  Most of this negative attention came from religious groups, pronatalists, and men in general.  Abortion became politicized and at the center of the public and social fight over American women’s control over their bodies and the sizes of their families.

During the 1800s it became increasingly more a goal of American families to limit the number of children they had.  Having children could be a major financial burden on a family.  Large families were also a physical burden on mothers, who often sought not only to limit the number of their children, but also to space out their births.  Abstinence was one of the primary forms of birth control advocated, although it also had many critics who considered it unhealthy for men.  Also, particularly in the early part of the century, men generally believed that having sex with their wives was one of their basic rights as their family’s “bread winner.”  Some men were, however, open to some use of either the withdrawal or the rhythm methods.  Unfortunately, their theories about a woman’s most fertile periods in relation to her menstruation were highly inaccurate.  In fact, when attempting not to have a child, they often ended up having sex almost exclusively at the most fertile periods.  Therefore, it was typically left to women to try to control the sizes of their families without the direct cooperation of their husbands.  Women often turned to methods of artificially inducing miscarriages, such as abortifacients.  At times, husbands may have helped their wives to obtain them.  In the traditional view, such abortions were acceptable prior to “quickening.”  This was a common form of family limiting throughout the nineteenth-century, eventually becoming highly commercialized despite its advertising being outlawed by the Comstock Act of 1845.

A physical or surgical abortion was extremely dangerous in the earlier part of the nineteenth-century, although the danger decreases was less than that of giving birth itself.  During this period, many women who unsuccessfully used abortifacients “abandoned [their] miscarriage attempts,”[1] but desperate women might resort to infanticide.  A small number of desperate women were prosecuted for this, some of whom were executed.[2]  As the success and availability of other methods of birth control and family limiting increased, infanticide was largely replaced in America.[3]

Abortion procedures grew safer during this century, and grew to be widely advertised.  As historian Janet Brodie noted, advertisements and literature relating to abortion tended to use vague terminology such as “female troubles” or “obstructions,” as sexuality and thus pregnancy and abortion was a rather private matter.  Much of the range and variation of the terminology also “stemmed from prudery.”[4]  After the Comstock Act, such wording was also necessary to avoid prosecution.  Abortionists and sellers of abortifacients were most commonly only prosecuted if a woman who sought these services either died or testified against the suspect herself, and even then convictions were hard to come by.  As the safety of abortion increased, so too did the number of women who sought them.

Abortionists often grew very wealthy, the most notable example being Madame Restell, “New York’s most notorious abortionist.”[5]  Born Ann Trow Lohman, Madame Restell ran an extremely lucrative mail-order business for abortifacients and “implements” and an abortion service in New York City from the 1840s to the 1870s.  She was given a good deal of mostly helpful publicity from critical editorials, often printed side by side with her ads.

The continually growing numbers of abortion largely contributed to the decreasing fertility rates.  The combination of these two changing rates began to cause alarm.  There was a public outcry against abortion and contraceptives, causing laws such as the Comstock Act to be passed.  This backlash and family limitation was in many ways a cry against the freedom of women, especially from their husbands.  Being able to enjoy sex without fear of pregnancy, and being able to have a limited number of children gave women a new sense of freedom and even some sense of control.  To conservative males, this was probably as much a reason for the outcry as the actual reduction in birth rates.  This violated the common notion of separate spheres, in which men were seen in the “masculine” public sphere outside the home, and women in the “feminine” sphere of church and the household.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, the very idea of publicly condemning something as personal as abortion itself violated this separation of spheres.  The authority for abortion was taken from wives and husbands and placed in the hands of the government and the medical society.

Although abortion was widely publicly condemned and outlawed in the United States, it continued extensively.  The same persons who spoke out against it were often participants in it in private.  In one example, the Presbyterian minister Mason Grosvenor tried to run Charles Knowlton, author of Fruits of Philosophy, a book on contraception and abortion, out of town for his writings.  Upon getting married, the minister purchased the book for himself.[6]  This hypocrisy was, too, likely a result of the collision of the private and public spheres, shown by the minister clearly feeling it was his private right to have such knowledge, yet also feeling it was his right or perhaps even duty to speak against it in public.  Abortion was often attacked in public for religious reasons, though the real fear stemmed from deep prejudices against women expressing their sexuality in a manner comparable to men.  In private, however it was often seen as a necessary and practical means of avoiding physical exhaustion of the mother, hunger, unwanted children, and increased poverty.

Abortion was not brought into the public sphere strictly through prejudices and religion; current events also played a role in this.  In New York, the popularized death of Mary Rogers brought it into public discussion after she was determined to have died from a botched abortion.  She was widely known as being the “Beautiful Segar Girl”[7] from having worked at a popular cigar store in Manhattan.  Though her death was originally  assumed to be a murder, the New York newspapers widely dramatized and publicized the event and its investigation.  The story was seen as a symbol of the urban gangs that were common in the city at the time.  After a deathbed testimony finally revealed the true cause of Mary Rogers’ death, abortion came under the same scrutiny.  New York’s 1845 law outlawing abortion can be largely contributed to the debate which developed from the death of Mary Rogers.[8]  This law criminalized abortion for both the abortionist and the woman seeking an abortion.

Women before the nineteenth century were essentially tied to the household.  With little knowledge or availability of contraceptives and birth control, and with a “duty” to their husband, fertile women almost inevitably had many children.  In order to provide food for their large families and to properly run the household, they could not spare time for many other activities.  This enabled a belief in separate spheres as men went off to work and women remained at home.  It also seemed to reaffirm the belief in the superiority and dominance of men, as they “provided” for the household.  Women began to attempt to control the sizes of their families in the private sphere, but as this became more successful, it caught the attention of the public.  Partially in an attempt to prevent any form of freedom for women, conservatives began to speak out loudly against abortion and other birth control methods.  By the end of the nineteenth century, they had succeeded in outlawing abortion and created a public environment hostile to it; however, they had little luck in actually stemming the number of abortions and the slowly progressing freedom of women.

[1] Janet Farrell Brodie. Contraception and Abortion in 19th-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 42.

[2] Brodie. p. 39.

[3] John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1997) p. 65.

[4] Brodie. p. 6.

[5] D’Emilio. p. 161.

[6] Brodie. pgs. 4-5.

[7] Amy Gilman Srebnick. The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995) p. 33.

[8] Srebnick. p. 104.