The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion
reviewed by John F. Quinn
Most Americans, even those who follow the contemporary abortion controversy closely, would surely be surprised to learn that the American Medical Association (AMA) spearheaded a campaign for stricter abortion laws almost since its beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. The doctors were ably assisted in their efforts by feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and by the editors of newspapers such as the New York Times.
For pro-abortion scholars, explaining how so many well-educated, reform-minded people could hold such views is a formidable challenge. To meet it, historians such as James Mohr in his Abortion in America and Janet Farrell Brodie in her Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America have downplayed the feminists and journalists and focused instead on the doctors.
In these scholars’ accounts, the doctors are depicted as being uncertain of their social standing and intent on distancing themselves from the midwives and various quacks who hawked pills and herbal treatments for every imaginable condition, including pregnancy. To secure their status, professionally trained doctors or “regulars” lashed out at abortionists and the other medical practitioners on the margins of the field.
The real story, however, is quite different. A retired research psychologist for the Army, Frederick Dyer has been painstakingly researching this topic for more than a decade and has produced the authoritative account of the key role doctors played in the efforts to curtail abortion in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that the doctors were motivated by concerns for both the rights of the fetus and the welfare of the mother.
The Campaign Begins
Dyer traces the doctors’ campaign back to 1839, when Hugh Lenox Hodge, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, strongly condemned abortion in a lecture to his students and then published the address. The movement began to affect public opinion and state laws in the 1850s, when David and Horatio Storer became involved.
In 1855, David Storer, a professor at Harvard Medical School, delivered a widely publicized lecture that rejected the popular view that abortion was acceptable if it was carried out before “quickening,” when the mother felt movement in her womb. He assured his students that life began at conception and should never be terminated unless the mother’s life was endangered.
At this time, his son Horatio, a recent graduate of the Medical School, persuaded the newly founded AMA to examine the subject in 1857. Two years later, a committee of doctors led by Storer issued its report at the AMA’s annual meeting in Louisville.
The committee members called on their colleagues to do all in their power to enlighten the general public about when fetal life begins. They also urged all doctors to press their state legislators for stronger laws against abortion and for stiffer penalties to be imposed on abortionists. The delegates approved the report unanimously, and many returned to their home states to work to change the laws.
In 1864 the AMA decided to increase its commitment by establishing a prize for the best antiabortion essay written by a doctor. In the following year the award was given to Horatio Storer. The AMA published the work under the title Why Not? A Book for Every Woman and distributed it widely over the next several years.
For the next three decades Storer and a host of other doctors around the country spoke out against abortion and published both popular tracts and scholarly works on the subject. In 1871 the AMA sponsored a second report condemning elective abortion, and the Journal of the American Medical Association regularly published articles on the subject.
Some doctors warned that an abortion could injure or kill the woman undergoing it. Others tried to dissuade women by using vivid scriptural imagery, decrying abortionists as “modern-day Herods.” Above all, though, the doctors stressed that the fetus was a human being from its conception.
Reporters & Pastors
Dyer notes that the physicians received some help from the press. Many editors wrote columns against abortion, and a couple even sent out undercover reporters to expose the abortionists in their midst.
In 1888, a Chicago Times reporter claimed that when, feigning pregnancy, she visited doctors, more than twenty in the city had agreed to her request for an abortion. The newspaper then printed their names and addresses. As a result, some faced disciplinary action. The Chicago Police Department’s own surgeon was fired by the mayor.
On the other hand, some major newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press continued to accept advertisements from midwives and others for “women’s remedies,” which were in fact abortifacient drugs. As Dyer notes, the newspapers received substantial revenues from these ads.
The antiabortion doctors received some help from the clergy but not as much as they would have liked. Most were pleased with the Catholic Church’s response, noting that priests counseled against abortion in the confessional and issued statements on it from time to time.
Protestant ministers were generally less willing to address the subject in their sermons or published works. Some felt that the topic was too sensitive to bring before their congregations, while others may not have fully agreed with Storer and his associates. Still, Dyer found a variety of Protestant clergymen like the Episcopal bishop Arthur Coxe and the Congregational minister John Todd who were outspoken supporters of the doctors’ efforts.
By 1900, Dyer reports, most of the doctors involved in this crusade did not feel that they were winning. They concluded that abortion rates were in fact higher than they had been at mid-century.
One obstetrician who spoke before the AMA in 1908 estimated that 10,000 elective abortions occurred in Chicago each year and perhaps as many as 100,000 were performed annually in New York. In the following year, an Ohio physician claimed that one out of every five or six pregnancies in his state ended in abortion.
Dyer believes that these statistics are accurate, but also points out that the doctors did succeed in preventing thousands of other abortions. Many Americans now living owe their lives to these zealous physicians.
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