We Need To Remind Ourselves When Abortion Was A Crime
The consequences were severe and deadly, and serves as a dark reminder of what could happen
Abortion has been an issue of significant political sparring in the United States for decades, but the concern over its legality became considerably starker after the Supreme Court overthrew Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, two previous rulings that believed the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution covers a woman’s right to choose. Months after the ruling, abortion has already been completely banned in 12 states and is under constant attack in several others. It was one of the central messages the Democratic party is running on in the 2022 Midterm elections, which has seen a record-breaking level of new female registered voters. Members of the party and pro-choice activists have warned repeatedly that if the Republican Party gains control of either the House or the Senate, it could mean a national ban on abortions, which had already been proposed in both the Senate and the House.
This issue had turned ugly and had caused serious consequences already, especially towards financially and socially disadvantaged groups who now no longer have access towards any state-wide assistance that could guarantee their rights to choose. But it got even more ugly and hypocritical after revelations of Herschel Walker, a former NFL player and current Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, was reported by the Daily Beast to have paid for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009. The woman then told the New York Times that Walker urged her to have an abortion again when she was pregnant the second time, which she refused and carried the pregnancy to term. In all media appearances since his announcement to run for office, he has stated that he opposed abortion “with no exceptions” and has been coy around whether or not he would support a national ban on abortion.
Despite this, the right-wing ecosystem does not want to abandon Walker for his moral bankruptcy, instead claiming that he “suffered PTSD due to brain injury as a football player” and that it is more important to win the seat than caring about him “used his money to reportedly pay some skank for an abortion.”
Similar to their continued devoted support of Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate in 2017 when he was being accused of sexual misconduct against teenage woman as an adult, and of Brett Kavanaugh, the Trump-appointed Supreme Court nominee who was accused by several women of sexual assault, the GOP chose to stay with Walker and ignore the abortion allegations. Senators Rick Scott, who is also the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Tom Cotton, did a stump speech for the embattled candidate. It couldn’t be more clear that the only thing these two care about the the control of the Senate, and not the moral values of a man whose own son has claimed to threatened to kill him and his mother, or his attitude on abortion.
With the extent of selfish greed fully exposed, it is not just important for those who can to participate in voting that would make sure morally bankrupt politicians couldn’t have the power to invoke a national ban on abortion, but it is also important to note what could happen as a repetition of history, since a national abortion ban, though never explicated coded into law, was in place for more than ninety years due to the same type of moral hypocrisy that favors a patriarchal political system that we observe in the US today.
What made abortion criminal?
The historical period when abortion was not only banned, but considered a felony, which occurred between the 1880s until 1973 when Roe overturned all state laws banning abortions, was carefully documented with vivid historical details by University of Illinois College of Law History Professor Leslie J. Regan’s 1997 book When Abortion Was A Crime.
The books reminds us that there are no limits or restrictions on abortion before the 1860s in any legal sense. Even though abortions during the time were not similar to medical operations today, they are commonly practiced by women freely in different means. During the colonial times and until early 19th century, conception and early stages of pregnancy were understood as the “blocking” of menstruation and corresponds with understandings of health. If women feel like this isn’t regular, they would take medicines or herbs to restore their menstruation and effectively conduct medically induced miscarriages, in a process known as “quickening”. Women regularly conduct this practice as a form of fertility autonomy.
The business of abortion grew more popular and more professional in the 1840s, around the same time there was an effort by physicians across the country to unify the medical system in their favor. They see themselves as the “regular” and “orthodox” practitioner in the field that was being challenged by others, such as nurses and midwives, which a majority of are women and often assist in conducting abortions. As physicians were almost exclusively men at the time, some have became fierce anti-abortion advocates not out of their actual moral opinions on the procedure itself but because of an unabashedly racist and sexist worldview they see that could also be an opportunity to also deprive nurses and midwives of legitimacy.
One of the staunchest advocates was early American Medical Association member and OB-GYN named Horatio Storer, who used race and morality as some form of just cause to vociferously attack abortions and contraception, claiming that not doing so would lead to “race suicide,” which is a eugenicist and white supremacist term that tries to admonish the white population for their diminishing majority and lack of willingness to reproduce. The rise of foreign immigration from Catholic Europeans, Mexicans and Asians made Storer worry about the future of the white, Protestant population that has been in control of the country since its foundation. He once said that the future of “civilization” is something white women “must answer upon their loins,” and his crusade was proven to be exceptionally effective with the help of like-minded politicians who share his nativist worldview and also fear the “race suicide.”
The campaign to vilify abortion during this period, which was elatedly pushed by the American Medical Association, includes relentless propaganda across the country that referred to “quickening” as a form of sexual perversion and nothing different from infanticide. It garnered support not only as a xenophobic policy that would force the native-born, white, Protestant population to have more children, but to also eliminate the legitimacy of midwives and nurses, which was supported by early feminist waves as a movement that challenges the patriarchal medical system.
A USPS postal inspector named Anthony Comstock formed an organization that heavily advocated for Christian morality and against all forms of obscenities, including abortions and contraceptives, which became laws passed by Congress in the 1870s that essentially banned mailing any form of contraceptive or abortifacients. A series of state laws followed soon, deeming abortions and medically induced miscarriages as felonies, often with no exceptions other than “therapeutic abortions” where doctors believe the mother’s life is at risk if the pregnancy continues.
Abortions failed to stop after it was banned
Brave women continued to have abortions despite the circumstances, so much so that it has became an open secret in the society, where women would often help one another if they need an abortion. People’s views on abortion have not changed much and it was not a hotbed political issue; around 2 million abortion procedures were still conducted in an early 20th century estimate. The private nature of the medical practice, especially for medical operations, ensured its continuing existence.
The reality of abortion would not change because the need for such procedures continues to correspond with the need to fertility autonomy and the financial circumstances these women face. Some of the women who secretly have abortions did so because their family could not afford the financial burden of another child, and some others did so because unwed mothers were heavily discriminated against at the time. Women who choose to have abortions sometimes have the support of their friends, family members, and spouses, but some don’t. The medical field was also not unified against abortion; despite the official narrative, many doctors would privately conduct abortion procedures out of their personal beliefs.
The Progressive Era was a period known for enthusiasm of left-wing and feminist appeals, but there were no effort that pushed for the legalization of abortion. Margaret Sanger, an early feminist and founder of Planned Parenthood, advocated heavily for the legalization of contraceptives but also spoke out against abortions, considering it a crime. Abortion was further pushed down and criminalized when anti-abortion members of the media wrote long undercover exposés that reveal some physicians are privately conducting abortions and some procedures had unfortunately led to the death of patients.
The AMA and their official journal seized these reports and wrote essay after essay condemning this behavior and conducted purges within its own community against anyone sympathizing women seeking abortions. Physicians would dissuade women from having abortions by using emotional appeals, such as showing them the pictures of the unborn fetus, and even forcing them to marry if they weren’t. They also appealed to the Catholic dioceses that also opposed abortions, claiming that religion has a moral superiority over abortions. They also conducted legislative appeals once again to shut down any effort that could legalize non-physician members of the medical field, including successfully lobbying against the Sheppard Towner Act that would professionally recognize the midwives as medical practitioners.
However, the need for abortions have only grown after the Great Depression that resulted in many working women losing their jobs and the ability to financially support their families. Underground birth control clubs, similar to speakeasies that provide alcohol due to the Prohibition, were popping up that provide guidance and money for abortions for women in need. Judicial restrictions against birth control have also loosened at the time, but the growth of abortions have not amounted to any legislative effort of legalization. The weakening of the workers movement and fading of socialist appeals have caused the lack of political push.
The anti-abortion pushdown worsened
An unprecedented number of women in need for abortions meant that more women are both conducting the procedure by themselves and also seeking medical assistance. Abortion procedures were still conducted underground, but once again there are a growing number of doctors who participate and at times open secret abortion clinics due to sympathy. Doctors would often seen women who seek doctors after they caused immense damage after doing the procedure by themselves, which led to a growth of such sympathy.
According to Reagan, a doctor at a Washington D.C. hospital in the 1930s recounted that he had women who had septic infections, hemorrhages, uterus perforations and mutilation of intestines and other organs caused by self-induced abortions, with one patient “still had the straightened-out coat hanger hanging from her vagina.”
The end of World War II had once again repressed the underground abortion movement, this time often with the involvement of prosecutors and law enforcement. The government became concerned of a new wave of feminism that would upend the dominance of the white male supremacy, and they soon started the “Family Movement” that advocates for people to form families and raise as many children as possible. Women who worked during the war were encouraged to return to the family and submit to their husbands.
Lawmakers encouraged police officers to conduct underground investigations of abortion service providers in order to shut them down by conducting raids. If a raid is successful in catching women who were in the room, there were often forced to testify in a court in exchange for impunity and were required to share their private life to a jury and speak out against the people who conducted the procedures. If a woman is on her deathbed due to a botched abortion operation, police officers would often arrive and ask the woman to recount her experience, such as who introduced her to the underground sites, the location of the sites and the person who performed the procedure. These accounts would be marked as law-binding final statements and can be used by prosecutors to charge those who conducted the abortion. Many woman, despite dying, refuse to tell the truth.
The campaign to once again demonize abortion had reached a higher political level when supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was notorious for his crusades against anyone who he claimed are “Communists,” linked abortion to the ideology championed by the U.S.’s arch nemesis, the Soviet Union. Hospitals and local medical associations established “abortion committees” that would harshly evaluate every single case of “therapeutic abortions” using the strictest standard and any doctor who showed sympathy for women having abortions were blacklisted. With rare cases of therapeutic abortions, doctors are required to conduct sterilizations for women who received the procedure. Members of the media also participated in the campaign to crack down, implying in their reporting that organized crime have connections with underground abortions and calling it a “criminal industry.”
With more women going into universities and workspaces, getting pregnant could cut their careers short, which once again led to a growing need of abortion procedures. The multiple crackdowns the government have enforced made conducting the procedure safely nearly impossible; underground sites are getting more secretive, and procedures are more often conducted by people with questionable expertise, making abortions even more dangerous than before. Women were often forced to conduct the procedures by themselves by taking hemorrhage-inducing medicines, drinking castor oil, injecting alkaline liquid into their bodies, using metal coat hangers, and even hitting their stomach with a meat mallet.
The racial divide over the treatment of abortion recipients have always existed when abortion was illegal, but this period had perhaps the worst divide. Wealthier women, which are almost entirely white, could receive house calls and still conduct abortions in their homes or private wards, while the public wards are full of women who were injured due to self-induced abortions, many of whom were women of color. Such a calamitic situation continued for many years, until Roe corrected it and overturned all state laws banning abortions.
As we enter in the post-Roe era where there is no longer federal, constitutional guarantee for the right to an abortion, we are seeing many of the instances mentioned in Reagan’s book repeat in real time. Reproductive rights is a fundamental human right without question, and it should never be restricted based on any moral, ethical, or religious basis. Those who are fervently pushing for abortion bans, a majority of them men, are likely keenly observant of the likely consequences of doing so. They simply do not care enough about it, as the anti-abortion agenda has been a successful political selling point for them in decades, and an essentially utensil to perpetuate their supremacy against a population that have grown more diverse and less racist and sexist than the past.