© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Abortion was once common practice in America. A small group of doctors changed that


In U.S. history, abortion wasn't always controversial. In fact, in colonial America, it was considered a fairly common practice, a private decision made by women and aided mostly by midwives. But in the mid-1800s, a small group of physicians set out to change that. Led by a zealous young doctor named Horatio Storer, they launched a campaign to make abortion illegal in every state. Hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah from our history podcast Throughline bring us the story.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1860, governors of every single state in the U.S. received this letter from the recently established American Medical Association.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The evil to society of this crime is evident from the fact that its instances in this country are now to be counted by hundreds of thousands.

ABDELFATAH: But there was really only one guy holding the pen.


ABDELFATAH: Karissa Haugeberg is an associate professor of history at Tulane University. She studied the formation of the anti-abortion movement.

HAUGEBERG: Basically, he ghostwrote a letter from the president of the AMA - so it looked like it was coming from the president, but Storer was actually the one who wrote it - saying that the AMA opposes abortion. And he used the language of morality.

ABDELFATAH: The letter was pivotal to what historians call the physicians' crusade against abortion, and Storer was making a few key arguments for why abortion should be illegal across the country. First, he introduced a new idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The child is alive from the moment of conception.

ABDELFATAH: That life began at conception. Up till now, people generally agreed that life began when a woman could actually feel life move inside her, known then as quickening. But that wasn't enough for Storer. He campaigned on a moral argument that also tapped into the racial fears of the moment, fears that would eventually inspire a pseudoscientific field of, quote, "racial improvement" and planned breeding of the population - American eugenics. These racial fears would inspire forced sterilization programs to decrease certain populations where Storer's anti-abortion campaign was trying to increase other populations by focusing on...

HAUGEBERG: The birth rate for Protestant white women had been declining over the course of the 19th century. So he had fears of what were commonly - what was commonly referred to as race suicide, that the Anglo stock wasn't going to replenish itself fast enough to keep up with the swells of new immigrants to the United States.

LESLIE REAGAN: And who is going to have power and populate this country and populate the Great Plains and the Great West?

ABDELFATAH: Leslie Reagan is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

REAGAN: Well, it is going to be Chinese migrants. It's going to be African Americans, newly freed people and Catholics. They are not the ones using abortion. It's our, you know, Yankee women who are using abortion, trying to get into medical school, trying to do politics when they should be at home, having babies and taking care of them.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Michelle Goodwin is a professor at the University of California Irvine in the areas of law and bioethics.

MICHELLE GOODWIN: They began to say, we need white women to use their loins because they're concerned about the Blackening and the browning of what is now - what at that point became the United States and this real concern that, when Black people become free, what will this mean for white people? And white women become a key to that.

ARABLOUEI: So part of Storer's thinking was that criminalizing abortion would help rebalance the scales of who was being born into this country. But there was more to this strategy. He saw this as a way to finally knock out the competition - midwives.

HAUGEBERG: And so if the AMA could wrest control over the marketplace of abortion, it would be lucrative to this growing cadre of university-educated, mostly male physicians who are beginning to specialize in things like obstetrics and gynecology.

ARABLOUEI: So midwives were slandered in this campaign.

GOODWIN: Described as unsanitary, unclean, as immoral.

ARABLOUEI: And as clueless as the mothers themselves.

REAGAN: Saying, women do not know. They don't know when they quicken - and really makes fun of women's own sensations and knowledge and says, you know, some of them quicken at one month. Some of them never quicken at all, and then they have a baby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) They may very constantly be recognized by the physician in cases where no sensation is felt by the mother.

REAGAN: So there's this scoffing at women's knowledge, saying, this is a sin. This is murder. You're killing children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) By the moral law, the willful killing of a human being at any stage of its existence is murder.

REAGAN: And the general public of women don't get it. They don't know that. And we need to change the laws.

ABDELFATAH: So to help people get it, Storer wrote - articles, books, reports, speeches - all to make his views on abortion and women clear. In one lecture called "The Origins Of Insanity In Women," he advocated for ovariectomies for women who, quote, "have become habitually thievish"...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Profane or obscene, despondent or self-indulgent, shrewish or fatuous.

ABDELFATAH: The solution, as he saw it...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Remove the cause.

ABDELFATAH: A woman's reproductive organs.

HAUGEBERG: He was really hostile to women.

ABDELFATAH: And that hostility was starting to gain traction. A few years into the campaign, some states began to pass laws outlawing or restricting abortion. Perhaps the harshest was in Connecticut in 1860. The law got rid of the quickening rule and made abortion a crime for which the abortionist and the woman getting the abortion could be fined and jailed. And over the next few decades, most states across the country would adopt similar laws thanks in part to another campaign that was going on at the same time that was getting even more attention. It was led by a Union Army Civil War veteran named...

HAUGEBERG: Anthony Comstock, who's well-known for leading the anti-birth control crusade of the 19th century.

ABDELFATAH: Anthony Comstock was a descendant of some of the earliest Puritans in New England. He took that ancestry to heart and went on to work with the Young Men's Christian Association, the YMCA, in New York City and founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. And he dedicated his life to exactly that - suppressing vice.

ARABLOUEI: In 1873, Comstock began lobbying Congress to pass anti-obscenity laws. There had been a rise of prostitution and new forms of birth control, like diaphragms and rubber condoms, all of which triggered a powerful backlash, a backlash that culminated in the Comstock Law. The law made it illegal to mail sex toys, pornography, contraception, abortion drugs or even information about contraception and abortion.

GOODWIN: Including some medical books that had pictures of anatomy - right? - is just how deep it went.

ARABLOUEI: But here's the thing. Comstock conflated birth control with abortion. He saw no difference between the two, which meant that abortion was wrapped up into this new law, making it a federal offense to send or order material about abortion by mail with punishment of up to $5,000 in fines, which is over $110,000 today, and up to 10 years in prison. The law was the first of its kind in the Western world.

ABDELFATAH: Between Comstock's laws and Horatio Storer's crusade, by 1880, every single state had a law outlawing abortion on the books. These laws launched a century of criminalization.


PFEIFFER: That was Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's Throughline podcast. The full episode is "Before Roe: The Physicians' Crusade." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.