History of abortion in the U.S.
HISTORY OF ABORTION IN THE U.S.
From _Legends, Lies, & Cherished Myths of American History_
by Richard Shenkman (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1988), pp. 68-70
. . . History can be tricky. And it can be at its trickiest when it concerns
a subject with which we are all familiar.
Consider the question of abortion. Everyone knows abortion is legal today
only because of the famous Supreme Court decision in 1973. But the assumption
of most people that before the Court's ruling abortion had always been illegal
in the United States is wrong.
In fact, there were no laws in the United States against abortion until the
1820's. And for many years after that, most states permitted abortions in the
first four months of pregnancy. Abortion began to be generally outlawed only
in the min-nineteenth century. Again, on the basis of the way the debate is
shaped today, one would expect the clergy to have been behind the movement to
outlaw abortion. But it was the medical profession that pushed for the
change. Doctors undertook the effort after discovering with the help of the
microscope that babies developed when an egg was fertilized by sperm. Before
the discovery only the sperm had been detected; no one had seen an egg.
"Thus," says Carl Degler, "what is spoken of today as the moment of
conception, the time when egg and sperm unite, had no specific meaning or even
conceptualization for people at the opening of the 19th century. About all
that physicians and lay people alike knew was that at some point after sexual
intercourse the male sperm (or egg) began to develop into a recognizably
potential human being." As a result, everyone had believed that life began at
about four months, when the mother felt the baby move in her stomach (a moment
known as quickening).
Another common error about abortions is that they were uncommon until
recently. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but one researcher has
estimated that in the second half of the nineteenth century there was one
abortion for every half dozen or so births. In the 1920's, it's reported,
about one in four pregnancies ended in an abortion.
Doctors railed against abortion, one lamenting that "even among the married,
there are few wives who do not know of some means to destroy the foetus before
it comes to full term, and who have not in some manner, and at some time,
applied one or more of these means in their own cases." But women continued
having abortions apparently because they provided a guaranteed method of birth
Abortions during all this time were generally illegal. Yet Americans seem not
to have been terribly bothered by the widespread resort to the practice. One
statistic is particularly revealing: Between 1849 and 1858 in Massachusetts,
of thirty-two accused abortionists brought to trial, not one was convicted;
juries composed solely of men freed every one of the suspects.
Women seemed even less inclined than men to condemn abortion. As one doctor
sadly observed in 1896, "Many otherwise good and exemplary women, who would
rather part with their right hands or let their tongues cleave to the roof of
the mouth rather than to commit a crime, seem to believe that prior to
quickening it is no more harm to cause the evacuation of the contents of their
wombs than it is that of their bladders or their bowels." 
15. Carl Degler, _At Odds_ (1980), ch. 10.