By Ardyce Whalen
Whew! The election is over, the profusion of negative political ads no longer clogs our media and our minds. We can take a deep breath, relax, and get back to normal living again. But one thing still bothers me: Why would those who want a “simpler, smaller, and smarter government” want invasive and extensive control over women’s bodies? It doesn’t make sense; I decided to do some digging in our history for an answer. I found much of the following information in the book, When Abortion Was a Crime, by Leslie J. Reagan.
Common law during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries deemed that early abortion was legal, but illegal after the “quickening”—the feeling of movement by the mother that occurs at about the fourth month of pregnancy. No one, not even the Catholic Church, believed that human life existed prior to the quickening. Common law, therefore, was grounded in the woman’s perception of what was going on inside her own body.
The first laws governing abortions in the United States, according to the finding of James Mohr (quoted by Reagan), were poison control measures designed to protect pregnant women. It is interesting to note that early nineteenth century laws did not punish women for inducing an abortion and did not eliminate the idea of quickening. The laws said nothing about growing plants that could induce an abortion; they were aimed at the commercialization of abortion producing plants.
In 1847, the newly organized American Medical Association (AMA) began a campaign to make abortion illegal at any stage of pregnancy. The campaign, in part, grew out of “regular” physicians’ hunger for professional power. They wanted to get rid of the competition from “irregular” healers, such as Homeopaths and midwives (James Mohr, quoted by Reagan).
The antiabortion campaign was antifeminist. Women were condemned for “avoiding the self-sacrifice expected of mothers.” It was a backlash campaign in response to the nineteenth century women’s movement’s fight to gain the right to enter into the regular medical profession. The antiabortion campaign fought to keep women out of medical schools, societies, and hospitals. Male physicians did not want to share their professional power with females.
Then in the 1800’s and continuing into the 1900’s, waves of immigrants poured onto American shores. Birth rates among the white classes declined. Antiabortionists did not want the large immigrant families, many of them Catholics, to become more numerous than the white Yankees, for fear they’d become politically powerful.
Dr. Horatio R. Storer, leader of the medical wing of the antiabortion movement, wanted native born, white Americans to spread “civilization” to the South and West, not Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Indians, or Catholics. White male patriarchy demanded that maternity be enforced (emphasis mine) upon white Protestant women (Reagan, p. 11). The movement’s aim was to increase America’s native-born, white population in an attempt to remain the ruling majority.
Laws criminalizing abortion passed in every state by 1880. Exception was made for therapeutic abortion to save a woman’s life. Throughout this time, physicians disagreed on the conditions that needed a therapeutic abortion and the methods used to provide them. Law and medicine looked to each other to define the legal criteria allowing abortion. Throughout this period of illegality, women never stopped demanding the right to control their own reproduction.
During the time that abortion was illegal in the United States, millions of abortions were provided to women of every race, class, and marital status. Some were “back alley,” but more were provided by physicians, defying the law and the AMA. Women could usually find cooperative abortion providers, but if a physician refused, and a woman went the “back alley” route, she feared possible shame, prosecution, and inferior care—she might even die. Many were willing to take that chance.
An alliance formed between government and medicine, enabling the law to investigate women who had undergone an abortion. Under threat of prosecution and scandal, physicians and medical institutions caved in and cooperated. Cooperation meant that physicians reported to officials the women who were injured or dying because of an illegal abortion. Punishment awaited those women who made it through the procedure with their lives.
The very process of investigation punished the women, for they were then shamed by public exposure if they were guilty or even potentially guilty—all in order to “teach women a lesson.”
By way of the antiabortion campaign, physicians won the right to claim scientific authority, to define life and death. They set themselves above the authority of religious leaders, as well as above the general public. Physicians, with government as their partner, could now set reproductive policy.
In the 1960’s, a mass movement led by physicians and lawyers and joined by women, demanded that abortion be made legal. Their demands were heard. After one hundred years of criminality, the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, established a woman’s right to have an abortion if she so chose. There are those who now dispute this right.
Today, just as in the 1800’s and 1900’s when immigrants surged onto our shores and white Yankees feared the loss of political power, this fear is again erupting because non-Hispanic (emphasis mine) people will soon become the minority in America; hence, the extreme interest in women’s reproductive power.
Ed Pilkington writes in The Guardian: “According to the US census bureau, the dominance of non-Hispanic white people, who today account for two-thirds of Americans, will be whittled away, falling steadily to less than half in 2042 and 46% by 2050. In the opposite trajectory, those who describe themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian and Native American will increase in proportion from about a third now to 54% by 2050.”
Many white men are running scared. They want to force maternity upon “their” women in the hope that with an increase in the white population, their fear of losing political clout will decrease.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.