Few issues arouse as much passion as abortion. This has not always been the case, however. Following English law, abortion was legal in the American colonies until the time of “quickening” in the fetus, when the baby started to move, usually around the fourth month of pregnancy. Recipes for herbal potions including pennyroyal, savin and other plants capable of “bringing on the menses” were common in home medical guides of the period.
Our founding fathers actually wrote about the subject. Benjamin Franklin’s views can be inferred from an incident that occurred in 1729 when his former employer, newspaper editor Samuel Keimer of Philadelphia, published an encyclopedia whose very first volume included a detailed article on abortion, including directions for ending an unwanted pregnancy (“immoderate Evacuations, violent Motions, sudden Passions, Frights … violent Purgatives and in the general anything that tends to promote the Menses.”) Hoping to found his own newspaper to compete with Keimer, Franklin responded in print through the satiric voices of two fictional characters, “Celia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” who expressed mock outrage at Keimer for exposing “the secrets of our sex” which ought to be reserved “for the repository of the learned.” One of the aggrieved ladies threatened to grab Keimer’s beard and pull it if she spotted him at the tavern! Neither Franklin nor his prudish protagonists objected to abortion per se, but only to the immodesty of discussing such feminine mysteries in public.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a well known physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, shared his views of the subject matter-of-factly in his book of Medical Inquiries and Observations (1805). Discussing blood-letting as a possible treatment to prevent miscarriage during the third month of pregnancy, when he believed there was a special tendency to spontaneous abortion, Rush asked the question, “what is an abortion but a haemoptysis (if I may be allowed the expression) from the uterus?” A hemoptysis is the clinical term for the expectoration of blood or bloody sputum from the lungs or larynx. In Rush’s mind, apparently, what we would now call the three-month-old embryo was equivalent medically to what one might cough up when ill with the flu.
Thomas Jefferson put no moral judgment on abortion, either. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he observed that for Native American women, who accompanied their men in war and hunting parties, “childbearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them. It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable, and that it even extends to prevent conception for some time after.” Jefferson on the whole admired the native people and the Notes were intended in part to counter the views of the French naturalist Buffon, who accused the indigenous inhabitants of the New World of being degenerate and less virile than their European counterparts. In extenuation, Jefferson cites “voluntary abortion” along with the hazards of the wilderness and famine as obstacles nature has placed in the way of increased multiplication among the natives. Indian women married to white traders, he observes, produce abundant children and are excellent mothers. The fact that they practice birth control and when necessary terminate their pregnancies does not lessen his respect for them, but appears to be in his mind simply one of the ingenious ways they have adapted to their challenging environment.
A different window into colonial attitudes toward abortion can be found in Corenlia Hughes Dayton’s “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth Century New England Village.” In her 1991 monograph which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, Dayton examined a case from 1742 that occurred in the village of Pomfret, Connecticut, where 19-year-old Sarah Grosvenor died in a bungled abortion urged on her by her 27-year-old lover Amasa Sessions. Magistrates filed charges against both Sessions and the “doctor of physick” who mangled the operation, but Dayton points out the legal complaints were not for performing the abortion as such (which was legal) but for killing the mother. The whole episode was surrounded with a hush of secrecy, in an era when “fornication” was not only illegal but culturally taboo. Abortion, in the colonial context, carried a stigma of shame not because it ended the life of a fetus but because it was associated with illicit intercourse—helping to explain the outrage of Franklin’s two characters Celia Shortface and Martha Careful when their private remedies for ending a pregnancy receive a public airing.
What can we learn from examining attitudes toward abortion in early America? Perhaps only this, that positions which seem to both the pro-choice and pro-life camps to be eternal and absolute have in fact evolved over time. An historic perspective should teach us humility if nothing else.