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Lessons from the past

Pro-lifers in the 19th century overcame staggering abortion rates and saved lives; here's how they did it

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs/Bain News Service

Lessons from the past
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To save the lives of more unborn Americans we should see how our pro-life predecessors succeeded in the past-and by the past I don't mean only the past three decades but the past two centuries. It's conventional to think of the abortion horror as a product of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but research I've done at the Library of Congress shows that abortion on the eve of the Civil War was more frequent, in proportion to the U.S. population, than it is now.

You have not just read a misprint. Roughly 160,000 abortions occurred in 1860 in a population of 30 million. Probably about 1.2 million abortions (13 percent of them through RU-486) occurred last year in a population estimated at around 307 million. The horrific current number is obviously no cause for self-congratulation, but reputable forecasters at the time of Roe v. Wade were predicting a butcher's bill of more than 4 million abortions annually by now.

With everything we're doing wrong, are we doing something right to fall far short of that 4 million prediction, and to have witnessed a decline during the past decade from 1.6 million to 1.2 million? I believe we are, and not for the first time in American history: The number of abortions in America, in proportion to the population, declined by at least 50 percent during the 50 years from 1860 to 1910. How did that happen? And is the current decline likely to continue?

Abortion in America goes back to at least 1652. The numbers increased slowly during the 18th and early 19th centuries and jumped when prostitution became much more common with the growth of cities in 1830 and thereafter. Without reliable contraception, prostitutes typically used abortion as their birth control multiple times, often with drastic physical repercussions for mother as well as child: The average prostitute died from disease, abortion, or customer violence within four years of joining the trade. Reliable estimates from 1860 show 60,000 prostitutes becoming pregnant and having abortions.

Young women coming off the farms, only to be seduced and abandoned by affluent men, also resorted to abortion. A New Age "spiritist" craze in many cities during the 1850s also led to an abortion increase, as "spiritists" claimed absolute freedom: Dr. Benjamin Hatch wrote in 1859 of how women from the "fashionable and intellectual communities . . . live in adultery, produce abortion, arise from their guilty couches, stand before large audiences as the medium of angels . . . and boastingly speak of their freedom from what they call social conventionalism and the superstitions of Christianity."

By 1860 abortion was not part of the American mainstream, as pro-abortion historians contend, but it had a massive presence on three sidestreams: prostitutes, victims of seduction, and religious radicals. Leading newspapers contained thinly veiled ads for abortion drugs and operations. Abortion was risky for women-perhaps 5 percent died during the process-but lucrative for abortionists. New York's famous Madame Restell built a millionaire's mansion on Fifth Avenue and secured governmental protection through bribery and blackmail.

Abortion was so extensive in the mid-1800s that The New York Times called it "The Evil of the Age . . . The enormous amount of medical malpractice [a euphemism for abortion] that exists and flourishes, almost unchecked, in the city of New York, is a theme for most serious consideration. Thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world." But the abortion rate began to fall after the Civil War as a nationwide pro-life movement gathered strength.

That movement included the largest women's organization of the era, the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union), as well as the YMCA and YWCA (Young Men's or Women's Christian Association), various Societies for the Suppression of Vice, and, by the end of the century, the Salvation Army. Many doctors were involved; unlike today, the American Medical Association was a staunch opponent of abortion, which it dubbed "unwarrantable destruction of human life."

Then as now, theological radicals such as Henry Wright argued that a child's "first claim is to a designed existence, if it is to exist at all." Some said "it was less criminal to kill children before they were born, than to curse them with an unwelcome existence." But pro-life leaders rejected the premise that an "unwelcome existence" was the only alternative to abortion. They looked at three groups of women at risk for abortions and offered programs of education, refuge, and adoption that would help women to avoid unwanted pregnancy or to recover from it, without killing a child.

The first at-risk group, young women on their own in big cities, received the greatest attention. The female labor force outside the home increased from 2.6 million to 10.8 million between 1880 and 1930; more unmarried young women were moving to cities and living apart from immediate family or relatives, often in boardinghouses. Exposed to many new ideas about behavior, they had many opportunities to act on the ideas-but they were also subject to moral expectations young men could escape. A man could go "astray in his youthful prime" and still be accepted, but when a woman "followed blindly where fond love led," she was confronted by an unforgiving double standard and sometimes by a physical surprise.

Many groups at the time tried to educate men into a greater sense of responsibility. Organizations such as the White Cross Society, influential in the 1880s, pressed men to "treat the law of purity as equally binding on men and women." Thousands of men signed pledges promising chastity and affirming "the unity of the moral law for both sexes." The WCTU tried to teach men about self-control in sexual as well as alcoholic pursuits. Women's groups published millions of booklets and tracts.

Other organizations established shelters for the pregnant and unmarried: By 1895 Chicago had a dozen, including the Life and Hope Mission, the Rescue Mission, Beulah House, the Jewish Home for Girls, and Boynton Refuge Home. One refuge, the Home for the Friendless, cared for 1,291 women in 1893. Smaller cities showed a similar pattern: Minneapolis, for example, had several refuges, including Bethany Home and the Norwegian Home of Shelter, where "the girls are placed under wholesome moral influences and given practical industrial training. In each the religious motive is emphasized . . . but in each, girls of all faiths are received without discrimination."

New York City had dozens of helping agencies. Some worked toward prevention of unmarried pregnancy by providing group lodging to women who would otherwise be alone and vulnerable; among these were the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls, the Free Home for Young Girls, and the New Shelter for Young Women. Unmarried pregnant women had at least 20 options for lodging, help, and training, including the Magdalene Benevolence Society, the House of Mercy, and the House of the Good Shepherd (with room for 1,042 women).

National organizations also were active. Florence Crittenton homes-the number grew to 65 by 1927-helped 500,000 unmarried women between 1883 and 1933. The Salvation Army had 34 homes for unmarried mothers, the WCTU's Department of Rescue Work had at least five, the Protestant Episcopal Church had 12 Homes of Mercy, and the Door of Hope group had 40 homes for young women "built in hope of not simply sheltering and furnishing them with employment, but through love and sympathy leading them to a Christian life."

These groups asked women contemplating a quick fix to think about adoption instead, and to compare their own months of trouble with the years of good life that their children could have. I read 20 years of monthly reports from Chicago's Erring Women's Refuge (evidently a euphemism-free zone) with jottings like these: "one child was adopted. Little Earl had found a home with a kindhearted and lonely woman. . . . two infants were adopted last month, good homes being provided for them. . . . A good home is provided for C.S.'s child, Jane." An 1895 study of Chicago adoption groups such as the Children's Aid Society and the Foundlings' Home concluded, "The children generally remain at the homes but a few weeks, there being more calls for their care and adoption than the supply can meet."

In smaller cities as well, pro-life forces made adoption a priority. A WCTU refuge in Elmira, N.Y., placed for adoption over two-thirds of the babies born between 1890 and 1907. Lem Abbott Odom, who spent 50 years managing refuges in Montgomery, Ala.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Shreveport, La., recommended that unmarried mothers who could not marry the fathers place their children for adoption. About 85 percent of the young women he helped were able to marry or to be restored to "homes, gainful occupations, and positions of trust."

Prostitutes made up the second at-risk group. In 1891, a Chicago bookkeeper could trade her salary of $8 per week for "massage parlor" work that paid $10 to $12 per week, plus another $20 in tips for full-fledged prostitution. A Cincinnati woman could trade a $5-per-week starting factory wage for $25 to $30 a week as a hooker. Anti-prostitution reformers knew the economic as well as the moral component of the problem, and the short-run lures that led to several years of increasing misery, generally followed by death.

Reformers preached and wrote about how sin was crouching at the door of many tenements, but they also warned young women to watch out for brothel recruiters who might trick and then trap them. Some 28 Girls' Protective Leagues in New York City enrolled 2,500 members who were given a "blacklist of dangerous places" and who learned the importance of spurning "improper proposals when applying for positions through newspapers and employment agencies."

Pro-lifers could not do much about the low wages characteristic in entry-level jobs at the time, but they reduced the cost of living and increased safety by setting up networks of family-style lodging houses and inexpensive, YWCA-type boarding houses where decent rooms were available for $1.50 per week.

To women already deep into prostitution, opponents of abortion spoke of repentance and forgiveness. Evangelists such as Dwight Moody made sure they had the names and addresses of families willing to provide a spare room in their homes to young prostitutes who found themselves pregnant and chose to leave the trade. Hardened hookers who were pregnant and did not want one more abortion frequently went to refuges. In New York, the House of the Good Shepherd offered shelter and help for women "who wish to reform their lives by deserting the haunts of vice," and the Home of the Good Samaritan found jobs for women "living in sin and desirous of leaving their old life." One woman who went to Chicago's Erring Women's Refuge said it was the "first place I ever lived that any person cared enough about the salvation of my soul to make it a matter of interest to me."

Pro-lifers concerned with the third at-risk group, married women liberated from biblical principles by "spiritism" or some other creed, proposed many means of containment, but two stand out. They tried to describe accurately what an unborn child looked like, and they emphasized the physical and psychological dangers of abortion to women.

The psychological stress is particularly interesting, because supporters of abortion have labeled "post-abortion syndrome" a recent invention of anti-abortion forces. And yet, in 1875 feminist Elizabeth Evans was describing the effects of abortions on women who had them a decade or two earlier. One woman, she reported, was "wild with regret at my folly in rejecting the (alas! only once-proffered) gift of offspring." Another woman described how her "thoughts were filled with imaginings as to what might have been the worth of that child's individuality; and especially, after sufficient time had elapsed to have brought him to maturity, did I busy myself with picturing the responsible posts he might have filled."

This sad lady added that she never "read of an accident by land or by water, or of a critical moment in battle, or of a good cause lost through lack of a brave defender, but my heart whispered, 'He might have been there to help and save; he might have been able to lead that forlorn hope; his word or deed might have brought this wise plan to successful issue!'" Other women told Evans similar stories, and she concluded that "the enormity of the crime of foeticide may be, in some degree, estimated by the excessive remorse which, sooner or later, is sure to follow its perpetration."

Pro-life forces distributed gripping accounts of psychological damage. "I was for a long time as near as being insane as one can be without really going mad," one woman recalled. "I had an idea that I had lost, through that unnatural deed, the normal powers and qualities of a human being. I no longer ate and drank with the old hunger and thirst, nor slept the quiet sleep of innocence; I took no heed of the passage of time, and all that I saw and hear seemed to be the occurrence of a dream, as though my life was already finished for me."

Overall, as pro-lifers compassionately aided women at risk, the abortion rate declined dramatically from 1860 to 1910 and stayed relatively low until the cultural revolution of the 1960s sent the numbers soaring again. Pro-life leaders during the 1860-1960 century of decrease understood that there never would be "total abolition of the practice." Realizing that this is a fallen world, they appreciated the educational impact of anti-abortion laws but did not expect much in the way of enforcement: Instead, they concentrated on ways to provide women with compassionate alternatives to abortion. They were not laid low by a sense of failure when, despite their efforts, many unborn children died. They rejoiced that so many were saved.

-For more information, see Marvin Olasky's Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America (Crossway Books)

The role of the law

Laws against abortion assisted the pro-life movement but were not its primary focus of attention. Beginning with Connecticut in 1821, state after state passed laws against abortion, with exceptions to save the life of the mother; by the 1870s, every state had such laws, but they were largely ignored, as The New York Times noted in a biblically referenced editorial titled "The Least of These Little Ones." Editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, complained in 1871 that the "perpetration of infant murder . . . is rank and smells to heaven. Why is there no hint of its punishment?"

Another Times article noted "the extreme rarity of trials for abortion in this City-an offense which is known to be very common. [Abortionists] have openly carried on their infamous practice in this City to a frightful extent, and have laughed at the defeat of respectable citizens who have vainly attempted to prosecute them." Decade after decade, juries convicted very few abortionists. For example, New York reported only nine convictions for abortion in the entire state from 1895 through 1904, even though New York abortionists killed at least 90,000 unborn children during those years. Typical jail time for an abortionist: probably two years.

Abortion was never a capital crime, and women who had abortions were almost never prosecuted. Many states gave immunity to women from all criminal liability, partly because women pregnant after seduction were considered desperate victims rather than perpetrators, and partly to attain any kind of edge in prosecution. Other states, such as New Jersey and New York, gave women immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Dr. Edward T. Abrams, a pro-life member of the Michigan legislature and chairman of its committee on public health, noted that "there would be no more powerful inducement for the concealment of abortion than to make a woman a party to the criminality of the act, because it will destroy absolutely the method of getting evidence."

Even though convictions were rare, law was not entirely useless. Anti-abortion statutes did send a message of right and wrong. They forced abortionists to advertise in code, bribe policemen and politicians, and hire lawyers. Law could not end abortion but it could reduce the butcher's bill, just as laws against drunken driving today cannot end the practice but can save lives. Today, it's still worthwhile to pass laws restricting abortion, but time and money spent on providing and promoting compassionate alternatives saves more lives.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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