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Abortion and prostitution

Evidence suggests a close relationship between the two in 19th-century America

A photoengraving of a scene at a concert saloon in mid-19th century New York City, where prostitutes often worked. The New York Public Library

Abortion and prostitution

We are mourning this month the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision that led to an abortion surge, but we should remember that abortion was not unknown in America even before the Supreme Court’s full-frontal legalization.

Here’s a summary of Chapter 2 of my 1992 book, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. To understand the early 19th-century history of abortion in America, when child-killing was common only in specific population groups, we have to delve into the history of prostitution. We’ll look into other aspects in the next two weeks (“Abortion and spiritism” and “Abortion and legal minimalism”) as part of our Saturday Series.

In Colonial days brothels were rare. In 1672 Bostonians found Alice Thomas guilty of “giving frequent secret and unseasonable Entertainment in her house to lewd lascivious and notorious persons of both sexes, giving them opportunity to commit carnal wickedness.” Officials whipped Alice Thomas and sentenced her to jail time. The court received the right to keep her away from society as long as necessary to assure her reformation. No similar cases arose for many years. When Virginian William Byrd tried to find a prostitute in Williamsburg in 1720, his search failed.

Early opponents of prostitution could do little. When Cotton Mather alarmed his congregation members in 1702 with a sermon on prostitution, he and 40 compatriots formed a Society for the Suppression of Disorders, chief of which might be the presence of a brothel. By 1714 the society essentially was defunct because it had no significant business to conduct.

By the middle of the 18th century, however, prostitutes were working cities throughout the Colonies. Benjamin Franklin described women walking the streets and “expos[ing] themselves to sale at the highest bidder.” John Adams complained about taverns used “for extinguishing virtuous Love and changing it into filthiness and bruted Debauch.” Columbia, South Carolina was called a “perfect haven” for the “sisters of riotous sensuality.”

As brothels became common, some citizens of the poorer areas of town tried to keep them out of their neighborhoods. In 1793 townspeople attacked brothels in Boston and New York and demanded their closure. In 1825, two thousand Pennsylvania rioters stormed brothels. One person died and scores suffered injuries during Portland, Maine, riots that same year, but the rioters were unsuccessful in their attempt to close down “prostitution dens.”

And yet individual closures had little permanent effect. Soon every city had its “sporting houses” catering to all classes. One of the reasons for the increase in demand was business travel farther from home. This made anonymity more likely. Journalist James McCabe wrote that “the fashionable houses are largely patronized by strangers visiting New York: these, thinking themselves unknown in the great city, care little for privacy and boldly show themselves in the general parlors. The proportion of married and middle-aged men among them is very great. Men who at home are models of propriety seem to lose all sense of restraint when they come to New York.”

For these women with big eyes for fashionable clothes or jewelry but not much cash, prostitution offered shorter hours and far higher wages than domestic service or mill work.

Supply readily met demand as young women breathed in the same air of “freedom.” For these women with big eyes for fashionable clothes or jewelry but not much cash, prostitution offered shorter hours and far higher wages than domestic service or mill work. Some young women clearly fell into prostitution after seduction and social ostracism, and others, to gain sympathy, said they did.

Dr. Hiram Root, in his Lover’s Marriage Lighthouse, probably portrayed with accuracy the young woman “poor in worldly goods, struggling day by day with the world for an honest living, and faring scantily despite all her toil, dress[ed] in the cheapest calico.” He showed how she might meet a woman “who, but a few weeks gone by, was poor in garments as herself, but is now clothed in all the gorgeousness of high fashion, flaunting in feathers and glittering with jewels.”

Root opined that at this point most young women, even if attracted by quick cash, would revile at the prospect and say “no” to those ugly urgings, but others would want all that glitters: “The poor girl’s mind becomes poisoned. She dwells more and more upon the subject as days go by, and finally yields to the monomania of prostitution.”

THE NUMBER OF PROSTITUTES SOARED in the nineteenth century. Probably the best estimate was that of public health doctor William Sanger, who surveyed prostitution at mid-century in New York City, Buffalo, Louisville, Newark, New Haven, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Savannah. His estimate: 60,000 prostitutes nationwide.

Journalist James McCabe described the downward ride of the average prostitute: “The proprietress will have no other than attractive women in her house: and as soon as the inmates begin to show sign of the wretched life they lead, as soon as sickness falls upon them, or they lose their beauty and freshness, she sends them away and fills their places with more attractive women.”

McCabe added, “After a woman is kicked out of a first class house, the wretched women has no recourse but to enter a second class house and thus go down one grade lower in vice. … Her health breaks fast and what is left of her beauty soon fades and in two or three years she [drops] still lower to homelessness and death.” Root described “the horrors that accompany [a prostitute’s] course of life to an early and premature grave. …”

From 1830 to 1834 a New York City reformer, Rev. John McDowall, interviewed prostitutes who acknowledged that they had “done the criminal deed. One of them said that she had destroyed five of her own offspring; another said she had destroyed three.” McDowell recorded reports by ex-prostitutes “that in some houses of prostitution it is a common practice every three months to use means preventive of progeny.” He cited the “criminal deed” by name: “Abortion.”

During the 1850s Sanger surveyed 2,000 prostitutes who received medical help at Blackwell’s Island, New York’s main public hospital, and found they had many pregnancies but very few children. He could not calculate precisely the number of prostitution-related abortions, but he estimated a “startling … sacrifice of infant life” and called that loss “one of the most deplorable results of prostitution.”

Abortion and prostitution were two leading “secret sins,” Rogers wrote, with abortion “the most common crime among Americans. It is a national sin.”

New York detective John Warren linked prostitution and “the business of the abortionist” as he complained that abortionists “flourish and grow rich from prostitution as a source of income. …” In 1881 C.E. Rogers estimated that prostitutes only survived in the trade for four years on average, as disease, beatings, alcoholism, drugs, and abortion took their toll. Abortion and prostitution were two leading “secret sins,” Rogers wrote, with abortion “the most common crime among Americans. It is a national sin.”

PROOF OF THE PROSTITUTION-ABORTION CONNECTION also emerges as we study the working conditions of prostitutes and their ways of protecting against pregnancy. Contraceptives of various kinds had been around for centuries. European prostitutes had long put cloth or linen rags in their vaginas, or used beeswax as a suppository or as a specially molded cervical cap.

European men had used condoms for centuries. In 1564 Fallopius described the use of a linen sheath, and by 1800 condoms made from skins and bladders were openly advertised in England and were available in America. But condoms were expensive and often ineffective. They were especially unlikely to be used in brothels because men considered them unpleasant. German researcher Christopher Girtanner complained in 1788 that “fish membranes which serve to protect the man’s member during copulation diminish pleasure.”

Charles Knowlton’s sexology book of 1832, Fruits of Philosophy, noted that use of condoms “required a great sacrifice of enjoyment” and produced in men a “demoralizing tendency.” Knowlton recommended that women seeking to prevent pregnancy use the vaginal sponge with pullout string, and this seemed to become the contraceptive of choice in brothels. He pointed out, however, that “even a trifle of semen” can impregnate; the sponge “has not proved a sure preventive.”

Although no one at the time precisely calculated the effectiveness of the sponge-on-a-string, testimony like that of Knowlton’s suggests that it was far from surefire. A century later, when the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York City interviewed 377 women who were sponge-users, 188 reported success in contraception and 189 failure. Fish-membrane condoms, even if used, also had only partial effectiveness.

Some prostitutes also tried to prevent conception by using vaginal injections: solutions containing chemicals such as carbolic acid, borax, Lysol, and bichloride of mercury (which could cause mercury poisoning). Some house physicians prepared vaginal suppositories of boric acid, tannic acid, cocoa butter, olive oil, or glycerine. And yet there is no evidence that any of these substances proved an effective barrier to that “trifle of semen” that could impregnate.

Purveyors of the various substances at least did consumers a favor by denouncing the claims of their competitors. For example, Dr. Frederick Rollick attacked one potion “sold extensively by a person calling himself a French Professor, but who is really the husband of a noted Abortionist in New York.” Rollick noted, “The remedy is only a powder of colored alum, or sulphate of zinc, which is dissolved in water, and used with a syringe as an injection after connection. It fails as often as it succeeds, and often injures.”

Most prostitutes had no way to avoid getting pregnant, but some exceptions were notable.

Most prostitutes had no way to avoid getting pregnant, but some exceptions were notable. A small percentage of women were naturally infertile. Women who had undergone episodes of gonorrhea had reduced fertility. Another source of exceptions, in theory, might be some special infertility factor at work among prostitutes. Some said such a factor existed, since so few prostitutes gave birth to children. No one appears to have studied the question scientifically in the United States. But in Paris, where regulated prostitution was legal, a leading public health researcher of the 1820s and 1830s, studied that question.

THE RESEARCHER, DR. ALEXANDRE JEAN-BAPTISTE PARENT-DUCHATELET, presented the myths: “It is generally believed that prostitutes don’t have children, or if they do, they have so few that they can be considered to be sterile.” Then he presented evidence of prostitutes having children at the Maternity Hospital of Paris and quoted a midwife: “These girls don’t make themselves known for what they are, but after several days of observation, we can easily tell them apart from the other women by their dress, their language, and especially by the remarks they make in the rooms and the halls. The most curious thing that we have observed about them is that it is rare they have happy births; the slowness of labor necessitates the use of forceps. Their babies rarely live; often they are born dead, and the most serious complications constantly follow these births.”

Far more frequent than births, however, was abortion. Parent-Duchatelet wrote, “According to the information given me in the prison and the hospitals, abortions are frequent during the first seven to eight months of pregnancy, and even more frequent during the less advanced stages.” He quoted one leading physician: “The youngest ones often have late periods, which end with the expulsion of what they call a ‘bung.’ For two years I paid no attention to this expression but [then] examined with care these productions, and found it easy to recognize all the characteristics of a human.” He noted these details of early miscarriage or abortion and commented, “Even though these public girls bring a very small number of children into the world, they still have a[n] aptitude for conception.”

Parent-Duchatelet then dealt with the question of whether induced abortions or miscarriages were occurring and asked the officials charged with registering and examining legal prostitutes: “[I]t is proven that [the prostitutes] often induced them: my colleague, Mr. Velpeau, who has perhaps the largest collection of embryos in existence, gathered five belonging to prostitutes, and of these five, three bore traces of perforating instruments which caused their deaths. They were all three or four months from conception.”

Parent-Duchatelet observed, “One sees from what I have said—and if one has respect for information which comes from all parts, one acquires the proof—that the occupation they practice is not an obstacle to fertility.” He asked, “To what can we attribute these frequent, I would say, almost constant, abortions? Without speaking about direct maneuvers employed by some of them, is not their occupation itself sufficient reason to explain it all?”

Parent-Duchatelet concluded his discussion of abortion with a summary of findings: “If these public girls rarely bring their pregnancies to term, it is because they almost always abort them, whether these abortions take place through criminal acts or whether they can be attributed to the exercise of their occupation.”

Despite the unavailability of exact numbers, we can use available data to calculate roughly the number of prostitute-related abortions that took place in America.

NO ONE IN THE UNITED STATES STUDIED PROSTITUTION as did Parent-Duchatelet, but the three sets of evidence—reports of contemporary observers, the lack of effective contraception, and his research, which certainly seems applicable to America’s prostitution—make a strong case for considerable abortion among U.S. prostitutes. Despite the unavailability of exact numbers, we can use available data to calculate roughly the number of prostitute-related abortions that took place in America.

Nineteenth-century testimony says the average full-time prostitute would have intercourse at least 30 times per week, which would make for at least 1,500 sexual acts per year. (Two weeks of vacation, of course.) For example, John McDowall calculated that the average prostitute had intercourse with 30 to 40 men each week, including “three men or boys daily” during the week, and the bulk from “Saturday night to Monday morning [when] they will receive fifteen to twenty-five men and obtain as their reward from thirty to fifty dollars.”

Following statistics like this and other rough estimates of fertility issues and the success of contraceptives, each prostitute likely had an average of 1.8 abortions per year. This figure is consistent with the observations of McDowall, Sanger, Warren, Rogers, and others. If anything, a 1.8 estimate may be low: McDowall wrote about prostitutes seeing abortionists once every three months, on the average. But, using this figure and Sanger’s estimate of 6,000 full-time prostitutes in 1858 in New York City and 60,000 prostitutes nationwide, we can calculate that at least 100,000 prostitution-related abortions may have happened annually in the United States on the eve of the Civil War.

The abortion rate among prostitutes also helps to explain the low life expectancy—four years—of prostitutes who did not leave the trade within the first year or two. Only one historian, to my knowledge, has even mentioned abortion and prostitution in the same sentence. But when she did, Ruth Rosen acknowledged that “the many deaths associated with prostitution might have resulted from some of the medicines and procedures used for abortion.”

THOSE FIGURES ARE ESTIMATES, of course. Governments and private observers did not compile many statistics of legal activities at that time, let alone the illegal. Given the illegality of abortion businesses, it is not surprising that financial records or other clues concerning customer load are not available.

Descriptive material from the period, however, such as this paragraph from The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, helps us grasp the frequency of horror: “The murder of unborn children is fearfully common everywhere, if the great number of half-grown infants found floating in boxes upon the water, dropped in vaults, or otherwise brought to light, is any evidence of the fact. Both women and men abound, in all our large cities, who have a decided and acknowledged reputation for performing the murderous operation.”

This careless disposal was conventional among prostitutes from the 1850s through the 1870s. Warren complained, “Social crimes like infanticide, that were once placed on the same level as murder, are now not only looked upon with complacency but overlooked altogether, but are defended on principle by certain theorists.” The prostitution-abortion link continued throughout the nineteenth century, which ended with journalists estimating that there were over 100,000 prostitutes in the United States with an average life expectancy within the trade of five years: Death or rescue would take them out.

Problem-related abortions were reduced but not eliminated.

Yet, improved contraception led to a decreased incidence of pregnancy per prostitute. Technological innovation helped in the containment of abortion among prostitutes—but early in the twentieth-century abortionists still were giving pregnant prostitutes, in the words of one madam, a “black pill which, if taken for three days and with hot baths, usually brought a girl around.” Problem-related abortions were reduced but not eliminated. Journalist Clifford Roe could still write in 1911 that “In the center of Chicago’s principal vice district is a resort that for years had a sign Le Moulin Rouge, which is French for The Red Mill. Paris has or had a resort of that name. All such resorts in Paris, Chicago and elsewhere are Red Mills—red with the heart’s blood of mothers, red with the blood of murdered babies. If people only knew what grist such Red Mills grind they would not tolerate the murderous dens.”

PRO-ABORTION HISTORIAN JAMES MOHR repeatedly generalized about the “many American women” who sought abortions during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, for “this practice was neither morally nor legally wrong in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans, provided it was accomplished before quickening.” He repeatedly suggested that everyone was doing it: “Abortion entered the mainstream of American life during the middle decades of the nineteenth century” and was “relatively common.” According to Mohr, at mid-century “the chief problems associated with abortion were medical rather than moral.”

But the evidence suggests that most abortions during that period were related to prostitution, which was a muddy stream rather than a mainstream of American life, and people definitely viewed it as a moral issue. Some historians have contended that a patriarchal society blamed women for becoming prostitutes and aborting, but Dr. John Trader of Missouri contended that men were pushing women into abortion: “We do not affirm, neither would we have you think for a moment, that the onus of this guilt lies at the feet of women. Far from it. In the majority of cases, they are more sinned against than sinning.”

Dr. John Cowan put it well: “The licentiousness of the man and bondage of the woman” together led to the “monstrous crime … the murder of the unborn.”

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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