Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Abortion and spiritism

The doctrine of ‘free love’ led many a married woman astray in the 19th century

A woodcut of “spirit-rapping” during a seance in the 19th century Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor

Abortion and spiritism

Last Saturday, we examined the prostitution-abortion connection in America before the Civil War (see also “Abortion and legal minimalism”) but abortion was growing within another population group. Many observers commented about abortion among married women during the 1840s and 1850s. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal reminded readers in 1854 that abortion was “not exclusively performed upon unmarried women” anymore. In 1866, it noted, “Happy wives, strong in the affectionate regard of considerate husbands, rarely attempt this violence”—but the Journal implied that there were many unhappy wives. Were there? Was abortion becoming acceptable among the troubled married?

Here’s a summary of Chapter 3 of Abortion Rites: A Social History of America, a book I wrote in 1992. It acknowledges that mid-19th century America saw many abortions but opposes the standard thesis that abortion was spread generally throughout the population. That’s because many observers at the time linked abortion to seduction, prostitution, and some specific groups among the married, not the populace generally. “Feticide is not a vice of ignorance,” Dr. Henry Gibbons, president of the California Medical Society declared. “It rather grows out of a certain kind of knowledge which has become popular in late years … the obscene literature of ‘free love,’ the delirium of spiritism. …”

The essence of spiritism was the idea that the living could contact the dead, who often offered anti-Christian pronouncements. Dr. Benjamin H. Hatch in 1859 described how “women who have abandoned their husbands and who are living in adultery with their paramours, produce abortion, and arise from their guilty couches and stand before large audiences as the medium for angels.”

Hatch quoted a spirit channeler: “Our spirit friends say all purely natural passions must have ample scope to work themselves out in their true order.” He described how 1850s New Agers boasted of their freedom from “social conventionalism” and “the superstitions of Christianity,” relying instead on “the instincts of their nature.” They believed “no external authority, and no code of human laws can justly bind their affections, or interfere with their liberty to follow the impulse of their personal affinities.”

In Hatch’s summary, “Adultery to effect a greater degree of spiritual and physical development—the breaking up of marriage to aid in a more perfect unfoldment—becomes to them mandates from heaven, which must be obeyed.” Hatch also observed spiritists claimed “a God-given right to rectify any mistakes they may have made.” Mistakes could include misplaced love or unintended pregnancies. Unborn children did not have the right to get in the way of spiritual fulfillment, so trips to the abortionist were an acceptable spiritist activity.

Unborn children did not have the right to get in the way of spiritual fulfillment, so trips to the abortionist were an acceptable spiritist activity.

Spiritism was intensely self-centered, and Hatch said its “paramount doctrine” was for believers to pursue whatever “conjugal relation” pleases them. Spiritists saw such self-gratification as a spiritual duty. According to Hatch, the spiritist code was “if another can develop in me more love than my husband or wife, in virtue of that very love I am newly married, and the old should be absolved, for we should be true to nature and no law has any right to interfere in my affections.”

Hatch and his wife had been prominent in the spiritist movement until he began witnessing its destructive effects. Another doctor, Thomas Nichols, had similar experience and observations. In his Esoteric Anthropology, Nichols argued there was “no reason why any one should be compelled to bear children who wishes to avoid it.” Prior to his abandonment of spiritism, Nichols and wife, Mary Gove Nichols, a gynecologist and abortion counselor during her “free love” days, promoted abortion as a better alternative for some children than birth: “The hereditary evils to children born in a sensual and unloving marriage are everywhere visible … sickness, suffering, weakness, imbecility, or outrageous crime.”

Nichols later wrote of “the marked effect of spiritism upon American fact, feeling and character. Nothing within my memory has had so great an influence. It has broken up hundreds of churches and changed the religious belief of hundreds of thousands.” The movement had both popular, sensational manifestations—“spirit-rapping”—and an ample intellectual base.

SPIRITISM GAINED RESPECTABILITY throughout the 1850s as Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Sumner all attended seances of Judge John Edmonds. Radical-turned-conservative Orestes Brownson observed, “There are some three hundred circles or clubs in the city of Philadelphia alone. … The infection seizes all classes, ministers of religion, lawyers, physicians, judges, comedians, rich and poor, learned and unlearned. The movement has its quarterly, monthly, and weekly journals, some of them conducted with great ability.” Perhaps two million persons (of a U.S. population of thirty million) espoused some spiritist beliefs or engaged in spiritist activities.

During the 1850s and 1860s, spiritists and other theological radicals frequently met and passed resolutions that embodied their new faith. A typical product, unveiled at an 1858 “Free Convention” in Vermont, proposed:

“That the authority of each individual soul is absolute and final, in deciding questions as to what is true or false in principle, and right or wrong in practice. …

“That an intelligent intercourse between embodied and disembodied human spirits is both possible and actual. …

“That the most sacred and important right of woman, is her right to decide for herself how often and under what circumstances she shall assume the responsibilities and be subject to the cares and sufferings of Maternity. …”

Two popular books published the same year as that Vermont convention show how this last resolution worked out in practice. One came from a speaker at the convention, Henry Wright, who authored The Unwelcome Child. He praised men who slept with women “not by any enactment, ceremony or license of Church or State … nor by any formal contract or bargain,” but only as long as they desired. Wright argued an “unwelcome child,” arising unplanned by father and mother, would grow up doomed “to drunkenness, to lying, to revenge” and would become “a miser, a warrior, a slaveholder, a robber, a murderer, a pirate, or an assassin. … ”

Wright argued an “unwelcome child,” arising unplanned by father and mother, would grow up doomed “to drunkenness, to lying, to revenge” and would become “a miser, a warrior, a slaveholder, a robber, a murderer, a pirate, or an assassin. … ”

Wright quoted reports of desire for abortion: “I have heard many women say they would gladly strangle their children, born of undesired maternity, at birth, could they do so with safety to themselves.” Wright did not explicitly advocate such strangling before or after birth, but he was sympathetic to women who made that choice: “It is no matter of wonder that abortions are purposely procured; it is to me a matter of wonder that a single child … reluctantly conceived, is ever suffered to mature in the organism of the mother. Her whole nature repels it. How can she regard its ante-natal development but with sorrow and shrinking?”

According to Wright, a woman’s task in life was to develop her own spiritual essence; when she saw the unborn child “as a sacrilegious intruder into the domain of her life; an invader of the holy of holies of her being,” the woman had “a right to protect herself from further evil. … ” Wright even contended that “God, speaking through the body and soul of that mother, frowns on [the child’s] conception, its development, and its birth.”

One of Wright’s spiritist doctrines was that a child conceived during “mere sensual indulgence” of husband and wife—as opposed to a spiritual union among true “affinity-mates”—would be “born an idiot” and have problems throughout life. True love meant abortion when “a living death is its doom.” Repeatedly, Wright suggested that only planned children should be born: A child’s “first claim is, to a designed existence, if it is to exist at all. Only in such an existence can it hope for a true and noble nature.”

Wright used the words “killing” and “unborn babe,” but he defined abortion as a mother “killing her unborn babe to save it from a worse doom” and herself from “enforced, repulsive maternity.” He quoted one spiritist who had abortions “several times in four years” because, as she wrote, “I cannot consent to have the woman, the real soul-and-spirit­woman in me, obliterated.” “Feelings” were everything in the nineteenth century New Age, and it was a sin to ask “the soul” to accept any obligations that restricted absolute freedom.

ANOTHER INFLUENTIAL SPIRITIST, Harmon Knox Root, authored in 1858 The Peoples Medical Lighthouse and The Lovers Marriage Lighthouse. Root argued that his theology, which he called “Deistical free spiritualism,” would bring about a “good time” for all mankind.

Root began by complaining that the Biblical worldview—dominant in America at that time—was constraining: “Man has not been allowed to lean upon and trust his own nature and wisdom … but is forced to drink from matrimonial and religious pools of filthy waters repugnant to his natural tastes.” Root argued that 1850s spiritists had taken human understanding a great leap forward, giving men freedom to guide themselves “in regard to matters pertaining to his affectional nature.”

The marriage bond was “of earth,” Root concluded, but the couple that doesn’t need such “bondage” is “of heaven.” Root’s sacrament was “the love of the sexes—that love which is stronger than death, which springs so freshly in youth. … Let mankind trust in this power.”

Root’s sacrament was “the love of the sexes—that love which is stronger than death, which springs so freshly in youth. … Let mankind trust in this power.”

Despite all the evidence of seduction’s sad consequences, Root advised young women to go with the flow: “The woman who asks no pledge from her lover as security for her embrace, gives the strongest of all possible evidence of the truth of her heart, and the sincerity of her professions of love.” He praised prostitutes as “far above the so-called virtuous women who stick to an indissoluble marriage as the road to their sexuality. …”

He next turned to the plight of spiritist-inclined married women who had dissatisfying marriages. Some such women “choose to abuse themselves,” Root stated. But, to him, the superior choice was adultery: “In the eye of the female who has sexual intercourse out of marriage, as distinguished from the self-polluter, there is a look of mildness and confidence. [Adultery] brightens up her womanly nature.”

Root acknowledged the possibility of pregnancy as a drawback to his proposal, but he had the solution: the “French Instrumental Uterine Regulator,” which he would sell and mail to them for ten dollars. According to Root, his Uterine Regulator “will bring on contractions, and produce evacuation of the contents of the womb, commonly known as miscarriage, no matter at what period of gestation.”

MANY SPIRITIST LEADERS APPLIED Wright’s and Root’s principles to their lives. Andrew Jackson Davis, an influential nineteenth century American spiritist, called marriages “legalized adultery and bigotry” unless they were true spiritual marriages with “affinity-mates.” Children conceived in such a marriage were spiritually illegitimate and might be better off dead. “The female has the right to control all the manifestations of love,” Davis asserted euphemistically.

During his spiritist days, Nichols argued something similar: “Since the Woman alone has the right to decide whether her ovum shall be impregnated, she must also have the privilege of determining the circumstances which justify the procurement of abortion.” As Nichols later noted, this anti-life doctrine brought with it an anti-marriage attitude. One observer stated, “Husbands have abandoned wives, and wives have abandoned husbands, to find more congenial partners, or those for whom they have stronger religious affinities.”

Journalist Willi Dixon wrote that spiritists did “not mind people consorting when there is an attraction; else how is the affinity to be found?” Dixon also detailed the relations of spiritism and other mid-century radical movements. “Free-love” doctrine shared with spiritism some “poets, orators, and preachers,” he observed. Diarist George Strong in New York City had fun commenting on the growth “of the ‘free love’ league … ‘passionate attraction’ its watchword, fornicating and adultery its apparent object.” Abortion often was the outcome: “Unintended” children were called “children of chance, children of lust” and “abortions [with] no right to existence.”

We have no accurate statistics detailing the total number of spiritist-related abortions, but convention records show spiritists acknowledging a large number of abortions “in our midst.” Although few spiritists risked imprisonment by publicly confessing to illegal acts, they were willing to accuse others who had held to the faith but then backslid.

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which mixed spiritism and feminism—editor Victoria Woodhull was president of the American Association of Spiritualists—recorded story after story of abortion among those who had practiced spiritism and/or free-love. “It is one of those things against which almost everybody willfully shuts his eyes and professes to think that it does not exist; and everybody pretends to everybody else that he knows nothing about it,” the editors wrote.

CONTEMPORARY TESTIMONY CONCERNING the extent of spiritism and the propensity to abort among its adherents suggests many believers were having one or more over a series of years. According to accounts in the 1850s, about ten percent of the population had moved away from theological orthodoxy and its opposition to abortion. If accounts in the 1850s are accurate, close to six hundred thousand women may have entertained notions of abortion because of their spiritist beliefs. Census records in 1860 show that this number of women aged fifteen to forty-four was likely to bear about ninety thousand children annually. We do not know exactly how many children these particular women did bear. But if half the time they chose abortion, forty-five thousand unborn children would have died.

According to accounts in the 1850s, about ten percent of the population had moved away from theological orthodoxy and its opposition to abortion.

Such a number is speculative—but it does explain why doctors at mid-century saw an influx of married women seeking abortions, even though American society considered abortion wrong. Other numbers developed by Dr. Elisha Harris, a public health reformer who became Registrar of Vital Statistics for New York City, demonstrate an increase in abortions between 1805 and 1849. In 1805, forty-seven deaths of unborn children by miscarriage or abortion were recorded from among a population of 76,770. By 1849 the number of fetal deaths had jumped almost thirty-fold to 1,320. The number of New York City fetal deaths (compared to total mortality) increased from 1 in 376 to 1 in 13. In 1860s, New York City, according to Harris, one of every five unborn children whose deaths were legally reported was suffering abortion or miscarriage.

Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly did not approve of abortion but called it “the least of two evils.” According to one woman who attended spiritist lectures, “The laws of legal marriage have robbed woman of her sexual rights and placed them in the keeping of the man.” She called a female’s ability to “control maternity” a “God-given right.” Like Henry Wright before the war, she asserted, “[B]etter to remain childless than to bear an unwelcome child. The right to parentage is evolved only from mutual love and mutual desire.”

Abortion was also the lesser evil for the child, according to another argument left over from before the war. Children deserved pure spirits, but if begotten in the absence of true spiritual love, they would have “a curse that an eternity may not remove.” Another article explained, “If [a woman] desire to rid herself of her unwelcome burden, she makes her child a murderer at heart.” The logic was clear: think abortion, do abortion.

Fewer spiritist books were being published by the 1880s and the 1890s, suggesting that spiritism receded after the war. By then, however, many Americans had already imbibed the spiritist stress on “the individual or personal sovereignty of man and of woman” and its condemnation of “all laws, ecclesiastical or civil” that restrict such sovereignty. In practice this meant a stress on “love-unions between men and women; monogamic, if the parties forming them be naturally monogamic, or otherwise, if they be naturally otherwise.” It also meant more unwanted pregnancies.

The Weekly declared, “The trade of the abortionist ought to be looked upon as a blessing rather than a curse to the community.” Although we have no record of how many spiritist “blessings” took place, physicians such as P.S. Haskell were shocked at the number of young wives who requested abortions so as not to be deprived of “society and literary association.” In Vermont, far from the cities where prostitution was rampant, Dr. William McCollom reported that abortion “is frequent—and applications are continually made to apothecaries as well as physicians for drugs for this purpose.” Dr. O.C. Turner of Massachusetts called actions of those who had embraced a new idolatry “the slaughter which out-herods Herod, Criminal Abortion.”

Dr. O.C. Turner of Massachusetts called actions of those who had embraced a new idolatry “the slaughter which out-herods Herod, Criminal Abortion.”

From the vantage point of 1877, Dr. Henry Gibbons, former head of the California Medical Society, summarized what he called “obscene feticide literature” that had been common in America since the 1840s. Gibbons traced the development of the idea that “spirit-affinity” was more important than marriage and concluded, “Whatever tends to discourage marriage, and to remove it from the domain of the affections, and to make it the subject of calculation, tends in a greater or less degree to promote licentiousness, prostitution, and feticide.”

Gibbons, giving a speech, displayed a spiritist booklet that “denounces marriage” because it “binds the parties in the slavery of ownership; refuses the soul the right of expressing itself beyond its imprisonment.” Gibbons suggested that such beliefs led to more adultery and more abortion. He then turned directly to “the influence on private morals exercised by … spiritists of all kinds.” Spiritism, he noted, “has crazed no small proportion of its devotees, and bewildered and intoxicated a still larger number … it builds a nest that receives the egg that hatches the serpent that tempts the woman to put to death her unborn offspring.”

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.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.