Illegal Abortion – Inception, Development and Growth


Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s chapter, “The Abortion Movement and the AMA, 1850 – 1880,” in her book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, provides an investigative chronology of abortion’s illegalisation and its effects on society.

Foetus and Women – Politically Charged

During the 20th century and the latter half of the 19th century, abortion became a political and ideological issue, instead of a medical one. The foetus and the woman became symbols of social change. Looking at the abortion movement of the 19th century gives insight into the attitude of society’s position towards abortion then and now especially as it coincided with the emerging feminist movement .

Abortion 1850-1880 Legal to Illegal

Abortion first arose as a significant political issue in America from 1850 to 1880. Although the issue of the legality of abortion overlapped with the emerging feminist movement, the first successful lobbying by the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) with the co-operation of the Roman Catholic Church and many of the Protestant clergy were focusing on making abortion illegal for the first time in the US.

Abortion 1860-1881 Felony

Between the early 1860’s and 1881 when New York State passed an anti-abortion law, individual physicians and state medical societies lobbied and petitioned their state to make “the giving or prescription of a poison or noxious drug or the use of mechanical means to cause abortion in a pregnant woman” a felony, whether the woman died or not. States also passed laws making the women who solicited abortions criminally liable.

Foetus’ Elimination Insignificant

Until these laws, foetus elimination was regarded as insignificant and abortion during the first 4 months of pregnancy (quickening) that did not involve the mother’s death was not an indictable offence in the US. Until the AMA campaign, the term ‘abortion’ was used as a synonym for ‘miscarriage’ that is, to refer to natural termination and ‘criminal abortions’ did not exist.

Harsh Anti-abortion Laws

By the early 1880s, most states had enacted anti-abortion laws. This legislative activity was the direct result of the lobbying efforts and the organising skills of the Boston gynaecologist H.R. Storer, who in 1857, succeeded in persuading the national AMA to establish a special committee to ascertain the number of abortions performed throughout the US.

Abortions without Medical Grounds Felonies

As chairperson of this committee, Storer wrote to physicians enquiring about the legal status of abortion in their states and informed them about the moral and social dangers of abortion; he included model legislation, and recommended lobbying. Because of his efforts, states began to revise their legislation making abortions without medical reasons felonies.

Obscene Material Destroyed

In addition, to Storer’s efforts, The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, was central to the anti-abortion structure. This forbade the mailing of art, literature and other materials deemed obscene by the US postal agent Anthony Comstock. It also banned mailing any drug, medicine, or article for abortion or contraceptive purposes. In NY State alone, Comstock destroyed “50 tons of ‘obscene books’, 4 million pictures, 28 tons of plate for printing”.

Abortion UndergroundTogether with Storer, the Harvard Medical School, the AMA, and both the Protestant Clergy and the Roman Catholic Church, Anthony Comstock forced a new, underground, illegal abortions system that thrived between the 1870s and the 1970s.