With the right to a safe abortion under threat, I am republishing an article I wrote that appeared in www.Commondreams.org Sept. 15, 2018. I spent a year writing Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles, a very depressing year listening to the tragedies of abortion when it was illegal.
Attempting to stop abortions by outlawing them will be as unsuccessful as prohibition was in stopping the making, sale, distribution and drinking of alcohol. That doesn’t seem to deter judges, legislators and crusaders from thinking that overturning Roe v Wade will magically eliminate abortion.
Abortion has always existed. In ancient Egypt, women inserted crocodile dung in their vaginas to abort unwanted children.
Beliefs about it have varied. Anselm of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk and philosopher in the 11th century, did not think abortion before “quickening” (fetal movement) was murder, an opinion echoed by Thomas Aquinas almost two centuries later.
In the Twinslayers Case in 1327, a man beat a woman so badly she lost twins. He was released because the death of the fetuses wasn’t considered murder.
In the American colonies, pre-Revolution, it was only after a baby “quickened” that it was considered an abortion. Before that women sought artificial means to “restore the menses,” even if a fetus was expelled.
The first U.S. trial for abortion was held in Pomfrey, CT in 1745 after Sarah Grosvenor died from an abortion performed in her fourth month.
Throughout the 1800s abortionists such as Madame Restell in New York ran lucrative practices.
Abortion-producing cures could be ordered directly by mail. Advertisements appeared in newspapers.
Later in the 1800s, the American Medical Association worked to take abortion out of the hands of amateurs.
Anthony Comstock fought for laws to go beyond making abortion illegal. He successfully campaigned to make almost any mention of sexual topics subject to prison or heavy fines. Even medical textbooks with information about sexual organs sent through the mail could be cause for imprisonment.
Birth control information was illegal for women, married or not.
Estimates on the number of women who died from botched abortions are impossible, but information from various sources give an idea of the horror.
Dr. Louis Gerstley,Chief at Philadelphia General Hospital (1956 to 1976), in the film Motherless, said the hospital kept 32 beds for patients who had botched abortions. His comments are echoed by other doctors from the period who cited the number of beds in their hospitals reserved for women dying from botched abortions.
Knitting needles, bicycle spokes, anything metal might have been used, Dr. Gerstley said. He described women who used substances that literally melted the vaginal canal. Such experiences were reported by other doctors throughout the U.S.
Dr. Gerstley expressed regret that he could not save more women.
He also said, “The legalization of abortion had almost no effect on the level of abortions…. graph the number of deliveries in the U.S. between the 50s and 80s and you will find a fairly steady line.… Roe didn’t affect the number of deliveries.” However, he added, “There was a marked drop in maternal mortality.”
The Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) was started by Rev. Howard Moody of the Judson Memorial Church in New York, along with 21 ministers and rabbis. They announced that they would help pregnant women. By the time Roe v. Wade was decided, there were 38 chapters throughout the U.S. When the formation of each new local group was announced, the phones were flooded. Los Angeles received 293 calls in the first 24 hours.
The women were listened to and if they decided they wanted the abortion, they were provided with the name of a doctor, most often out-of-state or out of the country for legal reasons. The doctors were monitored to make sure they followed the high standards; during the years CCS operated, some 300 doctors were removed from their approved list.
Another group called Jane began in Chicago where women could go for safe abortions and emotional support. Their leaders were about to be arrested when Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court.
If abortion is illegal, women will still get abortions as they have throughout time. Poor women will once again take poison, shove potions and instruments up their vaginas, go to back alleys where their babies will be aborted in unsafe conditions. People like Rev. Moody and others will break the law to help women. Women with resources will simply go to a country where it is legal.
Abortion can’t be stopped no matter how many laws are passed. What anti-abortion laws will do is kill more women.