SUFFRAGE OPPOSITION TO ABORTION
Was abortion opposed because it was unhealthy, even fatal to women?
In The Revolution, little or no expression of concern about abortion’s negative health effects on women have been found. Unlike the medical profession and other newspapers, suffragists in The Revolution made little to no reference to health and safety to women because of abortion. ‘Matricide’ or ‘femicide’ are words not used, but rather ‘feticide’, ‘child-murder’, ‘infanticide’ are terms used and are directed to the well-being or health of ‘the unborn life.’
Reference to the unhealthy effects of abortion are also rare in other suffrage publications. The few that are found in other suffrage writings speak about health of the mother but do so in relation to the “unborn human being”:
Isabella Beecher Hooker referenced the physical pain/danger side of abortion as a side bar: “That some women have…been led into deadly sin and into the fearful suffering which inevitably follows the serious transgression of even physical law is true, perhaps even to the extent you have stated,” she wrote in response to Rev. John Todd’s widely circulated “Fashionable Murder” article, which was about abortion.
Sarah F. Norton, in the suffrage paper 1870 Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, mentions the physical effects on women as a side note to her main point: “…we can only judge of the number by the daily accounts given in the newspapers of some woman dying or dead from the effects of an abortion or premature birth, and newly-born, cast-away infants… (p. 76).”
Dr. Anita Tyng, was part of the women’s rights movement but wasn’t involved in the push for suffrage. She links the death of both mother and child in an 1878 report to the Rhode Island State Board of Health. Tyng wrote that many women labored under the “erroneous idea” that “in the early months of pregnancy, there is no sin, and little danger to the woman’s life.” Though “this is the very reverse of the truth”, she argued, both “legislators and the public fail to recognize the true character of the crime…” Even where laws against abortion were on the books, there was “no cognizance of the murder of the child” or of “the ill health of the woman for the remainder for her life.”
Wouldn’t the lack of women’s freedom cause support for abortion, not opposition to abortion?
It would appear so.
Abortion was opposed at a time when out-of-wedlock childbirth ostracized a woman.
A woman had little independence, education or employment opportunities to raise a child on her own.
Little was known about pregnancy and embryo development.
Rape laws were liberal and unenforced.
Contraceptive methods were a taboo topic and not well understood. Some sources say childbirth was as dangerous as abortion.
Against this backdrop, why then was abortion opposed?
Three mid-19th c / early 20th century factors contributed to suffrage thinking:
First, suffrage writings opposing abortion were written after the Civil War, a period when the great moral question of the time was debated on the national stage: Was slavery wrong? Who was considered a human being? Was ownership of another human being moral? Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s letter to Julia Ward Howe seeks to address that question in the context of abortion: “When we consider that women are property it is degrading that we consider our children as property to destroy as we see fit.” (Note: This letter, quoted in multiple secondary sources, has been moved/stolen/misplaced from the archives at Harvard University.)
Second, like the abolitionists who were evangelical Christians, many of the suffragists were also religious. Their faith led them to believe the taking of the life of or ownership of a human being was immoral. In particular for Quakers like Anthony, abortion violated the ‘inner light’ that was God represented in human beings. It was why Quakers also believed war and capital punishment were immoral. The Revolution also had a policy to oppose standing armies, for instance. Despite this, religious reasons were not often stated explicitly in their opposition to abortion and rarely if ever in The Revolution. In fact, suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Jocelyn Gage were highly critical of religion but opposed abortion.
Third, a claim could be made that suffrage leaders saw support for abortion contrary to their promotion of care for children and family, thereby losing followers. Anti-suffrage organizations threatened that the domestic sphere was going to be diminished if a suffrage amendment was passed. Suffragists were loath to give credence to this position. However, because of the extent and passion with which The Revolution addresses abortion, and does so in greater detail than other social justice issues except women’s suffrage, it is doubtful that their anti-abortion position was more of a strategy than a passion for equality.
Why were suffragists as a group more outspoken against abortion?
Other than the reasons stated above, Suffragists believed that greater independence of women would eliminate or at least greatly reduce poverty, rape, and prostitution. They believed these evils produced women’s desire to abort their children. Women’s enfranchisement would provide education and employment opportunities, change divorce laws related to drunken husbands, and take away the stigma of single motherhood. Having access to the vote would ‘scourge the evil of abortion’.
Wouldn’t suffrage support for ‘voluntary motherhood’ include abortion?
Most suffrage leaders believed in limiting the number of children they conceived. But, some contemporary feminist historians, like Dr. Allison Parker, believed suffrage leaders unanimously opposed contraception as well as abortion because both practices encouraged male promiscuity. Suffragists in The Revolution, however, appear to be condemnatory of abortion without conflating it with an expressed view about contraception.
In part, suffrage leaders’ anti temperance activity was related to limiting family size. Refraining from alcohol, they believed, ‘tempered’ the male sexual appetite, controlling the number of children a woman would conceive.
What did other people say about abortion? How did men feel about it?
The public generally condemned abortion, and men were no exception. Suffragist opposition was particularly blatant. Suffrage writings indicate they not only held women individually accountable, a disenfranchised group they represented, but laid guilt at the feet of society as well as their male counterparts, both individually and collectively, who they felt were responsible for women’s lack of independence.
For instance, The Revolution recounts a story about Dr. Charlotte Lozier who was approached by a man trying to procure an abortion for his ‘cousin’. Lozier, who called abortion ‘anti-natal infanticide’, offered compassionate help for the woman, but went so far as to cause the man’s arrest for his ‘inhuman proposition’.
What was the American Medical Association’s position on abortion in the 19th century? Did it affect suffrage opinion?
The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847 and in 1857 appointed Dr. Horatio Storer, well-known for his opposition to abortion, as committee chair responsible for investigating criminal abortion. The committee’s report was later accepted and published. The AMA also, as a result of the report, urged legislators and Tennessee medical societies to work to make abortion more difficult to obtain. According to Janet Farrell-Brodie, “for the rest of the century, under the aegis of the AMA, physicians became the most visible single group seeking to tighten the laws against abortion (p.267).” Suffragists supported this effort.
Like many in his field, Dr. Storer was not considered a supporter of suffrage. He believed a woman’s place was in the home. “The true wife,” didn’t pursue “undue power in public life … undue control in domestic affairs … [or] privileges not her own.” He also believed in and expressed fear of Mexican, Chinese, and Black, Indian, and Catholic babies dominating the spread of “civilization.” “Shall” these regions, he asked, “be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends on the future destiny of the nation.”
Why does the Museum have it as one of its 14 exhibits if abortion was not a major issue?
Because it was universally condemned and already to a large extent illegal, anti-abortion indeed was not a major movement in the mid-19th – early 20th c. But as has already been stated, it was a major issue discussed in Anthony’s The Revolution. Unlike slavery and temperance, moral movements about which public opinion was actively being shaped, the taking of the life ‘of the innocent unborn’ was done in secret by women.
The years that Madame Restell was in and out of the courts for her illegal practice overlapped with the years of publication of The Revolution and explains its numerous articles, editorials, and letters. Other newspapers ran front page stories on Restell and The Revolution wanted to express their near unanimous suffrage condemnation of the practice. It led the intersection of two national conversations at the time and suffragists wanted to express their unique equality perspective as women leaders and as mothers.
Opposition to abortion was ideologically and practically connected to the major issues of temperance, abolition, and suffrage. Women’s lack of voting rights, for education and employment opportunities, for ‘voluntary motherhood’, bodily autonomy and property rights propelled women to commit ‘pre-natal murder.’ Condemnation of the practice was a catalyst to discuss why women needed the vote. “We want prevention, not merely punishment.”