Birth Control and Abortion in the 18th Century
A draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court would render a women’s right to abortion up to the locally elected leaders in the state where she lives. In once section Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. cited ‘an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion’ until Roe.
“The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions. On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973. (Politico)”
But that’s not accurate. Abortion was legal before, during and after colonial America.
In English Colonies Abortion Was Legal Under Common Law
In the days when we were just a collection of colonies, rules about abortion and birth control depended largely upon your race, tribe and government who ruled the colony. Many tribal societies knew how to provoke abortions using black root and cedar root. In English colonies, abortion was legal under common law until ‘quickening’ which was when the baby first kicked, between the sixteenth and twentieth month. In French colonies there were laws against it but weren’t typically enforced and in Spanish and Portuguese colonies it was outlawed. Enslaved women were not allowed to have abortions because their masters wanted to enslave the children who were born. (Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10297561/)
Colonial governments seemed more interested in preventing premarital and/or extramarital sex than abortion.
In colonial America, abortions were also common, but kept secret because most of the colonies prosecuted fornication. Thus, an unmarried girl or woman needed to keep her abortion secret to hide her earlier illegal act: sexual intercourse.
The authors also demonstrate that when abortions were unavailable, or unsuccessful, women often resorted to killing their newborn children (neonaticide). (Source: https://supreme.findlaw.com/legal-commentary/an-important-study-of-the-history-and-law-of-the-abortion-rights-controversy.html)
Even after the United States was formed, abortions were legal. From 1776 until the mid 19th century, abortions in the United States were legal before quickening. Pregnancy and delivery were often handled by female midwives.
Common Forms of Abortion and Birth Control in the 18th Century
According to “In Bed with the Georgians, Sex, Scandal & Satire in the 18th Century” by Mike Rendell, in England there were two primary choices for abortion – surgery or taking plants to cause a miscarriage. Both options could be risky. Plant extracts included Savin mixed with black hellebore (highly toxic), oil of hyssop (could cause seizures) or Pennyroyal essential oil (highly poisonous).
People’s understanding of the menstrual cycle and pregnancy was limited in the 18th century. Options included the withdrawal method (even mentioned in the Bible’s book of Genesis) and herbal abortifacients. Nicholas Culpeper suggested in his book Complete Herbal to use tansy, dittany or yarrow.
Giacomo Casanova wrote about using a lemon rind as a cervical cap. Women also douched after intercourse with lemon and vinegar.
Casanova also called condoms (cundums) as ‘the English riding coat’ but they were mostly to protect the man against sexually transmitted diseases rather than preventing pregnancy. Since the condoms were typically made with sheep intestines tied with a ribbon (and often reused) it wasn’t particularly an effective form of birth control.
19th Century: Things Changed
Things began to change around the Civil War.
In 1847 a group of physicians, almost exclusively male, formed the American Medical Association (AMA) and actively sought to diminish the role of midwives and assert that only doctors be allowed to determine a woman’s right to have an abortion. It’s reasonable to imply that some doctors had legitimate concerns about women’s safety and others believed in notions that men were superior to women, including understanding of women’s bodies and best interests.
Also the prudish nature of Victorian society and the 1873 Comstock Act, which banned anything taken to be obscene, including birth control. Massachusetts and Connecticut not only banned birth control through the mail but also information about birth control, abortions and family planning.
By 1900 abortion was banned in all states.
What Life Was Like Without Legal Abortion Options
Here’s the thing. These anti-abortion laws didn’t stop abortions. It just made women go underground to try to self-induce miscarriages or get surgeries from people who weren’t properly trained. At best it was a humiliating experience at worse it was deadly.
One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. (Source: Guttmacher Institute)
If Roe v. Wade is overturned and a number of states enact “trigger laws” that severely limit or end a women’s access to abortions, it will disproportionately impact low income women. Let’s be honest. If an upper middle class woman lives in Texas (where abortion is now banned after six weeks) she can hop on a plane to California. How is a woman working a minimum wage job going to get time off from work plus travel money to go to a state where it’s legal and then pay for the abortion (which may or may not be covered by medical insurance)?
It’s shocking to think that a woman had more access to legal abortions in 1722 than will have 2022.
Copyright (c) Lisa Traugott 2022. Author. Activist. History nerd.