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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs/Bain News Service

Lessons from the past

Abortion Past | Pro-lifers in the 19th century overcame staggering abortion rates and saved lives; here's how they did it

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

To save the lives of more unborn Americans we should see how our pro-life predecessors succeeded in the past-and by the past I don't mean only the past three decades but the past two centuries. It's conventional to think of the abortion horror as a product of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but research I've done at the Library of Congress shows that abortion on the eve of the Civil War was more frequent, in proportion to the U.S. population, than it is now.

You have not just read a misprint. Roughly 160,000 abortions occurred in 1860 in a population of 30 million. Probably about 1.2 million abortions (13 percent of them through RU-486) occurred last year in a population estimated at around 307 million. The horrific current number is obviously no cause for self-congratulation, but reputable forecasters at the time of Roe v. Wade were predicting a butcher's bill of more than 4 million abortions annually by now.

With everything we're doing wrong, are we doing something right to fall far short of that 4 million prediction, and to have witnessed a decline during the past decade from 1.6 million to 1.2 million? I believe we are, and not for the first time in American history: The number of abortions in America, in proportion to the population, declined by at least 50 percent during the 50 years from 1860 to 1910. How did that happen? And is the current decline likely to continue?

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Abortion in America goes back to at least 1652. The numbers increased slowly during the 18th and early 19th centuries and jumped when prostitution became much more common with the growth of cities in 1830 and thereafter. Without reliable contraception, prostitutes typically used abortion as their birth control multiple times, often with drastic physical repercussions for mother as well as child: The average prostitute died from disease, abortion, or customer violence within four years of joining the trade. Reliable estimates from 1860 show 60,000 prostitutes becoming pregnant and having abortions.

Young women coming off the farms, only to be seduced and abandoned by affluent men, also resorted to abortion. A New Age "spiritist" craze in many cities during the 1850s also led to an abortion increase, as "spiritists" claimed absolute freedom: Dr. Benjamin Hatch wrote in 1859 of how women from the "fashionable and intellectual communities . . . live in adultery, produce abortion, arise from their guilty couches, stand before large audiences as the medium of angels . . . and boastingly speak of their freedom from what they call social conventionalism and the superstitions of Christianity."

By 1860 abortion was not part of the American mainstream, as pro-abortion historians contend, but it had a massive presence on three sidestreams: prostitutes, victims of seduction, and religious radicals. Leading newspapers contained thinly veiled ads for abortion drugs and operations. Abortion was risky for women-perhaps 5 percent died during the process-but lucrative for abortionists. New York's famous Madame Restell built a millionaire's mansion on Fifth Avenue and secured governmental protection through bribery and blackmail.

Abortion was so extensive in the mid-1800s that The New York Times called it "The Evil of the Age . . . The enormous amount of medical malpractice [a euphemism for abortion] that exists and flourishes, almost unchecked, in the city of New York, is a theme for most serious consideration. Thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world." But the abortion rate began to fall after the Civil War as a nationwide pro-life movement gathered strength.

That movement included the largest women's organization of the era, the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union), as well as the YMCA and YWCA (Young Men's or Women's Christian Association), various Societies for the Suppression of Vice, and, by the end of the century, the Salvation Army. Many doctors were involved; unlike today, the American Medical Association was a staunch opponent of abortion, which it dubbed "unwarrantable destruction of human life."

Then as now, theological radicals such as Henry Wright argued that a child's "first claim is to a designed existence, if it is to exist at all." Some said "it was less criminal to kill children before they were born, than to curse them with an unwelcome existence." But pro-life leaders rejected the premise that an "unwelcome existence" was the only alternative to abortion. They looked at three groups of women at risk for abortions and offered programs of education, refuge, and adoption that would help women to avoid unwanted pregnancy or to recover from it, without killing a child.

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