Features

Lessons from the past

"Lessons from the past" Continued...

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

-For more information, 
see Marvin Olasky's Abortion Rites: 
A Social History of Abortion in America (Crossway Books)

The role of the law

By Marvin Olasky

Laws against abortion assisted the pro-life movement but were not its primary focus of attention. Beginning with Connecticut in 1821, state after state passed laws against abortion, with exceptions to save the life of the mother; by the 1870s, every state had such laws, but they were largely ignored, as The New York Times noted in a biblically referenced editorial titled "The Least of These Little Ones." Editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, complained in 1871 that the "perpetration of infant murder . . . is rank and smells to heaven. Why is there no hint of its punishment?"

Another Times article noted "the extreme rarity of trials for abortion in this City-an offense which is known to be very common. [Abortionists] have openly carried on their infamous practice in this City to a frightful extent, and have laughed at the defeat of respectable citizens who have vainly attempted to prosecute them." Decade after decade, juries convicted very few abortionists. For example, New York reported only nine convictions for abortion in the entire state from 1895 through 1904, even though New York abortionists killed at least 90,000 unborn children during those years. Typical jail time for an abortionist: probably two years.

Abortion was never a capital crime, and women who had abortions were almost never prosecuted. Many states gave immunity to women from all criminal liability, partly because women pregnant after seduction were considered desperate victims rather than perpetrators, and partly to attain any kind of edge in prosecution. Other states, such as New Jersey and New York, gave women immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Dr. Edward T. Abrams, a pro-life member of the Michigan legislature and chairman of its committee on public health, noted that "there would be no more powerful inducement for the concealment of abortion than to make a woman a party to the criminality of the act, because it will destroy absolutely the method of getting evidence."

Even though convictions were rare, law was not entirely useless. Anti-abortion statutes did send a message of right and wrong. They forced abortionists to advertise in code, bribe policemen and politicians, and hire lawyers. Law could not end abortion but it could reduce the butcher's bill, just as laws against drunken driving today cannot end the practice but can save lives. Today, it's still worthwhile to pass laws restricting abortion, but time and money spent on providing and promoting compassionate alternatives saves more lives.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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