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Selling abortion

Abortion Past | Through academia, the press, and TV, pro-abortion forces peddled their cause

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

During the half-century from 1860 to 1910 in which America's rate of abortion declined sharply, The New York Times regularly reported on prominent physicians who did abortions. A story in 1884, "Two Physicians in Trouble," noted that two of the "best known physicians in Providence, R.I.," were on trial for abortion. A typical story in 1886, "DOCTOR INDICTED," detailed abortion charges against a highly regarded New Haven physician, Dr. Gallagher. A similar story about a well-connected doctor noted the abortion arrest of Philadelphia physician David Otway.

The Times often contrasted the power of abortionists with the powerlessness of unborn children and the vulnerability of their mothers. After the indictment of Newark physician Herman W. Gedicke in 1880, the Times noted that "the accused is wealthy and is a member of the board of Aldermen." Gedicke paid $2,000 to bribe the jury but ended up receiving a two-year sentence for criminal abortion in a verdict the judge called "a most signal triumph of the law over power and influence." Gedicke, though, later received a pardon.

Two other typical cases: One wealthy man, married to the daughter of a former New Jersey Supreme Court judge, paid his family doctor $2,000 to perform an abortion; another wealthy man seduced the daughter of a courthouse janitor and took her to Philadelphia for an abortion. The doctors were typically leading lights in their communities, not back-alley butchers. The Springfield Republican, in an editorial titled "Child Murder in Massachusetts," attacked "child-murdering" by "respectable physicians."

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Most people today, though, think of abortionists during the decades of abortion illegality in a different way. A Lexis-Nexis check of The New York Times shows "back-alley" linked to "abortion" 155 times as in, "the threat of the back-alley abortionist with a coat hanger . . . the back-alley abortion era . . . specter of a return to back-alley abortions . . . drive women-as in the pre-Roe days-to risk their lives to end pregnancies with illegal back-alley abortions."

Abortion through the 1930s was terribly dangerous for women and fatal for their children-but not because of back-alley practice. The maternal danger came because of infections that could occur at the hands of careful practitioners and, before the creation of penicillin, the absence of ways to fight them (see sidebar). But it was during the antibiotics era from the 1940s onward that the possibility of maternal death, although decreasing, became a powerful propaganda tool for those in academia and the media who greased abortion attitudes in a way that made Roe v. Wade possible.

Phase one (1952-1962) of the selling of abortion featured academic conferences hosted by the American Psychiatric Association, Planned Parenthood, and other groups. Conference papers calling for "new, more liberal laws" made a popular impact when journalists wrote about this new, new thing in magazines such as Women's Home Companion, Reader's Digest, and Time. A typical magazine article proclaimed that abortion was "rampant" in the United States and that "eminent specialists" believed the only way to stop illegal abortion was to make it legal.

By stressing conferences and publications, abortion proponents dominated academic discourse and gained a beachhead in the popular press. A Newsweek article on abortion in 1960 emphasized the ideas of Planned Parenthood head Alan Guttmacher (also vice president of the American Eugenics Society), whom the magazine glorified as "a strong-faced outspoken crusader." The January 1960 Reader's Digest excerpted Guttmacher's book, Babies By Choice or By Chance.

Such reports laid the intellectual and cultural foundation for major changes in abortion laws. Those who wanted to portray abortion laws as cruel and unconscionable now had statistics, even though they were plucked from the air. Phase one culminated with a popular CBS television show in April 1962: An episode of The Defenders titled "The Benefactor" had an abortionist as the hero of the title. Since academic analysis had "proven" that millions of young women had had no choice but to head to the back alleys, the heroic, reputable doctor-abortionist was a "benefactor" who honorably put babies to death.

Phase two, from 1962 to 1972, began with a tragedy that launched hundreds of human-interest articles. Only three months after TV's "The Benefactor," the plight of Sherri Finkbine received-in Newsweek's words-"the full glare of national attention" and "dramatically posed the abortion dilemma for all to see." Finkbine, a minor Phoenix celebrity through her hosting of the popular children's program Romper Room, was having trouble sleeping during the first trimester of her pregnancy, so she took a tranquilizer her husband had picked up the summer before while on a trip to Europe.

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