Abortion rights protesters attend a rally outside the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on June 24, following the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Education

America’s surprising colonial history with abortion

Despite contrary beliefs, the United States has a long history that supports the act of abortion.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/edwinbai/" target="_self">Edwin Bai</a>

Edwin Bai

November 22, 2022
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, Americans have been polarized over the morality of abortion. Today, abortion is one of the central topics of modern politics, with around 56% of voters stating that it’s a very important issue as recorded by Pew Research in 2022, after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Today, abortion is a crucial part of modern society, but how did our nation’s founding fathers view abortion? Despite Justice Clarence Thomas’s statement that abortion is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” evidence points to the contrary. Surprisingly, abortion appears to have been commonplace in early American society; Benjamin Frankling even wrote a guide on how to perform them in his popular textbook, “The Instructor.

As stated by NPR, the book was immensely popular and it didn’t face much backlash either at that time. Moreover, this book was also widely circulated, meaning many Americans likely had a copy of “The Instructor,” and within, instructions on how to do an abortion. The fact that this recipe for abortion was included in a math textbook goes to show that termination was just as normal as basic arithmetic in early American society, a sentiment that may surprise many Americans today. What is now a polarizing topic in modern-day society appeared to be relatively common in the 18th century. From this, we can conclude that for the most part, early American society didn’t find much of an issue with abortions, despite many Americans being churchgoers, according to Facing History and Ourselves

Another example of the commonality of abortion in early American society is illustrated in the Maryland Gazette from 1752. The paper details the story of a man asking his servant maid to get an abortion in fear of his wife finding out about the maid’s pregnancy. In the story, the discussion of abortion was a “familiar conversation,” implying that the maid had performed or at least talked about having an abortion multiple times. If abortion was villanized by the Americans at that time, these people would not be having frequent conversations about getting an abortion. Furthermore, the story goes on to say that the herbs the maid took to end the pregnancy were actually poisonous, and the man was charged with poisoning her. However, notably, the man was not charged with the crime of abortion, which would be a felony in some states today according to ABC News, further proving that Americans back then did not view abortion as something inherently wrong. 

So if American society was largely pro-abortion, what led it to change? Well, it all began in the mid-1850s with an American physicist named Horatio Storer. Storer believed that abortion was morally wrong, but he also believed that abortion threatened the white Protestant race in America, a sentiment echoed in modern debates about abortion according to The Nation. In his mind, Storer viewed the perfect American society as being dominated by white Protestants in which women adhered strictly to their alleged duties, that being marriage and childbearing. He also viewed the increase in immigration as a threat to his ideal society, fearing that the Catholic birth rate would soon overwhelm the white Protestant population. Storer blamed married Protestants for not producing enough children, and thus wanted to ensure that the Protestants would remain the dominant population in the US, so he launched “the physicians’ crusade.”

As stated by NPR, Storer and his allies campaigned to make abortion illegal throughout America, spouting ideas about moral righteousness and spreading racial panic. However, in order to convince a solidly pro-abortion nation that abortion is immoral, he had to lie. According to the American Historian Association, the statistics Storer used to back his arguments were based on poor data and filled with far-reaching assumptions, demonstrating the sheer nonsense he espoused to the American public. Regardless, Storer’s attempts were largely successful, and slowly, abortion became criminalized state by state. In 1910, abortion was not only regulated in every state but was also banned at every stage of pregnancy in every region of the country as documented by Planned Parenthood. The US went from a pro-abortion nation to a country that criminalizes the action in every area of the land. And so began the struggle to re-legalize abortion, a struggle that finally met its goal in the passage of Roe V. Wade over a century later. 

Now, the hard-fought efforts by feminists and pro-choice activists have been suddenly made void by the recent decision by the Supreme Court. Though the Supreme Court states that abortion is not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” the historical facts prove this belief incorrect beyond a singular doubt. Whilst Benjamin Franklin is a prime example of the pro-abortion stance in early American history, other American Founding Fathers also held a similar stance according to The Washington Post. Sure, the Constitution never says anything about the legality of abortion, but in the context of early American society, it can be inferred that the Founding Fathers of the nation never believed that one day the act of abortion would be made illegal.