By Beverly Swerling
It’s tempting to think the abortion wars started with Roe v. Wade, but it’s not true.
In the early eighteenth century abortionists advertised in New York City broadsheets offering “guaranteed cures” for “female problems,” code for an unwanted pregnancy. The cures took the form of a variety of purges and placebos, and the non-sterile, non-anaesthetized version of what we’d now call a dilation and curettage when performed by a doctor, or a back-alley coat hangar special at the hands of an unqualified abortionist.
Just as the title quack was not a pejorative in colonial times – quackery was defended as natural and ‘homely’ – abortion was considered perfectly acceptable if performed before the end of the fourth month, the usual time for the child to “quicken.” The popular notion was that until then the fetus was not human, not ensouled, as the clergy said. By 1828, however, doctors were beginning to develop the specialties of gynecology and obstetrics. To eliminate the competition they lobbied for a law that said a person performing an abortion after quickening could be charged with manslaughter, fined $100, and sentenced to a year in prison.
Their pleas were reinforced by a journalist, George W. Dixon, who saw himself as the keeper of public morality and apparently believed that if they could be sure of ending an illicit pregnancy, women would all become adulteresses and prostitutes. Under such circumstances no man could be sure of the virtue of his wife or his daughters.
None of this stopped the most famous abortionist of her day, a woman who called herself Madame Restell, from building a thriving business. On the one occasion when Madam Restell was imprisoned, the men who relied on her to look after their mistresses if needed, (philandering was fine, creating a scandal was not) paid her jailer to provide a featherbed and “delicate” food. While she was in prison the American Female Moral Reform Society visited and tried to persuade her to convert to Christianity. They were not successful. She made even more money after she was released. Enough so she built herself a Fifth Avenue mansion (on the corner of 52nd Street) and bought a splendid coach and four with a liveried driver who took her up and down Broadway every afternoon.
For more, see Edward G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press.
Beverly Swerling is author of City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York.
Image: National Police Gazette, March 13, 1847