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How Abortion Became Illegal

When the legalization of abortion in the state of New York was close to legislative repeal in 1972, one bombastic senator from upstate said to the pro-life forces: “You have no right to come to the floor of this body and ask us to enact into law church doctrine.” This was about the level of debate at the time. And it hasn’t got much better.

Anti-Catholicism has always been a useful tactic employed by the pro-abortion forces. It has centered for many years on alleged “Catholic power,” charges of violations of church-state separation, and an accusation of the imposition of Catholic values on the majority. But the abortion debate in America has rarely dealt with the gruesome medical reality of abortion itself.

Many Catholic urban legends surround this issue. They are primarily populist cautionary tales meant to silence the counter-cultural voice of the Church. They are used to argue against Catholic positions in the public arena without actually having to refute the logic, meaning, and purpose of the Church’s stances. In the case of abortion, they are not varying interpretations of history but falsifications of history—the conversion of propaganda into fact until the truth of actual events is forgotten in the culture and the public mind.

One of the greatest of these is the notion that prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, laws against abortion had their genesis in religious dogma imposed by Catholics and other such religious fundamentalists.

Why Was Abortion Illegal?

An examination of why abortion was illegal for so many years prior to Roe v. Wade says otherwise.

In eighteenth-century colonial America, social pressures in small communities generally forced a man to care for a child conceived without marriage. Abortion did quietly exist in at the time, though not as a surgical procedure—a guaranteed death for mother and child in the days before antibiotics—but with the use of potions. It was employed by young women who found themselves helpless and without familial or community support. But nowhere is it stated that the use of potions to induce abortions was an acceptable practice. In fact, counseling women on how to make and use such potions was a punishable act throughout most of colonial America and Europe. Additionally, courts were harsh on men who forced young women to attempt it. (Abortion was actually less of a social problem in colonial America than infanticide, which was a far more serious problem and the focus of early legislation.)

A Universal Ban

After 1800, American life began to change, with a growing number of Americans living in the urbanized North. With the expansion in the number of young immigrant women and rural migrants to the cities, forced abortions became more of a publicly recognized social problem. This was exacerbated by the increase in abortion activity in the nineteenth century caused by a massive growth in prostitution. Prostitution was a nasty and brutish way of life for young women with few alternatives. Syphilis became a scourge, and dangerous abortifacients were a common form of injury or even death.

Increased medical knowledge of fetal development, the desire to end the use of dangerous abortifacients, and various reform movements that addressed the needs of young women adrift in America accelerated legislation to eradicate abortion. Such laws were drafted in many states prior to the Civil War and directly addressed the administration of abortifacients and any form of surgical abortion. The laws were aimed at those who conducted abortions and those who forced them on women.

Some laws were vague on the issue of when the crime had been committed but not that a crime had been committed. The difficulty centered on the murky understanding of when pregnancy actually began, not as a sanguine response to abortion. Some states fell back on the point of “quickening,” a medieval notion that attributed the beginning of pregnancy to the moment a woman could feel the fetus moving within her. In doing so, legislators were not making a pro-abortion statement concerning early-term abortions. Rather, they were attempting to define and restrain abortion based on the general knowledge of the time. The nascent American Medical Association was a major supporter of anti-abortion legislation and issued a strong denunciation of abortion as early as 1859.

During the 1840s and the 1850s, at least thirteen states passed laws forbidding abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Three additional states passed laws making abortion illegal after quickening. By the end of 1868, thirty states had passed anti-abortion legislation. The momentum against abortion continued in the post-war period, creating the virtually universal ban on abortion in the United States that existed from 1880 until the late 1960s.

The driving forces behind these laws were not churches—and certainly not the Catholic Church specifically, which had neither the political nor moral impact in nineteenth-century America to force any legislation. In fact, medical authorities generally resisted inserting theological judgments into arguments about abortion, preferring that science be at the heart of the issue. Legislation against abortion had nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

Abortion as a Social Failure

For the most part, legislation against abortion came out of the general reforming trend in American society that saw abortion and abortionists along the same lines as it saw slavery and slaveholders—as social evils to be addressed. The criminalization of abortion was led by the medical and scientific establishment and reform movements meant to improve the life of single women and new immigrants in urban America. It was a decidedly liberal and progressive effort, and it would receive strong support from the women’s suffrage movement.

Although most churches—including the Catholic Church—would have been supportive of such efforts, the driving forces were secular and separate from the institutional religious community. The Catholic Church got branded as the source of legislation banning abortion because it was a tactic that would work when the abortion debate began to heat up in the 1960s. Like other Catholic urban legends, truth had nothing to do with it.

The crusade for legalized abortion began in the birth control and eugenics crusades of the early twentieth century. Such views were far out of the mainstream of American life and had little impact on the general culture. There was no populist movement to legalize abortion, and many within the eugenics crusade shied away from the issue entirely. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and the heroine of the birth control movement, deplored abortion as a dangerous procedure that poor women were forced to undergo, an underground scourge to be eradicated. Abortion wasn’t a right to Sanger; it was a social failure.

“One Particular Church”

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church did not find it necessary to address abortion directly because there was no serious movement to overthrow laws that had the full support of secular society and the medical establishment. But the Church was a strong voice in opposition to the widespread propaganda advocating birth control methods as a means to control the breeding of the so-called inferior classes and races. The Church also stood in opposition to the developing popularity in liberal circles of the Zero Population Growth movement as the wrong answer to poverty in both the United States and the third world. The Church did not gain many friends in these movements. When they coalesced with modern feminism around the issue of abortion in the 1960s, the Church was perceived as the principal enemy.

There is one small part of this Catholic urban legend that is true: The Church in the mid-twentieth century was virtually the only consistent voice supporting the preservation of laws restricting abortion.

By the 1930s, movements to “reform” abortion law began to receive support from elements of the medical community. The publication of Dr. Frederick Taussig’s Abortion in 1936 was a milestone. Reflecting the philosophy of eugenics that was infiltrating medicine, Taussig argued for legalized abortion when women who had had too many children, were poor, or were “irresponsible.” He also argued that this was a medical issue that should be freed “from religious bias.” Time magazine praised the book, consistent with its pro-eugenics editorial stand at the time. At a medical conference of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1942, Dr. Sophia Kleegman charged that restrictions on abortion came from the dogma of “one particular church,” laying the framework for the argument that would be picked up with a vengeance when the pro-abortion forces gathered steam at the end of the post-World War II baby boom.

One Religion’s Viewpoint

As these issues moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream by the 1960s, their supporters saw that opposition would come not from mainline Protestantism churches or Southern Evangelicals (who were virtually invisible and purposely impotent in American political life at the time) but from the Catholic Church. That’s when the obsession with “Catholic power” was born. Rhetoric about the imposition of “one religion’s viewpoint” on American society was associated with the Catholic Church, not Christian churches in general, and this allowed the debate to quickly descend into anti-Catholic rhetoric rather than analysis of the issue itself.

By the late 1960s, the abortion movement was riddled with anti-Catholic invective. History and medicine had been turned on their heads, and those who opposed the repeal of abortion legislation found themselves arguing their faith rather than science and law. Journalists routinely identified those who spoke out against abortion by their Catholic faith, while bombastic legislators denounced efforts to maintain 200 years of legislation and jurisprudence as an effort “to enact church doctrine into law.” It was all a canard, but it worked.

Catholic urban legends have a real impact on our culture. They gave us legalized abortion.


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