Most people probably think of abortion as being a fairly modern convenience, and imagine that the pro-life movement has probably been around for quite some time. For one thing, people who are pro-life often cloak their message in the Biblical idea of thou shalt not kill, and, you know, the Bible has been around for like forever. With that in mind, it would totally make sense for anti-abortion sentiment to have been rampant and widespread for the last couple of hundred or even thousand years.
Except that it hasn’t been.
The roots of the modern pro-life movement can actually be found in late 19th century America. Laws criminalizing abortion in the United States didn’t begin appearing until the 1820s, and even then they were still fairly rare. In the 1860s (so, during and after the civil war), these laws became more common, and by 1900 abortion was illegal in every state.
Before that, abortion was totally legal up until the “quickening”, i.e. when the mother first feels the fetus move. This was partially because at the time, there was no definite way of knowing that a woman was pregnant until she felt fetal movement; of course there were other signs, such as lack of menstruation or things like morning sickness or breast tenderness, but any of those could be symptoms of conditions other than pregnancy. Because of that, the moment when a woman felt her baby “quicken” (which typically happens in the 4th, 5th or even 6th month pregnancy) was really the moment when society considered her to be pregnant. Before that, she was just a woman with an irregular or disrupted menstrual cycle.
Which is why most advertisements for 19th century abortifacients looked like this:
Most patent medicines promised to do things like “correct irregularities”, or, even more abstractly, offering “relief for ladies”.
Abortion was actually one of the most common forms of birth control in 19th century America. Doctors estimated that there was one abortion for every five or six live births. In fact, the 1867 Richmond Medical Journal reported that,
“Among married persons so extensive has this practice become that people of high repute not only commit this crime, but do not even shun to speak boastingly among their intimates of the deed and the means of accomplishing it.”
Abortion was so common that classy ladies were chatting up their friends about the best ways to do it.
Probably not what you would expect to hear at a Victorian tea party, right? Kind of amazing to picture, though:
Won’t you please pass the cucumber sandwiches, Priscilla? Oh and did I tell you about this absolutely smashing new way I’ve discovered of aborting unwanted fetuses?
Someone please invite me to that tea party.
So what the hell happened?
Well, people started worrying that if women were allowed to control their own fertility, bad things might happen. Like the end of society as we know it!
Let’s take a look at the historical context: the 1860s were obviously a very turbulent time, especially with regards to racial issues. The fact that there was such an increase in abortion legislation during and immediately after the civil war is quite telling. The aftermath of the war inspired a growing panic among white people that people of colour, who they were sadly no longer able to enslave, might try to take over “their” country. Maybe as payback for all those years of slavery? This panic paved the way for the idea of “race suicide”.
What, exactly, is race suicide, you might ask? I’ll just let my old friend Teddy Roosevelt explain it to you:
” …if the average family in which there are children contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction, so that the people who had acted on this base and selfish doctrine would be giving place to others with braver and more robust ideals. Nor would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a race that practised such doctrine–that is, a race that practised race suicide–would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”
(On American Motherhood, by Theodore Roosevelt, 1905)
That’s right – race suicide is the idea that white people will become “extinct” if they don’t have enough babies.
This fear, that people of colour would out-baby us, is where we find the actual origins of the pro-life movement. It didn’t come out of the idea that abortion was a sin, or the dogma of be fruitful and multiply, but rather the panicked notion that white people might not run the world anymore.
This racism still exists in the pro-life movement, although usually in more subtle ways. I’ve heard of white women requesting abortions and being asked, pleadingly, by medical professionals, if they know how wanted white babies are. And, of course, the pro-life movement is stunningly racist in other ways, for example when they posted this what-is-this-I-can’t-even billboard:
Look, I’m not saying that if you’re pro-life, you must be racist, or that everyone who hates abortion also hates people of colour. But what I am asking you to do is take a look at the history of the movement, educate yourself, and re-examine why you hold the beliefs you do.
I’m also asking you to admit that when it comes to anti-abortion sentiment, it’s not always about God or saving babies or whatever; it’s also about white people, and our xenophobia, and our desire to maintain our death grip on a society that we perceive as being only for us.
ETA: Sadly, the pro-choice movement has a pretty racist history as well. Stay tuned for the next in this series, The Racist History of the Pro-Choice Movement. Racism. It is why we can’t have nice things.