Abortion was not always a secret or a crime. But many Americans tend to assume that it was nearly nonexistent or always considered a sin until “the sexual revolution” of the 1960s (or even the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision). The historical record shows clearly that early abortion—known as “restoring the menses,” a woman’s period—was a normal practice among women in colonial America and well into the 19th century.
It was part of women’s world, and not of particular interest to most men.
To be sure, abortion after quickening—a phrase that refers to the moment a woman herself perceived fetal movement—was immoral and illegal under English common law and in early America. Quickening occurred sometime between four and six months of pregnancy.
But restoring the menses before quickening was neither immoral nor illegal. The failure to menstruate was understood as a problem in itself: Something had “obstructed” or “suppressed” the blood flow. Women attended that sickness with treatments, herbal mixtures, and teas that they had long shared among themselves. Published home health guides written by doctors offered similar advice.
It was not until the 1860s and 1870s that abortion at any point in pregnancy, including before quickening, became a crime throughout the states. The attacks on the traditional female practice of restoring the menses, which ultimately led to a dramatic revision of the law, came from two main sources: the men’s “sporting press” of the 1840s and a small group of elite medical men who had newly organized themselves as the American Medical Association. They shared an animosity toward female medical practitioners and the growing women’s rights movement.
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In 1830s New York City, young white middle-class men and their working-class counterparts shared a culture focused on male pleasure. Male “sporting” culture included boxing rings, cockfights, gambling, blackface minstrel shows, brothels, and theater—often enjoyed with a drunken crowd. The sporting press—weekly papers such as the Sunday Flash, the Libertine, and the New York Sporting Whip—were the lad mags of the day. These publications included jokes about prostitution, sex, and seduction; offered up gossip; and (with a wink) provided handy lists of brothels alongside stories of famed sex workers. “The sporting weeklies claimed to have moral purposes, especially when faced with criticism” for their own erotic content, the historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz has observed. Breaches of normative heterosexuality, particularly in the form of abortion and homosexuality, produced “outrage” in the men’s press. (Horowitz writes that they “became particularly shrill” about men whom they called “habitual sodomites.”)
In the 1840s, in this media environment, several men’s papers went after female abortionists who had begun advertising their skills and pills in competing American newspapers (the penny press). Women needing to address a menstrual irregularity could easily find ads for French Lunar Pills, Female Monthly Pills, the “celebrated” Female Renovating Pills, and similar items that promised to “restore” them in such papers. The change in society is that women’s traditional knowledge had become commercialized and publicly advertised—thus making it more visible to men.
Especially visible was Madame Restell, a popular abortion provider among married and unmarried women, including upper-class ladies in New York City, who broadcast her success by living in a mansion and driving through town in a fancy carriage. The National Police Gazette, a paper dedicated to publishing police reports and criminal trials verbatim—especially stories of sex crimes—targeted Restell as one of the city’s “murderous abortionists,” naming her the head of a “bloody empire.” The paper attacked Restell every week, encouraging the police to arrest her and stirring up hostility. Particularly egregious to the paper was the discovery that married women had gone to Restell without their husbands’ knowledge.
The open availability of abortion and women’s evident autonomy threatened male power over women’s sexuality and reproduction—particularly, the power of husbands. In assailing female abortionists and the newspapers that accepted abortion advertising, the sporting papers represented themselves as moral leaders. The campaigns against abortion also helped to protect sensational papers that specialized in sex stories and crime from obscenity charges.
As the sporting press relentlessly pursued Restell and painted her as a villain, they encouraged New York authorities to investigate and arrest her. In 1847, she was held in jail for a year, and later, in 1878, died by suicide.*
The sporting press had publicized abortion and stigmatized it. Nonetheless, women continued to restore their menses with home treatments and induced early abortions before quickening as permitted by common law. It wasn’t until a decade after the Police Gazette’s villainization of Madame Restell that a young elite doctor and Harvard grad, Horatio R. Storer, took up the cudgel against abortion and recruited to his cause a small group of fellow elite doctors in the newly formed AMA.
Storer scoffed at the popular belief in quickening, calling it nothing “but a sensation.” This sensation, of course, had powerful meaning in the law and for the women who carried pregnancies and bore children.
He further charged that married white Protestant women—seemingly respectable ladies—were the ones having abortions in great numbers. The result, Storer claimed, was a decline in the native-born white American population, in comparison to immigrants, and especially Catholics, who had larger families. He and his allies openly voiced their hostility to the growing Catholic population and equally resented the middle-class women who sought higher education or who entered the public sphere to condemn male sexual behavior (usually, for visiting prostitutes). Having written prize-winning essays and collected data about abortion, Storer convinced his medical colleagues in every state to press their political leaders to revise the laws regarding abortion.
The men who held office shared the sentiments of the medical men of their own class. In the 1860s and 1870s, virtually every state banned abortion before quickening.
This history of sexism and nativism undergirding the passage of the 19th century criminal abortion laws was dismissed as irrelevant by Justice Samuel Alito in his draft opinion that stands to overturn Roe v. Wade.* And yet, a century and a half later, anger at the sexual autonomy of women, anti-feminism, and white racial resentment are once again part of the anti-abortion agenda.
Correction, June 1, 2022: This piece originally misidentified Samuel Alito as Robert Alito.
Correction, June 2, 2022: This piece originally misstated the year of Madame Restell’s death. It was 1878, not 1847.