Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Abortion Restriction in the Late 19th Century West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below is a description of the battle over abortion in the West after the Civil War.

In one realm of their lives, Western women steadily lost autonomy as the 19th century progressed: reproduction. As in the East, fear of the nation’s changing racial and ethnic demographics and increased male domination over women’s medical care led to the outlawing of abortion in several states. The criminalization of abortion did not begin until the second third of the 19th century. Early on, abortion laws did not focus on the morality of the issue but instead were aimed at outlawing specific abortion methods said to threaten a mother's health. Several early laws, for instance, outlawed the use of poisons to perform abortions. By 1840, only eight states had enacted laws restricting abortion.

The struggle of the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, to ban abortions, overlapped with the campaign by male doctors to "professionalize" the medical field and eliminate competition from female midwives who provided most health care to women. Before the mid-19th century, most women, if they sought help in childbirth outside of friends and family, consulted midwives, who also provided information on natural methods of birth control, abortion and women’s health and nutrition. To many male doctors, midwives represented a loss of income.

The AMA successfully lobbied states across the Union to require medical licenses for practitioners. Since medical schools of the era did not admit women, this legislation effectively eliminated women as health care providers. Deaths and injuries occurring at the hands of midwives and other female medical providers during abortions provided major sensational evidence for male doctors in their arguments for excluding women from the profession and for outlawing abortion. Abortions at the time had a 30 percent mortality rate for women, as opposed to 3 percent mortality in live births.

Rivalry between male and female medical providers and concern about women’s safety did not alone account for the new interest in abortion. Between 1800 and 1900, the rate of fertility — the average number of children born to each woman — dropped for white women by almost 50 percent, from seven children per woman to 3.56. This occurred even as an unprecedented number of “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe arrived at the East Coast and from Japan and China on the West Coast from the 1870s to the 1900s. Anglos expressed a fear of “race suicide” instigated by the failure of white Protestants to have enough children to keep up with the birth rates of Catholic, Jewish and East Asian immigrants and African Americans. An 1865 tract by anti-abortion physician Horatio Storer, for example, warned that abortion was "infinitely more frequent among Protestant women than Catholic." Other doctors inveighed against abortions sought by women of "high repute." Another physician complained that "our most intelligent communities," meaning wealthy white Protestants, sought to limit family size through abortion and contraception while people of color, Catholics and other outsiders gave birth to increasingly large families.

In the West, with its proximity to Mexico, its importation of Chinese railroad workers, the increasing immigration of African Americans and the still large presence of the Native American population, such demographic warnings no doubt frightened Anglo elites. The West helped lead the national trend toward abortion abolition. While anti-abortion activism in the North and South paused during the Civil War, the West was less affected by the conflict and responded more quickly to the AMA’s anti-abortion lobbying. Politicians in five Western territories in the West drew up anti-abortion clauses in the region’s new legal codes. Performing an abortion “on a woman then being with child” became a criminal offense in the Colorado and Nevada Territory in 1861, and in the Arizona, Idaho, and Montana territories by 1864. Part of this emphasis stemmed from the federal control of the Western territories at a time when the Republican Party dominated national politics. Ideologically, the Republican Party more willingly embraced the power of the state to “systematize and professionalize public policy” than Democrats. Republicans also were, as abortion historian James C. Mohr noted, “very open to the influence and the advice of professionals and experts.”

Farther West, legislators moved from restrictions on procedures that physically harmed women to outright bans on abortion itself. In 1864 in Oregon, the state legislature eliminated allowances of abortion before the “quickening” when the fetus begins moving in the uterus, and defined the aborting of any “child” in utero as manslaughter, whether or not the mother suffered injury from the procedure. By 1869 in Nevada, the legislature outlawed even the dissemination of information on abortifacient drugs and abortion procedures. By the 1880s, states had passed 40 different anti-abortion statutes, laws that generally provided an exception only when abortion was necessary to save the life of a mother. Men saw women as a reproductive weapon in the conquest of the West and had enacted laws to make sure Anglos remained a demographic majority in the region.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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