The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion

By Frederick N. Dyer

Editor’s note. Frederick N. Dyer is the author of “Champion of Women and the Unborn: Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D.,” and “The Physicians’ Crusade against Abortion.” As such he is a thoughtful critic of the bogus “history” that served as the underpinnings for Roe v. Wade. Thus this article, from the November 2005, edition of National Right to Life News, is a perfect addition to our year-long “Roe at 40” series where we bring you some of the best stories going all the way back to 1973!

physicians-crusade-against-abortion1Few, if any, academic works have had the impact on abortion of James Mohr’s 1978 book, “Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900.” It is routinely and erroneously cited as proof positive that the 19th-century “Physicians’ Crusade against abortion” had nothing to do with unborn babies and much to do with two other considerations: physicians’ concern about the safety of abortion for women and their attempts to eliminate quacks and squeeze out competition from midwives. Since, it was argued, physician-induced abortion was no longer dangerous in the 1970s and since medical regulation had eliminated the quacks, there was no reason to retain the laws against abortion.

Although wrong about the reasons these physicians crusaded against abortion, Mohr and several other historians correctly recognized one key result of the Physicians’ Crusade. This was the passage of stringent laws against abortion in nearly every state and territory. These remained in effect with little change in most states until overturned in Roe v. Wade.

During the deliberations leading up to that 1973 decision, it was also claimed (principally in two law review articles authored by Professor Cyril Means, Jr.) that these laws were passed to protect women from a no-longer-dangerous operation. It was also claimed that concern for the unborn child was not an important factor underlying the enactment of these laws. A majority of justices accepted these false claims and all the state laws the physicians had lobbied to have enacted were overturned.

Mohr’s book, however, has proven extremely important in popularizing a serious misunderstanding about the motivation behind the anti-abortion laws of the 19th century. Yet, as I show in both my first book, “Champion of Women and the Unborn: Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D.,” and in the forthcoming “The Physicians’ Crusade against Abortion,” Mohr’s own volume contains evidence to show that he understood that the motives of Dr. Storer and hundreds of other physicians were grounded in a deep concern for unborn children.

This is not some dry in-house academic debate. “Abortion in America” has played, and continues to play, a huge role in shaping the way policy makers and academics understand why the stringent anti-abortion statutes were passed.

One instance where Mohr’s book came into play was the 1989 Supreme Court case involving a Missouri abortion law. Many on both sides of the issue pondered whether the High Court might use Webster v. Reproductive Health Services to significantly cut back, even overturn Roe. (The Court did neither.)

A number of friend-of-the-court briefs were filed by groups who opposed Missouri’s law. One brief, signed by 281 professional historians, acknowledged that “physicians were the principal nineteenth-century proponents of laws to restrict abortion,” but denied that concern for the unborn was one of their reasons. The brief asserted that the life of the fetus “became a central issue in American culture only in the late twentieth century.”

What were the physicians’ motivations, according to the historians’ brief? They asserted that physicians were concerned about protecting the health of women, regulating the medical profession, keeping women in traditional roles, and preventing the descendants of immigrants from becoming dominant in the population. The historians argued that since these reasons now were obsolete or not credible, the Court should reaffirm the constitutional right to abortion it had announced in Roe v. Wade. The brief relied heavily on Mohr’s book.

In truth, however, “Abortion in America” actually showed that almost all of these physicians opposed abortion because they saw it as the killing of a living human being. In his book Mohr acknowledged that the “sincere belief” of physicians “that abortion was morally wrong” “helps to explain the intensity of their commitment to the cause.”

Mohr wrote, “The nation’s regular doctors, probably more than any other identifiable group in American society during the nineteenth century, including the clergy, defended the value of human life per se as an absolute. Scholars interested in the medical mentality of the nineteenth century will have to explain the reasons for this ideological position… . But whatever the reasons, regular physicians felt very strongly indeed on the issue of protecting human life. And once they had decided that human life was present to some extent in a newly fertilized ovum, however limited that extent might be, they became the fierce opponents of any attack upon it.”

Mohr went on to note, “Physicians who personally believed abortion to be morally wrong and their many fervent writings on this subject must be taken as evidence of their sincerity must have been frustrated by the persistent lack of public support for their position.” However, Mohr provided almost no examples of these “fervent writings” in his book. In his chapter, “The Physicians’ Crusade against Abortion,” he provided a single extended quote from an Illinois physician, James S. Whitmire, written in 1874:

Many, indeed, argue that the practice is not, in fact, criminal, because they argue that the child is not viable until the seventh month of gestation, hence there is no destruction of life. The truly professional man’s morals, however, are not of that easy caste, because he sees in the germ the probable embryo, in the embryo the rudimentary foetus, and in that, the seven months viable child and the prospective living, moving, breathing man or woman, as the case may be.

Actually, a more typical and certainly more fervent passage from Whitmire can be found in the same article:

Persons who engage in this crime, whether they are professional or self-abortionists, have lost all the natural instincts of humanity; they have neither principle nor good morals, and are, hence, an eyesore to society, a plague-spot upon communities where they exist lepers, whose infectious breath undermines the very foundation of the morals of the people, and should not be tolerated for a single day, when and where they are known.

Another typical example was a long letter published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in January 1851. In it, Rhode Island physician John Preston Leonard wrote,

Besides these bills of mortality, the records of criminal courts will furnish sufficient proof that this crime is every day becoming more prevalent. It is humiliating to admit that there are a class of physicians who, Herod-like, have waged a war of destruction upon the innocent.

Dr. Storer himself penned many eloquent statements in opposition to abortion. In the January 1859 issue of North-American Medico-Chirurgical Review, he wrote,

If we have proved the existence of foetal life before quickening has taken place or can take place and all by analogy, and a close and conclusive process of induction, its commencement at the very beginning, at conception itself, we are compelled to believe unjustifiable abortion always a crime.

Unfortunately, later in his book, Mohr confused the issue by discussing physicians’ “professional” reasons for opposing abortion before their “personal” reason of defending the unborn. Most recent books and articles discussing the history of abortion laws continue to emphasize the false statements made in the 1989 historians’ brief.

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The 19th-century anti-abortion laws for which the physicians were largely responsible have received the bulk of attention by historians writing about abortion in America. However, another feature of the Physicians’ Crusade was to inform women that a living human being existed from conception and physicians persuaded many thousands of women to continue pregnancies that they initially asked their physicians to end. Scores of physicians wrote of their successes in persuading these women to continue their pregnancies. Birth certificates documented the successes of countless others.

Horatio Robinson Storer, the founder of the physicians’ crusade, once astutely noted: “[E]very life saved is, as a general rule, the precursor of others that else would not have been called into existence.”

Editor’s note. In The Physicians’ Crusade against Abortion, Dyer shows that there were scores of anti-abortion physicians whose efforts followed Storer’s 1859 American Medical Association Report on Criminal Abortion. Moreover, although Storer was the first to organize a lobbying effort against abortion, he was not the first to speak out on the subject.