The Story of Abortion in America by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas (Crossway, $53, 494 pages)
Marvin Olasky, author of the Tragedy of American Compassion and Abortion Rites, and Leah Savas, who writes about abortion for World magazine, have written a remarkable work of scholarship, a deep dive into what the subtitle promises, “A Street-Level History, 1652-2022,” of abortion. The Story of Abortion in America is not a polemical work or a book about public policy, but a history of the reality of abortion in the United States over the past three-and-a-half centuries. The story begins in Maryland in 1652 – “not the first abortion in American history” because “before Europeans arrived, Native Americans knew and sometimes used abortifacient plants and other substances” – when Captain William Mitchell concocted an abortifacient potion, put in a poached egg, and forced his mistress Susan Warren to eat it. There may have been an earlier abortion in 1629, but the record is unclear; we know about Mitchell coercing Warren because the case ended up in a Provincial Court after being charged with “Murder Atheism and Blasphemy” and eventually found guilty of “scandalous behavior” and banned from holding public office.
Questions about the existence of Warren’s pregnancy were raised and Olasky and Savas rehearse the determinants of pregnancy commonly used before pregnancy tests were invented, noting that convictions for abortion-related murder often “hinged on whether prosecutors could prove pregnancy.” One of the great strengths of Olasky and Savas’ book is that it provides the full story, including the victims of abortion – both mother and child. They show that it was originally the medical profession – not churches – that sought to have abortion treated seriously by the law because of the emerging understanding that life began at conception and not “quickening” which held that a preborn child was not a human being in its embryonic stage.
One of the points the authors make repeatedly is that abortion serves predatory men, like the philanderer Mitchell, but many, many more since. Often, the law punished fathers rather than mothers for abortions, as many women who had illegal abortions were coerced by men into having them. But the focus of this book is on the abortionist’s trade.
Abortion has long been an unsafe practice for women undergoing the procedure (along with always unsafe for the preborn child), and the authors report a number of botched abortions that resulted in sensational crime stories that attracted national attention. Some of the details are gruesome (the authors do not shy away from the reality of the dismembered and disemboweled babies victimized by abortion), but they paint the picture that rather than some abstract choice, abortion causes grave harm to mother and child. Most 19th century abortionists were butchers, with one San Francisco and Chicago abortionist, Lucy Hagenow, arrested 75 times but often free to continue plying her deadly trade after hung juries could not deliver a verdict against her, numerous acquittals, light sentences (one year for an illegal abortion that also killed the mother, Marie Hecht), or benefiting from early release from jail. A journalist of the time described her office: “just such an establishment as a novelist would select … as the scene of a sensational crime or dark mysterious deed.” Newspapers reported that Hagenow could get away with her crimes for so long because she paid hush money to “a regularly organized clique of politicians and police.”
Indeed, reading The Story of Abortion in America makes clear how grubby the business has always been. Abortionists were slow to adhere to new scientifically proven methods to make surgery safer, and sepsis and other harmful and sometimes deadly side-effects continued to endanger women long after they were defeated or curtailed in other areas of medicine. To their credit, the authors name the victims of abortionists where possible and provide the grisly details of abortionists’ crimes, including the 1871 discovering of “human flesh, supposed to have been the remains of infants, found in barrels of lime and acid, undergoing decomposition.”
The Story of Abortion in America would be incomplete without also telling the story of the pro-life movement reacting to both illegal abortion prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and legal abortion afterward. Early on, doctors led the charge against illegal abortion, clearly viewing abortionists as butchers undeserving of the title doctor, violating oaths to not give counsel nor administer any abortifacient to pregnant women.
The cause was also taken up by politicians who saw that “reliance on social pressure to prevent abortion had mixed success” in Virginia and Maryland, so New York’s colonial governor, Robert Hunter, advocated for the first pro-life law in America in 1716 – forbidding midwives from recommending or aiding in abortion – followed shortly thereafter in other colonies (although some jurisdictions were slow to follow, with neighbouring Connecticut not enacting a pro-life law until 1821). Theologians and scientists made common cause against the deliberate taking of innocent life in the womb. More recently, there are more familiar stories of the civil disobedience campaign Operation Rescue and political efforts to enact pro-life laws and appoint judges to Supreme Court that would overturn Roe. Some of the cast of pro-life characters seem to get short shrift. Dr. Jack Willkie, for example, gets just one mention and his appearance is limited to a debate over Ohio’s heartbeat law banning abortion after a heartbeat becomes detectable, thus ignoring Willkie’s willing into existence the right-to-life movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The reports and claims in the book are copiously referenced, with subtle footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page. While the authors have a definitive pro-life view, they are scrupulous scholars and dove deeply into letters, court records, media reports, and other primary and secondary sources to provide a clear picture of the reality of abortion in America, up to the Dobbs decision in 2022. Robert P. George in his foreword to the book says, “if we are to think well about the question of abortion … we need a sound understanding of the history of abortion in America.” Olasky and Savas have provided that history.