Mass Media before Choice

A provocative theme in this dense new book, Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940, is that race and eugenics have long been core issues in the abortion debate. The book’s title comes from its detailed overview of fiction, movies, plays and newspaper coverage of abortion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Novels—and other forms of mass media—can enforce social behavior and beliefs even more powerfully than laws themselves,” says author Karen Weingarten.

Weingarten, an assistant professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York, argues that antiabortion sentiments “are based on racist ideologies.” That is, white people fear that if white women abort their fetuses in large numbers, then the less educated, nonwhite segment of the population will rise in prominence to the detriment of society. But by outlawing abortion, the state can “enforce the continued reproduction of whiteness.” A century ago, some doctors warned in medical journals about dire consequences for the American social fabric if white, middle-class women embraced abortion. abortion-american-imagination-weingarten

Weingarten says that in the 1930s, German and American eugenicists “closely collaborated and borrowed from each other’s work.” It is shocking to read that Adolf Hitler was influenced by the eugenics movement in America. As we know so well, the Nazi dictator’s obsession with eugenics led to the extermination of six million Jews.

Early in the 19th century, abortion before quickening—the first fetal movement—was legal in every state. In 1869, however, New York outlawed abortion in all stages of pregnancy. Every state then enacted similar bans. Abortionists were portrayed as “evil, conniving and un-American,” Weingarten writes.

A New York City woman known as Madame Restell was arrested numerous times for performing abortions. When it became clear in 1878 that she almost certainly faced prison time, she killed herself by cutting her throat. The New York Times called her death by suicide “a fitting ending to an odious career.” Noting that she had amassed property worth three-quarters of a million dollars, the Times said this was “sufficiently conclusive proof of the magnitude of the ghastly trade of which she was the most notorious agent.… The woman made a fortune out of child murder.”

Another well-publicized case was the so-called trunk mystery. In 1871, a porter noticed a fetid smell coming from a trunk at a New York City train terminal. Inside the trunk, authorities found the naked body of a young woman who had had an abortion. The strange, unsolved crime fascinated the public, which could read a fictionalized account of the case in a novel titled, The Great “Trunk Mystery” of New York City.

Weingarten describes the unlikely alliance of US postal inspector and antiabortion activist Anthony Comstock and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Comstock worked tirelessly to outlaw abortion, while Sanger devoted her energy to promoting birth control while also opposing abortion. The so-called Comstock laws made it illegal to send erotic information, which included abortion literature, through the mail.

Novels such as Ann Vickers, Kitty Foyle and Bad Girl included frank discussions of abortion and female sexuality. Weingarten says abortion was part of a vibrant economy. A 1931 study concluded that abortion produced $100 million in annual revenues.

In 1859, the American Medical Association (AMA) had condemned abortion at all stages of pregnancy. Horatio R. Storer, an outspoken AMA member, published Criminal Abortion: Its Nature, Its Evidence and Its Law, which argued that the “willful killing of a human being at any stage is murder.”

By early in the 20th century, a patronizing attitude towards women who sought abortions would disappear from most fiction. Novels such as Ann Vickers, Kitty Foyle and Bad Girl included frank discussions of abortion and female sexuality. Weingarten says abortion was part of a vibrant economy. A 1931 study concluded that abortion produced $100 million in annual revenues.

In the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the US Supreme Court struck down laws that banned abortion. States responded by imposing waiting periods and other restrictions that still limit access to legal abortion. Weingarten cites the severe economic and emotional burdens placed on women when the abortion option is denied.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from an overly academic tone and an abundance of awkward words and phrases, such as “the politics of historicizing,” “governmentality,” “picturized” and “responsibilization.” The cumbersome text is unlikely to appeal to a general audience. Better editing would have helped.

Weingarten argues that abortion is not a moral issue and should be viewed “as a medical practice free from juridical or ethical inscriptions,” a statement that may confuse rather than enlighten readers. The author rejects right-to-life assertions that all human life, including the unborn fetus, is sacred. If all human life is sacred, she asks, how could the “atrocities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have happened, and with such little protest? If all people believed in the inviolability of human life, how could the killings at Auschwitz, the bombing of Hiroshima, the genocide in Bosnia, the massacres in Rwanda, have happened?” Does she mean that if people did not oppose the Holocaust, they cannot oppose abortion? If so, this is an apples-and-oranges argument with little merit.

Abortion in the American Imagination offers interesting historical background, but overall the book is poorly written and unpersuasive.


Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940
Karen Weingarten
(Rutgers University Press, 2014, 188 pp)
978-0-8135-6529-3, $75

Bill Williams is a freelance writer and former editorial writer for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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