History of Abortion in Utah: Part 2

You can read part one here

Content warning: Descriptions of miscarriage and abortion

How could apostles explicitly denounce abortion, but also be offering at home abortion products? The answer is actually quite simple, and is germane to the current controversy over the proposed repeal of Roe v. Wade.  Justice Alito in the draft decision cites jurists like William Blackstone who said that “an abortion of a ‘quick’ child was ‘by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter’ (citing Bracton), and at least ‘a very heinous misdemeanor’ (Citing Coke).” 

The crucial word to consider is “quick,” which is not a word we use in this way very often anymore. Members of the Church are most likely to encounter it in the context of 2 Timothy 4:1, which refers to “the quick and the dead” – quick meaning alive in this context. Historically the term “quickening” referred to the point at which a woman felt a baby move within her for the first time, signaling definitively that there was life.  The exact point at which this happened could vary considerably.  Many women in their first pregnancies do not recognize the feeling for what it is.  Women who desperately do not want to be pregnant can dismiss the first flutters for a long time through denial.  It isn’t an exact date, though around twenty weeks is a reasonable average.  Crucially, only the pregnant woman could say whether she felt movement or not – it was not about externally observable symptoms, but what the woman herself reported. The general consensus was that after one felt movement, taking steps to try to end the pregnancy was reprehensible and potentially criminal depending on the time and place.  “Abortion” referred to measures after these flutters of life were first detected, and it was this late-term intervention that jurists were explicitly decrying.

It is worth noting here that Justice Alito dismisses accurately defining quickening as an irrelevant consideration. In footnote 24 he brushes aside the Friend of the Court Briefs from the American Historical Association and the Organization for American Historians which clearly state the definition of quickening I provided here.  However, if Justice Alito is going to cite pre-modern jurists in justifying the repeal of Roe v. Wade it is absolutely relevant to consider what they meant by abortion when they denounced it.

To understand why, historically, people did not see termination of pregnancy before twenty weeks as abortion, it is necessary to mentally travel back in time to days where knowledge of embryology was rudimentary at best.  The first confirmed observation of the human ovum was in 1827.  Without knowing that humans have eggs one cannot begin to understand the actual process of human reproduction. Dissection was largely taboo and doctors relied on using criminal corpses, bodies from indigent hospitals, or sometimes illicitly dug up corpses to do anatomical dissections.  Understandably this did not reliably provide dead women at each stage of pregnancy for analysis. Only when the first ultrasounds came into use in the 1950s did scientists gain a fuller understanding of human embryology.  Before that period, externally observable symptoms were the only available means of understanding pregnancy. 

While there are symptoms that show up quickly and have long been associated with pregnancy, they don’t automatically signal that there is life within.  Miscarriages early on look like clots of tissue, not a little person.  A woman cannot feel anything moving, and often does not look very different in terms of girth, especially in her first pregnancy.  Medical wisdom dating back centuries held that those first months the body was preparing itself for life – the womb was setting itself up, building a cozy little nest, but there was not actually a living inhabitant.  Life began at quickening.  Thus there was no particular stigma attached to the decision to stop furnishing a uterus for an occupant who had not yet moved in.  It wasn’t abortion, because there was no life in there to abort.  Leaders who condemned abortion were referring primarily to surgical intervention, particularly later on in pregnancy.  Their fulminations did not include  emmenagogues – medicines to bring on menses.  Thus it was no contradiction at all to have Apostles simultaneously thundering against abortion, and selling what today we would call abortifacients and advertising that in newspapers.  The issue of ending a pregnancy was fundamentally separate from the issue of bringing about menstruation.

The separation of amenorrhea (not menstruating) and being pregnant in the popular imagination also explains why devout women who would have publicly condemned the wickedness of Madame Restell would have no objection to buying pennyroyal tea at the druggist’s.  In a time when women were valued primarily for reproductive potential, regular menstruation was absolutely key to women’s health.  They knew that menstruation stopped because of pregnancy.  But menstruation could also stop due to malnutrition, cysts, tumors and any number of other maladies.  They had no real way of knowing what was happening within, nor realistically any cure for uterine problems in the modern sense.  But they did have emmenagogues, and women certainly used them freely.  Thus a woman who was not menstruating could paradoxically either be pregnant (hooray, fulfilling the measure of her creation!) or unable to become pregnant (oh no! Make her fertile! At once!).  The ambiguity left a lot of room for maneuver.

A gynecologial text written by Hannah Sorenson, a Latter-Day Saint midwife, speaks to this contradiction at work within LDS society. 

Abortion is delivery of the foetus before it is viable, i.e. about seven months.  Between this time and full term, discharge of the ovum is called premature birth.  Anything that will cause death of the foetus or provoke uterine contraction will cause abortion.  Mechanical violence as blows, falls, violent exertion, or emotional violence as excessive joy, fear, grief, anxiety, anger, also administration of drastic emmenagogue, medicines, and from intentional disturbance of the ovum with instruments are among the many causes.

What Women Should Know by Hannah Sorenson p. 78

Many believe it is no sin to produce abortion before there is life, but there is always life from the moment of conception.  When a woman is subject to an abortion it should be looked upon as one of the heaviest trials of her life. Accidents may happen to which we are all liable, but the carelessness and indifference manifested in this important subject is perfectly alarming.  By some it is considered honorable to miscarry, and ho, how many abortions are brought about through practices and applications which are called innocent! But still they bring about the fatal result.  All this crime going on and still people feel as though everything is all right.   Oh, how pitiful and sad! We have little hope of a better condition as long as it is looked upon as being unnecessary and almost shameful for either man or woman to understand the laws of their own organization.

What Women Should Know by Hannah Sorenson p. 80

These extracts are interesting for a number of reasons.  First, although she was explicitly condemning abortion, in so doing she also listed methods she deemed effective for procuring one.  We cannot know if any of her readers deliberately used the text for the opposite of its intended purpose, but it is certainly possible.  Second, her tirade against the folly of people believing emmenagogues were morally different from abortion tells us something about the attitudes she encountered.  The prevalence of ads, in conjunction with this revealing diatribe show that many of the people she treated, mostly members of the Church, felt that “everything is all right” and showed “carelessness or indifference” and “believe it is no sin” to take actions to end a pregnancy. Granted, many if not most of them did not see themselves as ending life, but certainly in our modern understanding of pregnancy they were attempting to perform abortions by current definitions of the term.

 While I would love to find first-person accounts of early Saints who used emmenagogues or abortifacients, it seems unlikely that such exist, or if they do they are few and far between.  Diarists of the nineteenth century did not often wax explicit about reproductive details, and descendants would feel an incentive to conceal or destroy any evidence they found.  Reading backward from polemics such as Hannah Sorenson’s gives us one of the best glimpses we have about popular attitudes towards what today we would call abortion.

I find this topic fascinating, though perhaps a bit too obscure for the common conversation about abortion.  Simplistic slogans and loathing the opposition seem to be the order of the day. But perhaps you find yourself stuck in the middle of a debate about abortion where your interlocutor insists on a rigid and extreme view of what Church leaders, members of the church, jurists or doctors thought about abortion in the past. If so, now is a time to gently introduce some nuance into the conversation.  

If you are interested in doing further reading of your own:

  • Search historical newspapers (newspapers.com is a great resource) using keywords that will bring up ads for emmenagogues – some to try would be pennyroyal, rue, cotton root, tansy, female irregularities, menstruation. You’ll quickly see that I was not cherrypicking ads that appeared only once in one location. If you search for abortion or abortionist you’ll find criminal cases, including that of Evelyn Bonnett, as well as opinions, generally from powerful white men, strongly condemning it.
  • I did not include every possible quote from the Journal of Discourses on the subject. You could search for terms like abortion or abortionist, infanticide, contraception, population control, limitation of family etc.
  • Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, “The Other Crime: Abortion and Contraception in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Utah” Dialogue. I covered some of the same ground in my posts as Hendrix-Komoto did in her article, but it is well worth reading and will further ground you in the history of abortion in Utah. It has the added virtue of being concise, for those who find longer historiography daunting.
  • Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press). This is one of the definitive texts about the history of abortion in the United States and is well worth reading regardless of your political position. Understanding our past can best inform future policy.
  • James Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (Oxford University Press, 1979). This is an oldie, but I have to plug it since Dr. Mohr was in my department and it was a seminal work in the field.
  • Rachel Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers UP, 1992). Obviously this one is not about U.S. history but I find it absolutely fascinating and there is significant overlap in the lived experience of desperate women with limited options. Another one of hers that is a great read is Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France. I find her writing to be very compelling and the anecdotes she brings in from her sources really put a human face on the suffering of women in the nineteenth century.

None of these books will cheer you up. But in the United States abortion is a really important issue to understand fully right now. I don’t think that you can responsibly advocate for policies without first understanding where we came from and how we got here.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Thanks for the information posted here. I had asked a couple of questions after the first part, and I happy to see some of them were indeed answered in the second part.

    I have a couple of follow-up questions.

    Part 1 seemed in some respects to set up a tension between the values and impositions of male leaders and the lived experiences of women. It still isn’t clear to me if highlighting the gender of the male leaders is particularly illuminating. What were the stated values and impositions of the politically active women of the time, if they commented on such things?

    Am I understanding correctly that curing amenorrhea in an effort to boost fertility was seen as a legitimate use of these herbs? As such they might has unintentionally terminated preganancies?

    Hannah Sorenson was concerned that people were placing the start of life too late in a pregnancy, and she was warning that people should actually consider conception as the start of life?

    • Em says:

      Yes, Hannah Sorenson saw conception as the start of life. There was no real consensus on this one. Brigham Young referred to life as beginning at quickening. Her view was part of an overall shift that happened gradually. While there is still disagreement about at what point a spirit enters a body, we now all agree at least that the little gummy bear moves and has electric pulses long before the mother can feel it. But that shift in thinking happened over time, aided by advances in technology.

      Curing amenorrhea to boost fertility would be a plausible use for these herbs, and it certainly was advertised that way. But these herbs were nasty. Women died because pennyroyal and other similar herbs were highly toxic. Usually the immediate effect was to produce poisoning symptoms — diarrhea, vomiting, violent stomach cramping. But they wouldn’t make you start menstruating regularly unless the reason that you stopped menstruating was pregnancy and they caused you to miscarry (by no means a sure thing, incidentally. Modern studies suggest that they mostly hastened miscarriages that were going to happen. Violent diarrhea and vomiting don’t actually cause miscarriage in a healthy pregnancy as a general rule.) So is it possible that some women took these because they were worried they hadn’t gotten a period in a long time and were hoping to be fertile? Sure. It’s plausible. But really everyone knew the code. A girl who was 18 and hadn’t had her period yet wouldn’t take pennyroyal to start it. A woman worried about premature menopause wouldn’t take it. It’s much more a grey area among sexually active women in their fertile years because the cause of the amenorrhea would be more ambiguous. But if you’re too malnourished to menstruate, violent nausea won’t fix that. Before these existed as patent medicines, they were concoctions that people made at home, which people were probably also doing at this time. So you’d know from your mom, or your girlfriends, or an auntie, or a sympathetic midwife or your sister etc etc what to do and what the likely outcome of taking them would be. I’m blathering. But honestly, these pills were advertised as being a cure for amenorrhea, but women knew that unless there was a chance that amenorrhea was because your uterus was becoming a babyland there wasn’t much point in taking it. It would be far too painful and risky, and unlikely to actually make you fertile.

      Fertility treatments of the nineteenth century tended to be more of the “taking the waters” variety, if you had the means. Go to a spa and have them blast you with hot and cold water or drink mineral water, cold baths, healthful walks etc. etc. Obviously this would not relate particularly to hardscrabble pioneers. I’m guessing they relied more on prayer and dietary efforts but I haven’t really looked into it.

      It’s a bit difficult to highlight what high profile LDS women thought because the patriarchal structure of the church and the politics of the time meant that there were no high profile women in the same sense. There were no female political leaders. There were no female general authorities. The voice of authority both for church and state was male. And it was heavily influenced by their own view and experience. The ideology of polygamy, eternal families, and eternal increase meant that limiting fertility would be limiting exaltation. For powerful and wealthy men, a large family could only be a positive. They didn’t have to bear the children, and often didn’t live with or particularly rear them. The cost didn’t always even end up at their door — plenty of polygamous wives ended up largely supporting themselves. So I think the masculinity of the perspective very much matters. Endless childbearing cost them virtually nothing, whereas it could cost a woman her health or her life, or add further to the burden of trying to support and raise a family largely by herself.

      So men proclaimed an ideology, and honestly a lot of women probably supported it, to a degree. They probably shared horror at stories of young women like Evelyn Bennett who died as a result of a botched abortion. But many women (and probably men, but women were the ones who were actually putting the pills in their mouths) saw value in birth control. They likely saw these pills more along the lines of PlanB/the Morning After pill. A sort of way to stop a birth that fell short of inserting a probe. So for all that leaders proclaimed the glory of endless increase, in reality not everyone was with the program. Hannah Sorenson was directing her remarks at women (hence the title) and was basing her views on conversations she had in her capacity as midwife — so with mostly women, for all she says “people.” So I do think gender is a relevant consideration, because the ideology was overwhelmingly coming from men, based on a male experience and a cost/benefit that favored men. But the ads were aimed at women, and the product was ingested by women. There were no doubt husbands who were on the same page as their wives. But the cost of childbearing and the risk of abortion were entirely born by women, and they were the ones making that cost/benefit analysis that made patent medicines worth it.

      I can certainly see why some might not see that as being primarily about gender. But honestly in my view it is pretty hard to separate abortion debates and gender ideology, all the more so in 19th century Utah when the power dynamic was so completely lopsided.

      Good questions! I love something that makes me think.

      • Mike says:

        Wow! Thank you for the in-depth reply.

        I really appreciate that it is probably a mistake to interpret the past merely by imposing modern paradigms.

  2. Fairy says:

    Very interesting. Thanks!

  3. Katie Rich says:

    Thank you for this post and the additional resources. Adding some books here to my goodreads list.

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