Nineteenth-Century Abortion in Utah Part 1

Content Warning: This post discusses abortion and abortifacients

A note about the author: Em has a BA, an MA and a PhD in history. Her specific research interest is sex, marriage and reproduction in the nineteenth century.

The abortion debate currently raging in the United States creates a false dichotomy as though the two sides are enthusiasm for drive-through abortion at thirty-nine weeks or women should never have the health care that they need.  The data show that most Americans have a much more nuanced view than the terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice” seem to allow.  This is true even within the Church among members who are trying to follow clearly stated Church policies. Some members interpret “only in cases of rape, incest or life of the mother” to mean “this needs to be legal so these cases can get the help they need.” Others interpret it to mean “we should make abortions very difficult to get because in most cases it is morally wrong.”

The historical views of abortion within the Church are similarly more complex than they might at first appear.  Utah territory passed a law criminalizing abortion in 1867, penalizing producing a miscarriage “through use of any medicine, drug, substance or other means unless done to save her life.”  Prominent Church leaders of the nineteenth century likewise inveighed against a practice they saw as analogous to infanticide:

Why not do as tens of thousands of others do, live in the condition of illicit love? And then if any child should be feared from this unsanctified union, why not still follow our Christian exemplars, remove the fetal encumbrance, call in some of the copyists of Madame Restell, the abortionists, male and female, that pollute our land, that would have been sub-rosa, genteel, fashionable, respectable, Christianlike, as Christianity goes in this generation.

President John Taylor Journal of Discourses October 19, 1884. Madame Restell was the professional pseudonym of Ann Trow Lohman who was a very well known New York abortionist. The name became a byword for abortionists nationwide.

And if a tree is to be judged by its fruits, what of the whoredoms, the adultery, the fornication, the prostitution of women in monogamic nations? What of sexual diseases, of blighted lives, of martyred women, of little graves dotting every hillside and the resting places of the dead? What of feticide, infanticide and abortion?

Elder H. W. Naisbitt Journal of Discourses March 8, 1885

Brigham Young likewise declaimed against population control. The quote in context does not make it perfectly clear whether he was referring to efforts at contraception or abortion, though he condoned neither:

That which was practiced then in fear and against a reproving conscience, is now boldly trumpeted abroad as one of the best means of ameliorating the miseries and sorrows of humanity. Infanticide is very prevalent in our nation. It is a crime that comes within the purview of the law, and is therefore not so boldly practiced as is the other equally great crime, which no doubt, to a great extent, prevents the necessity of infanticide. The unnatural style of living, the extensive use of narcotics, the attempts to destroy and dry up the fountains of life, are fast destroying the American element of the nation. 

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses August 17, 1867

The law against abortion, vehemently championed by male leaders, was certainly enforced. Perhaps the most infamous case of the day was Utah v. McCoy. Dr. McCoy was convicted of performing an abortion on Evelyn Bonnett of Provo, who died shortly thereafter of complications from the procedure, which brought the whole business to the notice of authorities.  He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment, a sentence that the Utah Supreme Court upheld in 1897.

All of this suggests that the position of the Church as well as the Church-dominated local government was unequivocally against abortion, equating it with the murder of infants already born.  However the words and opinions of powerful men do not necessarily reflect the lived reality of women. Indeed the fact that powerful men felt the need to make public speeches condemning it at all, and to pass and enforce laws forbidding it, suggests that what men said and what women did were rather different.

The question of abortion was more complicated than the above statements suggest. At the same time that Apostles were railing against abortion, abortifacients were widely advertised  in Utah newspapers. While some advertisements offered items by mail from other states, many featured products available at local drugstores. One such ad directed readers to the pharmacy owned by John Boylan Farlow, first president of the Utah Pharmaceutical association and a member of the Methodist Episcopalian church.  He was no back alley quack.  But perhaps this non-LDS druggist was primarily patronized by women not of our faith? Surely no Mormon would peddle such wickedness, nor would any LDS woman be so dead to morality as to purchase it! Not after hearing what the prophets had to say about it!

Daily Enquirer, Provo UT, 15 Oct 1892

Mesmin’s French Female Pills, containing Cotton Root and Pennyroyal (popular abortifacient herbs at the time) were advertised in the Provo Daily Enquirer.  Women who were troubled by “irregular menses” could find them at Smoot Drug company.  Smoot Drug company was owned by Reed Smoot who was a Senator representing Utah longer than any other representative and an Apostle who died third in line to the presidency. Again, he was not the villain that typically figured in nineteenth-century cautionary tales about girls who got in trouble.  It would be hard to find a more respected citizen of Provo than the proud advertiser of Mesmin’s French Female Pills. Why would an LDS woman hesitate to use a product that was actively promoted by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve? Realistically, Mormon women who felt a need for pennyroyal would if anything feel more justified in purchasing it given that it was sold by a prominent political and Church authority.

So how can we possibly understand this contradiction? In the nineteenth century Apostles and Prophets very clearly thundered against abortion, not mincing words. Yet at the exact same time an Apostle was selling a product that was designed to end a pregnancy, and the number and variety of advertisements in newspapers throughout Utah suggest there was an eager market of women. Stay tuned for Part II…..

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10 Responses

  1. Nat Whilk says:

    1) Smoot was not an apostle in 1892.
    2) Maybe the ad is evidence that Smoot was promoting suicide, too, since Pennyroyal can be toxic to the one ingesting it.

    • Em says:

      1) You are correct. The emmenagogue ads appeared throughout the 1890s. Reed Smoot was appointed a member of the seventy in 1884. Pres. Joseph F. Smith ordained him a high priest in 1895. He served as a member of the Stake Presidency in the Utah Stake and was charged with overseeing the completion of the Provo Tabernacle and making sure it was paid for. He was also appointed to be on the board of trustees of Brigham Young Academy, now BYU. Perhaps me eliding his many decades of service as an apostle and his many years selling abortifacients was misleading. He was not an apostle when he advertised “Mesmin’s French Female Pills.” He was a prominent church leader. And clearly the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve had no qualms about ordaining him to be an apostle despite the pennyroyal ads. If anything I find that to be more persuasive that the Quorum wasn’t bothered. If he had already been ordained and then decided to sell them, they could have excommunicated him though that is hardly common. But that isn’t what happened. They knew perfectly well how he made his money and felt it was appropriate to ordain him to be an apostle. That speaks pretty clearly to the mixed attitudes of the time.

      2) That’s an interesting point. Pennyroyal is toxic, and women certainly were injured or died taking it. Most abortifacients functioned by trying to walk the line of poisoning a woman enough to induce a miscarriage, but not enough to kill her. Ads included phrases like “pleasant, safe, reliable” which implies that such medicines were anything but pleasant, safe, or reliable — except the one brand being advertised.

      I have no evidence that women died specifically after taking a pill they bought at Smoot’s store. But certainly it is possible. However he clearly wasn’t promoting suicide. He might have inadvertently facilitated death, but that wasn’t the point of the ads. Phrases like “reliable female remedy” “a specific monthly medicine for immediate relief of painful and irregular menses” clearly indicate the function of these pills. Calling them “French” was another marketing tactic — then, as now, the American imagination saw the French as particularly sexually adept and adventurous. Madame Restell claimed she got her training from traveling in France, and her title “Madame” was meant to evoke French knowledge. All of these terms would have clearly signaled to the audience what the function and purpose of the medicine was.

  2. Mike says:

    Perhaps you will in touch on this in part 2. You are highlighting the teachings of the male leaders in 19th century Utah, and it looks like you want to contrast this with the actual practice of everyday people, especially woman. My first question is, Utah as a particularly receptive place for the activity of suffragists and early feminists. What did those early female leaders have to say on the topic, if anything?

    Second question, you report that pennyroyal pills were commonly known as abortifacients. Is the advertisement of the pills as a treatment of painful and irregular menses just coded language, or did people actually use them for such treatment?

    • Em says:

      I do treat this in part two. But yes “irregular menses” is coded language. Did people also use them because their period was irregular, not because it was late? Yes. But also it wasn’t always easy to tell what caused a missed period. Pregnancy? Sure. But also malnutrition, cysts, stress or any number of other things. A missed period was a warning sign things were amiss. So did some women think “I am pregnant, I need to end this” and take pennyroyal? Yes. Did some women think “something is messed up with my reproductive system, I need help” also probably yes. But pennyroyal is highly toxic and can kill you. Certainly it was not pleasant to ingest. Women’s networks have shared information about family limitation for millenia, and everyone knew that pennyroyal had the effect of stopping a pregnancy. What exactly they understood that to mean is different from what we understand. But in general, people probably didn’t take pennyroyal just because their periods were irregular. It was too dangerous and unpleasant. They’d be more likely to try a different patent medicine that didn’t feature such obviously toxic ingredients.

      I have not come across feminists taking a stand on this particularly, which is not to say it isn’t out there.

  3. Bailey says:

    This is fascinating. Once again I am reminded of the importance of historians like you to teach history. It’s important to know history; it helps put things in context. This is so much like today — Men saying one thing while women’s lived experiences are completely different, a group of men debating in court whether a woman *really* needed a certain medical procedure or not, and portraying women who get abortions as whores. Pretty sure the majority of the Utah population at that time were church members and that there were likely married women towards whom the newspaper ads were directed.

    • Em says:

      Oh absolutely. All along many if not most women seeking an abortion already had children and/or were married. The trope of fallen angel lured by a wicked seducer, or shameless prostitute did not actually account for the majority of abortions. It was and is a myth that the women seeking abortions were hussies and that no respectable woman would ever be affected by the law, therefore it didn’t really matter. Abortion was the only (semi) reliable, female-controlled form of birth control at the time. Women did not legally have a right to say no to their husband’s sexual advances, and culturally there was strong pressure to joyfully submit. That didn’t mean women wanted to risk their lives and health, or that they wanted more mouths to feed. Again, it would be pretty hard if not impossible to gather statistics on who was buying these and what their family situation was. But the evidence does not point to this being the purview of sex workers. If it were, it is hard to imagine Reed Smoot would be hawking it.

  4. Caroline says:

    This is so good, Em. I really appreciate your historical work here. Fascinating that upstanding men in church hierarchy were selling these abortifacients.

  5. Katie Rich says:

    “Indeed the fact that powerful men felt the need to make public speeches condemning it at all, and to pass and enforce laws forbidding it, suggests that what men said and what women did were rather different.” This! This is essentially the crux of much of my own historical work. That what men said publicly and what women did privately was often different, and we have to look at both. Taking men’s public words as what a people at large believed or how they behaved is insufficient.

  1. June 12, 2022

    […] (It’s worth reading Em’s posts on Utah abortion history in the 19th century for more context: Part 1 and Part 2.) Today, the Church website notes that prophets have denounced abortion but immediately […]

  2. June 24, 2022

    […] You can read part one of this here […]

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