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!
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…..