Abortion since 1860

Correction: When first posted I referenced an interview with Susan Sarandon. Actually, the interview was with Dana Delany of Desperate Housewives. Obviously I’m up on my celebs. Thanks Lynn for correcting me.

I read this post several weeks ago and wanted to comment on but it got lost in the shuffle of a new semester. I found Marvin Olasky’s column in World Magazine surprising, interesting and even encouraging (her book Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America is in my Amazon basket now).

“To save the lives of more unborn Americans we should see how our pro-life predecessors succeeded in the past—and by the past I don’t mean only the past three decades but the past two centuries. It’s conventional to think of the abortion horror as a product of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but research I’ve done at the Library of Congress shows that abortion on the eve of the Civil War was more frequent, in proportion to the U.S. population, than it is now.

You have not just read a misprint. Roughly 160,000 abortions occurred in 1860 in a population of 30 million. Probably about 1.2 million abortions (13 percent of them through RU-486) occurred last year in a population estimated at around 307 million. The horrific current number is obviously no cause for self-congratulation, but reputable forecasters at the time of Roe v. Wade were predicting a butcher’s bill of more than 4 million abortions annually by now.

With everything we’re doing wrong, are we doing something right to fall far short of that 4 million prediction, and to have witnessed a decline during the past decade from 1.6 million to 1.2 million? I believe we are, and not for the first time in American history: The number of abortions in America, in proportion to the population, declined by at least 50 percent during the 50 years from 1860 to 1910. How did that happen? And is the current decline likely to continue?”

In summary, here’s how – they served the women who were most likely to seek abortions. Through the late 19th and early 20th century reformers and Christian organizations reached out to women, including prostitutes (one of the groups most likely to seek abortions), provide them with support and alternatives (adoption). The efforts were successful in lowering the rate of abortions per capita.

While we should note that most states had laws prohibiting abortions (except when the mothers life was in danger), these laws were largely ignored and few were ever prosecuted. Olasky writes, “by the 1870s, every state had such laws [prohibiting abortion], but they were largely ignored, as The New York Times noted in a biblically referenced editorial titled “The Least of These Little Ones.” Editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, complained in 1871 that the “perpetration of infant murder . . . is rank and smells to heaven. Why is there no hint of its punishment?

Olasky notes that passing/enforcing laws against abortion was not the focus of the prolife movement (my guess is the pivot came in after Roe v. Wade). Olasky concludes the article with these wise words: “Even though convictions were rare, law was not entirely useless. Anti-abortion statutes did send a message of right and wrong. They forced abortionists to advertise in code, bribe policemen and politicians, and hire lawyers. Law could not end abortion but it could reduce the butcher’s bill, just as laws against drunken driving today cannot end the practice but can save lives. Today, it’s still worthwhile to pass laws restricting abortion, but time and money spent on providing and promoting compassionate alternatives saves more lives.”

Last night I heard someone ask Dana Delany (not Susan Sarandon) what she hoped Obama would do first as President. She is hoping he will lift the ‘gag rule’ and make abortions available to women around the rule. I bring this up because it seems that, for a time, the legal efforts of the prolife movement will need to be set aside freeing the movement to serve women and their unborn children in other ways. Many prolifers supported Obama and it seems not without good reason. Time and money spent on serving mothers, providing healthcare, childcare, fair wages, etc holds promise in the continued battle to create a culture of life, not death.