The Physicians' Crusade for the Unborn

By Dyer, Frederick N. | The Human Life Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Physicians' Crusade for the Unborn


Dyer, Frederick N., The Human Life Review


In 1857, while much of the nation was consumed with the issues that would soon lead to civil war, a young Boston doctor took action on another matter of life and death. Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer's effort, dubbed the "physicians' crusade against abortion," was wonderfully successful. As a result of diligent lobbying by Dr. Storer and his colleagues, state and territorial legislatures enacted stringent laws against unnecessary abortions, most of which remained in effect with little or no change for more than a hundred years. Perhaps just because it was so successful in placing abortion outside the pale, the physicians' crusade was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when it was exhumed from the archives and cited in amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court. However, the people citing the physicians' crusade in these briefs were not pro-lifers but pro-choicers, and they used it in a most ingenious and disingenuous way.

Concern for the unborn child, they claimed, was not an important factor motivating these physicians to seek stringent abortion laws. These laws, the briefs argued, were passed primarily to protect women from a dangerous operation. Since physician-induced abortion was no longer dangerous in the 1970s, there was no reason to retain the laws against abortion. A majority of Supreme Court justices accepted these and other false claims in Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases with the results we have lived with ever since.

In 1989, as the Supreme Court was preparing to hear Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a group of 281 professional historians provided an amicus curiae brief that extended the list of reasons why the nineteenth-century physicians opposed abortion. In addition to concern for women's health, their list included putting the "quacks" who performed many of the abortions out of business; increasing the numbers of "Americans," i.e. native-born citizens, who were having many fewer children than Catholic immigrants; and keeping women in traditional child-bearing roles. The brief acknowledged that "physicians were the principal nineteenth-century proponents of laws to restrict abortion," but it denied that concern for the unborn was one of their reasons. The life of the fetus, according to the brief, "became a central issue in American culture only in the late twentieth century."

The authors of this 1989 friend-of-the-court brief found much of their ammunition in a history of nineteenth-century abortion published in 1978 by the historian James C. Mohr. Mohr's Abortion in America was much more honest than the amicus brief based on it. For example, Mohr wrote:

The nation's regular doctors, probably more than any other identifiable group in American society during the nineteenth century, including the clergy, defended the value of human life per se as an absolute. Scholars interested in the medical mentality of the nineteenth century will have to explain the reasons for this ideological position. . . . But whatever the reasons, regular physicians felt very strongly indeed on the issue of protecting human life. And once they had decided that human life was present to some extent in a newly fertilized ovum, however limited that extent might be, they became the fierce opponents of any attack upon it.

Mohr discussed this "personal" reason for physicians' opposition to abortion after discussing "professional" reasons such as eliminating "quacks" and controlling the practice of legitimate members of the profession. As a result, concern for the unborn appeared to the casual reader, perhaps including the three law professors who actually wrote the historians' brief, to be less important than these other concerns. Numerous subsequent authors would use the historians' brief as a guide and stress the incorrect claim that the nineteenth-century physicians opposed abortion for professional reasons rather than concern about the unborn child. (See Ramesh Ponnuru, "Aborting History," National Review, October 1995, 29-32.

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