Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940

Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940

Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940

Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940


The public debate on abortion stretches back much further than Roe v. Wade, to long before the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were ever invented. Yet the ways Americans discussed abortion in the early decades of the twentieth century had little in common with our now-entrenched debates about personal responsibility and individual autonomy.

Abortion in the American Imagination returns to the moment when American writers first dared to broach the controversial subject of abortion. What was once a topic avoided by polite society, only discussed in vague euphemisms behind closed doors, suddenly became open to vigorous public debate as it was represented everywhere from sensationalistic melodramas to treatises on social reform. Literary scholar and cultural historian Karen Weingarten shows how these discussions were remarkably fluid and far-ranging, touching upon issues of eugenics, economics, race, and gender roles.

Weingarten traces the discourses on abortion across a wide array of media, putting fiction by canonical writers like William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and Langston Hughes into conversation with the era's films, newspaper articles, and activist rhetoric. By doing so, she exposes not only the ways that public perceptions of abortion changed over the course of the twentieth century, but also the ways in which these abortion debates shaped our very sense of what it means to be an American.


It is … no wonder that the debate about abortion should refuse to settle
into a single voice


Visually almost indistinguishable from mint yet even stronger smelling and tasting than the average leaves from a peppermint plant, pennyroyal, a member of the mint family, is an obscure herb that is rarely used today. Along with savin, tansy, thyme, aloes, and various tree barks, pennyroyal was often advertised in various nineteenth-century guides as a possible abortifacient. If taken in too large a dose, it was also known to cause death. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, pennyroyal is described as the favorite herb of Mrs. Todd, her town’s renowned herbalist, who takes every opportunity to pick a good batch as she travels through the outskirts of her small community in rural Maine. Mrs. Todd remains quiet about her work, and the novel has only the most oblique references to abortion. Mrs. Todd, for example, is “incommunicative” about her reasons for stopping during a journey to pick some boughs “of a rare shrub which she valued for its bark.” Only a reader knowledgeable in common nineteenth-century abortifacients might connect the mysterious bark to the visitors who come “at night as if by stealth” to Mrs. Todd’s door, seeking help for their ailments and receiving “whispered directions.” While there are a handful of sensational dime novels in the nineteenth century that were explicitly produced to scandalize, most novels, like Jewett’s, had only elliptical references to abortion. By the first few decades of the twentieth century, American authors latched onto abortion as a complicating plot device, and the number of novels, short stories, plays, and poems that openly discuss abortion proliferated.

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