Tucked away in The Guardian supplement G2 this week was a fascinating article on how the media has long sensationalised abortion. The writer, Kate Manning, argued that “Victorian coverage set the tone” and looked at the ways in which the nineteenth-century press (like some of its modern-day counterparts) demonised abortion and abortionists – even those who seemed to have provided relatively safe and effective care.
Manning’s article encouraged me to delve a little further into the history of nineteenth-century abortions. It’s one of those topics that fascinates me precisely because it’s been so long obscured from the pages of popular history and literature.
On the face of it, abortions make for grisly research matter, not least because of the methods available to women in the nineteenth century – which can seem particularly barbaric and gruesome to modern readers, used to a more clinical and humane approach. In the early 1880s among the methods used were blood-lettings, doses of mercury, blows to the body and use of instruments, as documented in James Simpson’s 1825 study of abortion.
Throughout the nineteenth century, women increasingly turned to other approaches as well, with a growing trade in herbal pessaries or patented female ‘pills’ (often quack remedies, though some seem to have had genuine ‘abortifacient’ qualities) and ‘help’ offered by midwives and doctors (some, but by no means all, of whom seem to have been rather unscrupulous).
As Hera Cook highlights in her detailed history of contraception, many of the methods used were innovative (rather than rooted in old-fashioned folk lore) and practised by women well aware of the (often considerable) risks. A new method that appeared towards the end of the century involved taking Diachylon, a lead-based compound. In the 1890s, women in Sheffield had observed that, during an outbreak of lead poisoning after contamination of the city’s water supply, many women who were pregnant aborted after the poisoning. Though some of these women had gone on to die themselves, use of the substance to bring on abortions soon spread through northern cities.
There was a real panic about such abortions in Victorian England, which is well-documented in court trials, the press and parliamentary debates – not just directed towards the precarious methods employed, but to the women and practitioners who employed them. Many in the medical profession were also quick to highlight their disdain for the practice – in 1848, Thomas Radford, a consulting physician, branded abortions “diabolical acts”. (Although some doctors during this time did provide ‘therapeutic abortions’ for the protection of women’s health, these were an exception and permissable within the law.) He also claimed that they were “perpetrated to a great extent”.
In the face of such anxieties, increasing regulation was also ushered in throughout the early to mid-1800s. In 1803, abortion became a statutory offence rather than a common law crime. Even though capital punishment was no longer used for those found guilty of post-quickening abortions after 1837, further acts in 1828, 1837 and 1861 effectively brought abortion even more extensively under legal control. In the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, it became a crime for the woman to abort herself – previous acts had only penalised the abortionist.
These explicit moral panics about abortions, however, obscure the other side to the story. Angus McLaren’s extensive research on the subject, including the article entitled “Women’s Work and Regulation of Family Size”, provides an interesting departure from the more ‘mainstream’ view, because it illuminates how abortion was not necessarily a desperate, lonely and last-ditch attempt in exceptional circumstances but a practical (though by no means safe) “basic means of family planning”, in an era when the only other option available to poorer couples was the withdrawal method.
He also considers the many women who seem to have survived their abortions – rather than the grislier, more deadly cases that made the headlines.
Although there is no way to quantify precisely how many women may have induced their own abortions – or procured one from others – it’s clear that the practice may have been more widespread than we might have thought. For example, many commentators speculate that a considerable proportion of pregnancies recorded as ending in miscarriage probably involved some abortive attempt on behalf of the woman. McLaren in particular highlights how knowledge of abortive techniques was widespread in factory districts, and particularly amongst textile workers.
Interestingly, he also documents that, from the 1830s onwards, the woman archetypally depicted as having recourse to abortion shifted, from the seduced domestic to the working woman. It’s also clear from his work that married women made use of abortion just as much as single women.
It’s illuminating to compare this with current abortion statistics, where single women with no partner make up only 26 per cent of those having abortions, despite stereotypes to the contrary. Although this is greater than the number of married women (16 per cent), almost half of women who had abortions in 2011 were ‘single’ but had a partner.
Whilst comparisons with modern-day figures are fascinating, they should not obscure the very different circumstances in which Victorian women had to seek abortions and the much more dangerous methods they employed. Nor the fact that abortions were the only reliable, accessible contraceptive option available – particularly for women.
McLaren emphasises the fact that, while withdrawal was a “male technique”, abortion has long been a female form of fertility control. Whilst other (later) articles by McLaren examine the ways in which some women were coerced into abortions by errant lovers or controlling husbands, he is also at pains to illustrate that way in which abortions provided some women with “a degree of control over what happened” to their body.
This perspective is a sort of absolution for the many women (and their abortionists) who were pilloried in their own day for their supposed immorality and barbarity – often by the middle classes who did not understand the lack of available options to the working classes or the economic and social constraints which might make abortion a useful means of regulating the size of the family.
Yet, in adopting this approach, we should not neglect the individual and often painful stories of those women who were desperate and who suffered, or even died, from attempts to abort unborn children. Rather the research should help us to understand that the lack of reliable contraceptive options or safe abortions for so many couples, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, was a horrific aspect of Victorian history.
Picture courtesy of Wellcome Library, London (reproduced under Creative Commons)
Cook, Hera, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex and Contraception, 1800-1975, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Manning, Kate, “How the media sensationalises abortion”, The Guardian, Monday 24 June 2013.
McLaren, Angus, “Illegal Operations: Women, Doctors, and Abortion, 1886-1939”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer 1993), pp.797-816.
McLaren, Angus, “Women’s Work and Regulation of Family Size: The Question of Abortion in the Nineteenth Century”, History Workshop, No. 4 (Autumn 1977), pp.69-81.