Read All About It!: The Abortion Debate in the Nineteenth Century American Press

Sarah Arena is a history major at Grinnell College.

On March 3, 1846, the Boston Daily Times advertised on behalf of Madame Restell:

“‘FEMALE MONTHLY PILLS’ now acknowledged by the medical fraternity to be the only safe, mild, and efficient remedy to be depended upon in long standing cases of Suppression, irregularity, or stoppage of functions of nature” to be purchased at FEMALE MEDICAL OFFICE No. 7 Essex street, Boston.” [1]

The 1830s and 40s saw a boom in the abortion rate in the United States, and along with this came an increased visibility of the abortion trade through advertisements. As a result, thousands of advertisements like one this appeared in newspapers across the country. They sold commercial abortifacients, pills and drugs intended to induce abortion or miscarriage. Sometimes, such as in the Female Monthly Pills example, they employed euphemisms for abortion that referred to blocked or stopped menstruation, and at other times these ads explicitly sold their goods and services.

Through the work of savvy commercial abortionists, such as Madame Restell, advertisements were used as a means of creating public awareness of abortion. Furthermore, other forms of print, such as newspapers, self-help pamphlets, reformist literature, and medical journals, were employed by individuals and organizations to promote their commercial and moral interests. By looking at some of the individuals and organizations that employed the press for their moral and financial ends, we will see the centrality of nineteenth century print culture to discussions of abortion and to debates surrounding the anti-abortion movements of the YMCA and AMA. Thus, the burgeoning print culture of the 1800s was used to commercialize, redefine, and criminalize abortion.

Previously, women would have turned to medical guides or to trusted physicians and friends for information, abortifacients, or instrumental procedures. However, this new period saw an increase in the number of women trying to use abortifacient preparations, mostly pills sold by apothecaries and growing drug companies through newspapers and through the mail.[2] With a handsome profit to be made, these vendors could cheaply purchase wholesale pills with abortifacient properties, allowing individuals and companies to buy, repackage, and resell pills and instruments.[3]

The entrepreneurial possibilities for abortion are evident in newspaper advertisements, which blatantly and euphemistically sold services and goods to women. Some pills, such as Dr. Munroe’s French Periodical pills, which were “‘sure to produce a miscarriage,’” were upfront about their intended use.[4] Others, including Madame Restell’s French Pills, were sold in newspapers as cures “‘for not only menstrual problems,’” such as irregular menstruation and “obstruction of the menses,” but also for “‘violent and convulsive headaches.’”[5] They employed the many popular euphemisms for abortion and miscarriage in order to signal their abortifacient properties, drawing upon “the quickening” doctrine predominant in pre-1800s America and Britain. Through referencing the long held association between blocked menstruation and unwanted pregnancy, newspapers alerted women to the burgeoning commercial abortion trade.

Advertisements were so successful and so lucrative, in fact, that throughout the 1840s Madame Restell reportedly spent $60,000 a year on advertisements alone.[6]

Advertisements particularly relied on the mail to distribute information and goods, and many abortifacient companies relied on advertisements to replace storefronts. Vendors and customers conducted business through the mail with ease, as a result of the laxity of American mail regulations before 1870.[7] Thus, this booming business combined print and the mail to spread public awareness of abortion and offered women a method of purchasing pills that helped shift abortion from being a local concern to a national trade.

However, newspapers, while earning handsomely from the revenues of their advertisement pages, also relied upon sensationalized stories detailing the pitfalls of abortions. Madame Restell gained public attention through newspaper accounts in the 1840s. During this decade, she was arrested twice for her alleged involvement in the deaths of young women who were presumed to have had abortions. Her story, picked up in the press, appeared in urban and rural newspapers alike as one of the first explicit references to abortion in the press. The negative press and publicity helped her business, allowing her to open branches where her well-marketed pills could be purchased in Boston and Philadelphia, and further increased public awareness of abortion. Restell further used the medium of print to clear her personal reputation through writing columns in the New York Tribune.[8] From the advertisement pages to the main headlines, newspapers were involved in spreading public awareness of abortion.

As a result of this proliferation of printed materials explicitly and covertly promoting the purchase and practice of abortion, concern arose over the safety and morality of abortions. A burgeoning objection to abortion and other “obscene” topics relating to reproduction and sexuality developed, and one of the prominent areas of critique challenged the use of print in advertising and spreading information. The physicians of the AMA and the YMCA in particular took up the anti-abortion banner. These white, male “custodians of the public good” worked to change the legal and social status of abortion, using newspapers, journals, and obscene literature-legislation to sway the opinions of legislators and the public.[9] Reformers emphasized the necessity of protecting women from purchasing “fraudulent medical nostrums and to outlaw dangerous medical practices.”[10] In this way, they stressed the importance of sheltering women from commercial interests and of making medical practices safer and more standardized.

The AMA’s first lobbying effort, between 1860 and 1881, strove to make abortions illegal, and it did so most successfully through print. Gynecologist and anti-abortion campaigner Horatio Robinson Storer used an AMA essay contest chaired by his father to publish his winning essay Why Not?. This essay and his many later published books argued that abortion was a form of infanticide. They were ultimately used to argue to medical professionals and to the public that abortion was dangerous and in need of reform.[11]

Just as Madame Restell employed print advertisements to sell her pills, the AMA and YMCA opposed abortion through promoting newspaper stories. Sensationalist newspaper stories played on bourgeois men’s anxieties about their wives’ behavior and safety, positioning wealthy matrons intent on shirking their maternal responsibility as the primary recipients of abortions.[12] Abortion was positioned as unpatriotic and as opposed to the natural, civilized order. Anxieties related to immigration led to abortion being reframed as “barbarism,” and the image of the “unnatural aborting wife” frequently appeared. Abortion was rechristened “criminal abortion.” Through reframing and redefining abortion, women who had abortions were transformed from being seen as objects of pity to selfish, white married mothers to be scorned.[13] Thus, print was employed to change not only the definition of abortion, through its association with criminality, but also made women morally and legally criminal for obtaining them. Newspaper accounts promoted by the AMA and YMCA, therefore, worked towards changing public perceptions of abortion practices.

The battle over abortion in print came to a head in 1873, when Anthony Comstock, an evangelical Christian, worked to ban erotic and sexually explicit materials with the financial and moral backing of the New York YMCA. Comstock went after popular and easily bought “racy” literature, passing a federal act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.”[14] Under this law, items prohibited from the mail included “‘any article whatever for the prevention of contraception, or for causing unlawful abortion,’” making both the sending and receiving of any information relating to the procurement of an abortion illegal. By 1885, “little Comstock laws” had been passed in twenty-four states, creating a strong link between abortion and obscenity legislation, and by the end of the century almost every state had criminalized abortion.[15] The campaign against obscene literature worked alongside the campaign against abortion, ultimately limiting the accessibility and awareness of abortifacients and abortion procedures to women in the newspaper and mail.

The role of the media in playing up the debate over abortion continues to this day. While the function of print has arguably transitioned to television and to the Internet, the importance of a popular medium of communication through which interest groups correspond with the public continues. This is illustrated in the April 2013 Fox News commentary on Wendy Scott Davis’ Texas Senate abortion bill filibuster. In this video, we see a women newscaster, a woman politician, and a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman debate “a woman’s right to choose”, illustrating the continued intersection of commercial and reformer interests with religious opponents in the media.

This begs the question, who will be the next Madame Restell?

[1] James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 52.
[2] C.R. King, “Abortion in nineteenth century America: A conflict between women and their physicians,” Women’s Health Issues 2 (1992), 33-4; Mohr, 58.
[3] Mohr, 59-64.
[4] Ibid., 53.
[5] King, 34; Elaine G. Breslaw. Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Healthcare in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 48, 127.
[6] Mohr, 48-52.
[7] Ibid., 59-60.
[8] Ibid., 48-52.
[9] Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 253.
[10] Ibid., 287.
[11] Carrol Smith-Rosenberg, “The Abortion Movement and the AMA, 1850-1880,” in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 222.
[12] Ibid., 236-7.
[13] Nicola Beisel and Tamara Kay, “Abortion, Race, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Sociological Review 69, no. 4 (Aug., 2004): 505-7; Smith-Rosenberg, 219, 231, 243.
[14] Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, “Victoria Woodhall, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” The Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (2000): 432-3.
[15] Brodie, 256-7.

Further Reading:

Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.