Abortion and the Rise of Transatlantic Pharmaceutical Manufacturing in the Early 20th Century

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:50 PM
Salon B (Hilton Atlanta)
Kyle Fernandez, Indiana University Bloomington
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British and American women utilized a variety of medicines and concoctions in their efforts to procure abortions. Vendors placed advertisements for abortifacients in newspapers and distributed circulars offering “monthly regulators,” “female pills,” and drugs to “remove obstructions.” In the wake of highly publicized abortion trials in England, Parliament attempted to curtail the abortifacient trade through postal restrictions, looking at postal regulations in British colonies and in the United States. In doing so, the government wanted to apply foreign policing strategies to a domestic context. The regulations, however, failed to address women’s access to abortifacients from reputable sources. Although cases against mail-order dealers including Madame Restell of New York and the Chrimes Brothers in London receive much of the scholarly attention, women also regularly turned to established chemists and druggists shops in the hope of terminating pregnancies. The abortifacient trade, and the pharmaceutical industry more broadly, was part of a growing global medicinal economy. Women understood and described themselves as pregnant or “in the family way” and consciously desired to end their pregnancies. This paper examines attempts to regulate abortifacient commerce and utilizes criminal abortion case files to illuminate how British women desiring to limit their fertility knowingly tapped into a market in which they could select abortifacient drugs from local businesses as well as transatlantic pharmaceutical manufacturers.