Unwilling Mothers: Abortion, Maternity, and Popular Print in the Antebellum United States

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:50 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Cassandra Nicole Berman, Brandeis University
This paper examines changing attitudes towards abortion, its providers, and women who sought to avoid motherhood in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, abortion prior to quickening – or the first fetal movements, usually felt around the fourth month of pregnancy – was rarely condemned, either legally or socially. By the 1830s, however, several states passed anti-abortion legislation that both criminalized the inducement of abortion and heightened anxiety surrounding motherhood. This new concern built upon society’s longstanding fascination with sexual promiscuity and sensationalized infanticide cases, in which unmarried women were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for killing their children. As abortion emerged as a site of contestation, however, the fear over who was rejecting motherhood shifted from single women to married ones. In this new discourse surrounding abortion – often advanced by male doctors – married women who wished to avoid childbearing were portrayed as hedonistic and self-serving, intent on privileging personal pleasure over raising children, and abortionists were depicted as their greedy and unscrupulous enablers. Popular medical and prescriptive literature blended scientific authority with moral judgment to denounce abortion – and conflate it with infanticide – by advancing a relatively new argument that ascribed life and individuality to the fetus. Another body of literature decried abortion, but proposed methods for avoiding pregnancy all together through various forms of birth control. Finally, a handful of high-profile abortion cases made their way into print, and suggested far greater complexities surrounding unwanted pregnancy, the work of abortionists, and the attendant social and physical burdens that both placed on women. While motherhood may have been idealized in the nineteenth century as woman’s highest calling, the robust debate over abortion demonstrates that maternity occupied a central – and highly unsettled – place in American public life.