19th Century Abortions

History shows that abortion has always been a controversial issue. Though it has been practiced for centuries, it has never been universally accepted as an appropriate option for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Most people are opposed to it for moral reasons, and this opposition has always been widespread and not been limited to particular religions or time periods in history. Abortion in the 19th century was no exception, and Christian women, Native Americans, and women from all classes of society relied on termination to relieve themselves of unwanted pregnancies. Though many of these cases were kept secret and some of the details are sketchy, there are some clear facts regarding the matter.

What methods were used? Women seeking abortions in the 1800s had several options: herbs/plants, surgery, poison, even mail-order pills. For women living on the East Coast in a more urban setting, abortions were much easier to obtain. Accessing poison and pills could be as easy a simple trip to the pharmacy. Surgery was a bit more difficult, due in part to the dangers it posed. Any surgical procedure during this time period was fraught with risk as medicines, anesthesia, and even the skill levels of most physicians were rudimentary. In rural America and among Native Americans, herbal methods were often used. Plants such as snakeroot, cohosh, tansy, or Seneca were commonly relied upon to terminate a pregnancy. In some cases, women opted for seemingly bizarre methods that held no scientific proof that an abortion would be successful. Rubbing gun powder on the breasts, drinking tea made with rusty nails, or soaking in hot baths were all tried. Clearly, there were plenty of options for terminating an unwanted pregnancy; some were successful, some were not, and some were just downright crazy.

How did 19th century society view abortion? For the first half of the 19th century, abortion was legal and was in fact openly advertised as an alternative to carrying an unwanted child. It wasn’t until the latter half of the century that people began to view the practice differently. Up until this time, midwives and other women had typically been involved in this part of female life – both childbirth and abortion. But the mostly male physicians of the mid-1800s began to feel threatened by this and wanted to monopolize all medical practices. They launched a campaign to criminalize Cytotec Bolivia abortion on the grounds that it was immoral and dangerous, and should only be performed by licensed physicians for special cases. Laws were passed making abortion illegal after “quickening,” or when the woman first felt the movement of her unborn child. Once quickening started, the fetus became a person with a right to life. However, because there was no way of determining precisely when a woman first felt movement, these were difficult laws to enforce. Abortions became even more regulated, and it was increasingly difficult for a woman to obtain one.

Native Americans during this time period also had a strong feeling toward abortion. Though many women practiced it, some tribal leaders were very opposed to termination.  of the Seneca was one who voiced a very strong opposition. A prominent religious leader among the Seneca during the early 19th century, Handsome Lake was a prophet who schooled his people in the evils of alcohol and encouraged confession of sins. His religious ideas included a mixture of traditional Native American beliefs and the recently introduced Christian beliefs of his white neighbors. His teachings, known as The Code of Handsome Lake, include specific information regarding abortion. He was vehemently opposed to the practice; when he received his visions from the Creator, Handsome Lake was told that his people must abandon the practice of abortion.

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