Pregnancy, Choice, and the Lessons of the Past

Mikki headshotDr Michelle Brock is an Assistant Professor of History at Washington and Lee University, specialising in British History. In this second guest post for the Global Justice Academy, Mikki tackles the current controversy in the US around abortion and the politicisation and policing of women’s bodies – drawing striking parallels with early modern Europe. 

In the United States, the last decade has witnessed a growing cacophony of calls from pro-life advocates seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalise a woman’s right to an abortion. Every single current Republican candidate for president, fourteen men and one woman, has declared his or her opposition to abortion in most or all cases.

The most recent antagonism toward abortion has congealed around the GOP’s move to defund Planned Parenthood after the release of a series of heavily edited videos purportedly showing discussions of the sale of fetal tissue. Though the organisation cannot use taxpayer money to perform abortions except in very rare cases, and though the vast majority of its services involve preventative care such as STI tests and mammograms, Planned Parenthood has become the whipping boy (or perhaps I should say whipping woman, in the case of president Cecile Roberts’ recent congressional hearings) for the pro-life movement.

A look at history is instructive for understanding this controversy and its latent incongruities. Women in societies across time and space have found themselves pregnant, desperate, and without any viable or desired alternatives. In early modern Europe, for example, unwed or poor women occasionally attempted to terminate unwanted pregnancies resulting from ‘fornication’– sex outside of marriage– or rape. Their abortion methods, which ranged from drinking herbal concoctions made of ingredients including iron sulfate, wormwood, and crushed insects to physical remedies such tying one’s waist painfully tight or slamming one’s stomach against a wall, could lead to permanent bodily harm and even death. If their attempted abortions were found out, and if they had occurred after the baby was believed to have received a soul (generally around the four-month mark), the accused and any accomplices faced increasingly harsh penalties from the state, including execution by hanging, decapitation, or drowning.

Yet an array of negative consequences— poisoning, sepsis, permanent internal damage, gruesome public deaths, not to mention the immense psychological pain and communal estrangement caused by such a difficult choice— failed to prevent attempted abortions. Why? Because the majority of women in early modern Europe were poor, and even for those who were married, another child was an additional mouth to feed. As important, there was no access to reliable contraception. The widely used method of ‘coitus interruptus’ was entirely undependable, the Russian-roulette of birth control. For those women who became pregnant outside of wedlock, through either consensual or coercive means, deep shame, social humiliation, and economic uncertainly attended their ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy.

In short, because neither the science nor cultural climate existed to make abortion a viable alternative, these women risked their lives to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Historians do not know how many women attempted abortion in the early modern era, as the crime was purposefully hard to detect, but the number is probably quite small. Abortions were and are usually difficult acts of last resort, caused not by irresponsibility or irreverence for life, but by challenging circumstances that can only be wholly understood by the expectant woman.

I am an adamant supporter of a woman’s right to choose and believe that we must defend abortion as a legal and readily available option. That said, our society must also strive to reduce the need for abortions. This is not because abortions are morally wrong– I do not believe that they are— but because an examination of past and present suggests that most women seek abortions out of painful economic, social, or personal necessity.

The things that might have prevented attempted abortions if available in early modern Europe are strikingly similar to those that could reduce abortions today. These include freely available contraception, comprehensive sex education, guaranteed pre- and post-natal care, a reduction in poverty and food insecurity, paid maternal leave, and a culture that applauds rather than shames single-mothers and unmarried parents. If we truly want to reduce abortions and save lives, however one defines life, we should support a woman’s right to choose. As important, we must promote social conditions in which that choice is less necessary, where becoming a mother can occur on a woman’s terms, when she is ready, confident, and financially able to welcome a child into the world.

None of the above solutions were possible for the women who made tough choices in early modern Europe, but they are possible in our world. We now have the hard-fought legal right to abortions, and we also have real potential to decrease need to make that choice. The reality is that there will always be circumstances where termination of pregnancy is needed or desired, and women will continue seek the means, even at the risk of their own lives. Women have always chosen, and they will continue to choose. Defunding Planned Parenthood, shutting down abortion clinics, implementing invasive laws at the state level, shaming women for their choices, even overturning Roe v. Wade— none of these would eliminate this obvious historical fact. Banning abortions would only return us to a time when the termination of pregnancy was secret, haphazard, socially destabilising, and potentially lethal to the life of a fully formed adult woman. If we actually value life, we must not go back.

Author’s Note: I, Michelle Brock, am not authorised to speak on behalf of Washington and Lee University. All opinions on this website/blog/site are mine and do not reflect the views of Washington and Lee University.

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