How Abortion Became Illegal in the United States
Editor's Note: The article below is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."
Abortions increased in the United States after the state laws against abortion were overturned by Roe v. Wade. According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortions gradually rose from 898,600 in 1974, the first full year following legalization, to 1,497,700 in 1979. After 1979, the number stabilized for several years at around 1,570,000. The gradual increase from 1974 through 1979 suggests that the laws against abortion continued to suppress abortion for six years after their nullification. There has been a drop in abortions from their high in the 1980s and it is no coincidence that many states have passed restrictions on abortion, like the requirement for parental notification.
The lesson of this is that legal restrictions on abortion are effective in reducing abortions. You may be surprised to learn that abortions were already prevalent in the United States by the 1850s. You may also be surprised to learn that it was primarily married Protestant women who were seeking and receiving them. There is little doubt that the laws against abortion that were passed by the states and territories between 1860 and 1880 had an immediate effect of reducing the number of abortions.
It was physicians who discovered and described the abortion problem. A Rhode Island physician, John Preston Leonard, published an article, "Quackery and Abortion," in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in January 1851. Leonard's article included: "This crime is every day becoming more prevalent. It is humiliating to admit that there are a class of physicians who, Herod-like, have waged a war of destruction upon the innocent. Though their motives are not the same as those which instigated that cruel king, they are no less murderers."
Horatio Robinson Storer was a medical student in nearby Boston in 1851 and it is possible that he influenced Leonard or was influenced by Leonard. Leonard died shortly after his 1851 article was published and Storer took up the cudgel against criminal abortion. He graduated from the Boston Medical School in 1853, studied in Edinburgh, Scotland for a year, and returned to Boston to become one of the first American gynecologists. Storer discovered that many of his patients had a history of induced abortion and, like Leonard, he was greatly concerned that criminal abortion was prevalent.
The indefatigable Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer brought the American Medical Association into the fight against abortion in 1857. Made Chairman of the AMA Committee on Criminal Abortion, he helped prepared a Report on Criminal Abortion that was presented to the Association in 1859. The Report outlined the problem and pointed out defects of current laws. It requested the Association "recommend, by memorial, to the governors and legislatures of the several States, and, as representing the federal district, to the President and Congress, a careful examination and revision of the statutory and of so much of the common law, as relates to this crime."
Frederick Dyer obtained his Ph.D. in quantitative experimental psychology in 1968 from Michigan State University. After three years of university teaching he conducted research on visual perception at Ft. Knox, KY and later research on leadership and soldier training at Ft. Benning, GA. After retirement from Federal Service, he pursued a long-held interest in the history of abortion and became the world's foremost authority on Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer and the efforts of 19th-century physicians to curb the practice of abortion. See his books: "Champion of Women and the Unborn," and "The Physician's Crusade Against Abortion."