How Abortion Became Illegal in the United States
The American Medical Association unanimously accepted the Report on Criminal Abortion and its recommendation to seek improved laws against abortion. Storer prepared the Memorial that the American Medical Association sent to the President of the United States and to the Governors and Legislatures of each state and territory. It described the high and increasing rate of criminal abortion, which led to the deaths of "hundreds of thousands," and called for the legislators of the state or territory to pass stringent laws to reduce these deaths.
Storer also prepared the Address that the American Medical Association sent along with the Memorial to the medical societies of each state and territory. The Address concluded: "it now has become our duty earnestly to request of the body you represent, such early and hearty action in furtherance of the memorial of the Association, as may insure its full success against the common, though unnatural crime it aims to check."
Storer, the American Medical Association, and the state/territorial medical associations were wonderfully successful. Connecticut and Pennsylvania passed strict anti-abortion laws in 1860. By 1880, nearly every state and territory had new legislation that made it a serious crime to induce abortions unless the mother's life was in danger. Most of these stringent state laws against abortion were virtually unchanged until Roe v. Wade overturned them in 1973.
Storer not only initiated efforts that led to passage of stringent legislation against abortion, he also worked to make the public aware that abortion was a crime. His primary tool was a popular book, Why Not? A Book for Every Woman, first published in 1866. "Physicians have now arrived at the unanimous opinion," he wrote in one chapter, "that the foetus in utero is alive from the very moment of conception." "The law, whose judgments are arrived at so deliberately, and usually so safely, has come to the same conclusion . . . By that higher than human law," Storer continued, "the willful killing of a human being, at any stage of its existence, is murder."
Why Not? A Book for Every Woman persuaded many women to allow their pregnancies to go to term and many wrote to Storer, thanking him. The book also was used by Ohio as a basis for their passage of stringent abortion laws. Some women still sought abortions, but the new laws made it harder for the abortion seeker to find an abortion provider. A few "quacks" induced abortions, but almost all legitimate physicians in the 19th and most of the 20th century echoed Storer in condemning the practice of abortion. Scores of physicians expressed their strong objections in medical journal articles and a number described their successes in persuading women who requested abortions to continue their pregnancies.
Storer returned to his anti-abortion efforts late in the 19th century because he perceived that the public and even some physicians had become apathetic on the issue. However, the laws against abortion were still there. We can be certain that these laws resulting largely from Horatio Robinson Storer's prodigious efforts sharply reduced the former high rate of abortion among married Protestant women and kept this rate low for a century.
This brings us to the legacy of the laws against abortion overturned by Roe v. Wade. From 1860 to at least 1973, those laws saved the lives of millions of babies who would otherwise have been aborted. Most of these millions of babies grew to adulthood. Most married, had children, had grandchildren, had great-grandchildren, and even had great-great-grandchildren. Unless you or your parents are recent immigrants to the U.S., it is fairly certain that one or more of these pregnancy survivors are among your two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great-great-grandparents. You, dear reader, are very likely a part of the legacy of the laws that existed before Roe v. Wade.
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."