Monday, February 16, 2009

Abortion in History: Safe and Common?

It is said by feminists like Joyce Arthur that women have been having abortions for many millennia, and therefore men should refrain from interfering in this matter. The implicit message is that women have successfully performed abortions and know what they’re doing, therefore abortion laws are unnecessary.

Women knew what they were doing when it came to abortion (before its medicalization and suppression in the 19th century), and therefore they will continue to know what they are doing.

Legal historian Joseph Dellapenna debunks these notions in his book Dispeling the Myths of Abortion History, especially in his first chapter, "Only Women Bleed".

Dellapenna concedes that abortions have been performed in all periods of human history. But he says that the idea that abortion was commonly practiced has no basis in support. He cites the relative lack of prosecutions for the crime, even though infanticide was widespread (indicating that there were many unwanted pregnancies). Historians, such as James Mohr, have advanced this point have done so on the basis of assumption and flimsy evidence, not actual proof.

It has also been assumed that abortions before the 20th century were relatively safe and effective and that the knowledge used to procure them was a special “secretive knowledge” of women that escaped male-dominated channels.

To demonstrate that abortions were mostly dangerous, the author divides abortion techniques into three types—injurious, ingestive and intrusive. Injurious abortions were the most effective before the twentieth century. They involved beatings and other forms of physical assault on the woman. They could be effective but could hardly be safe for the woman.

The second kind—the most common--- were ingestive techniques involving herbs and other substances absorbed through the body either orally or, otherwise, as in the case of douches. These abortion methods rarely if ever had any effect on the uterus and were often toxic. If they did manage to produce an abortion, it was by inducing diarrhea, vomiting and general digestive upset, making it impossible to sustain the pregnancy. Needless to say, the efficacy of these methods were rather poor and often led to death from poisoning. Sometimes they were harmless and relied more on ritualistic magic rather than physical effect.

As a result of these methods, most women who made a serious attempt at aborting a pregnancy were, in effect, attempting suicide, as any method likely to produce an abortion would probably also kill the mother.

Intrusive techniques involved directly invading the uterus and extracting the fetus. But they were equally dangerous and almost unheard of up until the 18th century. Before that time, knowledge of a woman’s reproductive system was scant, and the abortionist would have had to perform the operation blindly. Without sanitary procedures, anesthetics, or antibiotics, these methods would have certainly killed the mother.

Even when these methods became more common in the 19th century, the abortionist had nothing to guide him. Therefore, there was a high risk of complication.

As abortion being the purview of women, this is also false. Feminists assume that since women wanted to control their fertility and were desperate to do so, they were successful. All the herbs cited for the abortifacient properties had a dubious record. If they were effective, they were usually toxic to the woman. Feminist historians also assume that since midwives were the ones most responsible for abortions, that this knowledge would have been mostly a female secret. But the evidence of prosecutions says otherwise. Prosecutions for abortions were usually brought about in cases where they were involuntary, as the women’s testimony was vital to obtain a conviction. The legal evidence shows that it was men who often sought to control women’s fertility through abortion. It is clear that the information about abortion was not a female-only affair.

Given that abortion was an extremely dangerous practice which, if truly effective, would almost certainly lead to death, and given that women were often victimized by abortion, the legislatures of the day were demonstrably right in attempting to suppress this practice. It was not a misogynistic attempt to control women; a genuine concern for both mother and unborn child led lawmakers to criminalize this practice precisely because men were the ones who usually sought the practice.