Chapter 1 of Joseph Dellapenna's Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History entitled “Only Women Bleed” has several sections and for the purposes of eating this elephant in manageable bites (a metaphor I have always found a bit unsettling as an elephant lover) we will focus only on the first point. A broad discussion of the new orthodoxy of the history of abortion. There are two key points to this new orthodoxy:
1) Abortion has always existed in societies and has been an accepted practice with little to no social condemnation. (This argues that the unborn have never been understood as persons within society.)
2) Abortion laws in the United States were established to protect the women often injured and sometimes dying from unsafe abortions. (This argues two things: Now that abortion is safe for women restrictive laws are no longer necessary, and the unborn have never been understood as persons under the law.)
As I am writing this, a character on an episode of the old sitcom Bewitched is claiming that women in the pioneer days gave birth during lunch and were back at work in the fields by late afternoon. Modern women are simply making something complicated that is naturally easy. I know this is shocking to suggest, but it may be that childbirth is not so naturally easy as a character on an old sitcom would have you believe.
Dellapenna begins with an interesting introduction on the odd nature of human childbirth in comparison with other animals. He notes several differentiating factors including our large brains combined with a narrow pelvis designed for walking upright, the inability of women to bend enough during childbirth to remove the baby alone, and the inability to do certain tasks alone like unwind the umbilical chord if needed or clear mucus out of the baby's mouth. These all require the human birth process to be assisted. Other mammals can give birth in seclusion, but when humans do so, Dellapenna argues, we probably face the highest incidences of fetal and maternal death of any mammal.
As a result, assisted delivery has been a part of the human birthing experience for as far back as we have records. Why does this matter to the history of abortion? Because midwives and what passes for doctors throughout history (I will give ample reasons in the next few posts for my mocking what people used to call doctors) have been intimately involved in child birth in a way that other members of the community have not been.
Dellapenna acknowledges that it can be taken as axiomatic that as long as women have been getting pregnant there have been women so desperate to avoid having a child that they would risk just about anything to end the pregnancy. And who would these desperate women go to for help? Those people most identified with pregnancy; midwives.
Part of the new orthodoxy is to assure us that abortion has not been the social and moral taboo that people like me try describe it as today. Dellapenna points out two curiosities in regards to our historical records concerning midwifery that seem to raise questions about that claim from the outset. The two are so intermingled that it does no real good to enumerate them separately.
Midwives practiced medicine in a time when medical knowledge was deficient at best. They experimented with herbs, oils, and other techniques to assist in labor and pain management. Given their total lack of knowledge of microorganisms, the importance of sanitary conditions, and the impact of numerous environmental and physical factors on the efficacy of any solution it is understandable why people would have limited basic expectation from their midwives. Dellapenna quotes historian David Hunt as saying, “[i]t was hoped that she [the midwife] would cut her nails, wash, and remove the rings from her hands before beginning.” Even though there seems to be evidence that midwives were safer than doctors, it is not surprising to learn that women and children did die during lboth pregnancy and labor under the care of midwives, and, as there is little so dear to most properly functioning emotional beings as family, it is understandable why midwives developed an unsavory reputation.
As a response to this reputation Dellapenna says, “It is no wonder then that even the earliest regulations enacted for midwives included requirements that midwives demonstrate themselves to be 'of good character' and prohibited them from certifying the cause of death of someone under their care (mother or child). Ecclesiastical regulations requiring midwives to have licenses from the church expressly forbade abortion and infanticide”.
So what? Remember the scene in A Few Good Men (spoiler alert) with Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) on the stand. He claimed the he ordered all of the marines not to “Code Red” Santiago (the victim) and ordered Santiago to be immediately transferred from the base the very next morning to protect him. At the same time, he claims that his orders are always followed. Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) sees some inconsistencies in this story. If Santiago was to be transferred why didn't he pack or call anyone to give them the good news? If Col. Jessup's orders are always followed, why was it necessary to transfer Santiago to protect him? Kaffee asks, “Why the two orders?” The events are much more consistent with Jessup being the bad guy who is lying to cover up the truth of what happened.
In our best Kaffee attitude let's ask some questions. If abortion held no stigma and enjoyed widespread approval, why did the midwives have a bad reputation? Why did being of good character require an oath not to participate in abortions? Quoting Dellapenna, “By the nineteenth century, the moral reputation of midwives had become so suspect that they were often characterized by novelists as 'drunken incompetent slattern[s].' That such an unsavory reputation arose in large measure from the association with abortion and infanticide belies the claim of abortion rights activists that abortion was socially accepted until the late nineteenth century.”
One could get the impression that a certain point in the new orthodoxy has been conceded in all of this discussion. Abortion, whether it was accepted or despised, has been common and was a normal activity for midwives. That point will get more attention in the future but we can address it now with one final lawyerly moment from Dellapenna as we close out this post and move on to the next section.
“In the remarkably detailed diary of midwife Matha Ballard for the period of 1785 to 1812, when many historians now insist that midwives were commonly performing abortions, there is no mention of even a single abortion. We cannot assume that Ballard simply did not report such activities; her diary includes accounts of incest, illegitimacy, child abuse, and other unsavory activities. If Ballard did abortions so routinely that they did not strike her as significant, it would still be extraordinary that, in such a detailed record of the events of her life, she would not mention it even once. Either Ballard, considered abortions even viler than the activities she recorded or she neither did nor knew of any.”
Either way, they fit in the new orthodoxy about as well as Jessup's two orders in his explanation of the events in A Few Good Men.