In his leaked decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Samuel Alito wrote, “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted into the Nation’s history and tradition.” Is this true? It is hard to define what “deeply rooted” means, but abortion was certainly practiced and discussed in early American history.
Let’s begin with English professor Molly Farrell‘s piece at Slate. It is titled “Ben Franklin Put an Abortion Recipe in His Math Textbook.” Here is a taste:
The year was 1748, the place was Philadelphia, and the book was The Instructor, a popular British manual for everything from arithmetic to letter-writing to caring for horses’ hooves. Benjamin Franklin had set himself to adapting it for the American colonies.
Though Franklin already had a long and successful career by this point, he needed to find a way to convince colonial book-buyers—who for the most part didn’t even formally study arithmetic—that his version of George Fisher’s textbook was worth the investment. Franklin made all sorts of changes throughout the book, from place names to inserting colonial histories, but he made one really big change: adding John Tennent’s The Poor Planter’s Physician to the end. Tennent was a Virginia doctor whose medical pamphlet had first appeared in 1734.* By appending it to The Instructor (replacing a treatise on farriery) Franklin hoped to distinguish the book from its London ancestor. Franklin advertised that his edition was “the whole better adapted to these American Colonies, than any other book of the like kind.” In the preface he goes on to specifically mention his swapping out of sections, insisting that “in the British Edition of this Book, there were many Things of little or no Use in these Parts of the World: In this Edition those Things are omitted, and in their Room many other Matters inserted, more immediately useful to us Americans.” One of those useful “Matters” was a how-to on at-home abortion, made available to anyone who wanted a book that could teach the ABCs and 123s.
In this week’s leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” Yet abortion was so “deeply rooted” in colonial America that one of our nation’s most influential architects went out of his way to insert it into the most widely and enduringly read and reprinted math textbook of the colonial Americas—and he received so little pushback or outcry for the inclusion that historians have barely noticed it is there. Abortion was simply a part of life, as much as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Franklin wasn’t even the first issuer of a math textbook on either side of the Atlantic to include among its materials a recipe for abortion, though his book certainly had the most reliable and explicit one. William Mather’s 1699 Young Man’s Companion also has one (the London book would inspire the very first arithmetic book to be printed in the colonies in 1705, by Franklin’s old boss Andrew Bradford). In Mather’s book, though, the recipe was short, misleading, and ineffective. It includes an entry for “Terms provoked,” a heading also found under comparable medical books with abortifacient concoctions (where the “term,” or period, needs “provoking”). Unfortunately for Mather’s readers, however, he prescribes “stinking Arach,” or goosefoot, which is an emmenagogue (an agent to stimulate or regulate menstruation) but not a reliable abortifacient. He also makes the even more dubious suggestion to “take a draught of White wine” under a full moon.
Read the rest here.
I would also encourage interested readers to take a look at historian Cornelia Hughes Dayton‘s essay, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village.” J.L. Bell discusses this piece at Boston 1775. Here is a state of that post:
In 1991 Prof. Cornelia Hughes Dayton published a paper titled “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village” in the William and Mary Quarterly.
In 2007 students at the University of Connecticut created this website exploring the same case, using Dayton’s analysis, transcriptions, photographs of the sites involved, and more. (This may have grown from the similar work of Prof. Larry Cebula or it may have been a parallel effort.)
The “Taking the Trade” paper and website examine a dispute in colonial Connecticut. In 1742, Sarah Grosvenor of Pomfret ended an unwanted pregnancy by inducing a miscarriage, having used both medicinal and surgical means, but she died two months later.
Grosvenor’s family complained about the man who had impregnated her, Amasa Sessions. Many colonial New England men in that situation married their sexual partners and went on to have more children, however grudging the partnership was. In contrast, Sessions pressed Grosvenor to take an abortifacient provided by Dr. John Hallowell of Killingley.
In 1746, Sessions and Hallowell were indicted for the reckless murder of Sarah Grosvenor—but not for trying to induce an abortion. In fact, Grosvenor’s sister had also helped her end the pregnancy, but she was not indicted. The surviving documents don’t offer answers for all the questions they raise, but they make clear that eighteenth-century New Englanders knew about abortion and viewed it primarily as a private matter not involving the government. Providing an unsafe abortion was potentially criminal.
Read the rest here.
Holly Brewer of the University of Maryland has also weighed-in:
I would also add Treva Lindsey’s piece at The Conversation to this discussion.
There are reasons to reject abortion on demand. Many of them are theological and ethical. But those who want to make a historical case that abortion is not “deeply rooted” in American life should tread lightly and carefully. Alito has not done this.