WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
We on the pro-life side sometimes fantasize that the abortion horror started with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the advent of oral contraceptives. Our hope: If ideological craziness and new technology created the problem, maybe theological sanity and ultrasound machines can eliminate the killing. The problem, though, is that the problem did not arise during the 1960s. The modern drive for abortion started in the 1930s.
During that decade most U.S. political and cultural leftists were in love with the Soviet Union, which they saw as on the way up while depressed America was heading down. Pro-abortion radicals climbed aboard by calling on Americans to emulate Soviet pro-abortion practice: Speakers at a Sexual Reform Congress praised Russians as “having attained high ideals in regard to sexual rights.” Even the sedate American Journal of Public Health proclaimed that “good specialists” were performing abortions in the Soviet Union, and that “legalized abortion is the only means for women’s emancipation because there are not yet any contraceptives that prevent pregnancy with certainty.”
A few pro-abortion Americans tried a frontal assault on laws restricting abortion. The leader of that pack, Dr. William J. Robinson, began the first chapter of his book, The Law Against Abortion, with non-negotiable demands: “I shall not beat about the bush. I shall not shilly-shally, I shall not equivocate. [I present] A DEMAND FOR THE COMPLETE AND TOTAL ABROGATION OF ANY LAW AGAINST ABORTION.” He wrote, “People who put abortion on the same level as burglary, arson and murder … are people of such a mental caliber that any discussion with them would be futile.”
Robinson influenced some people but won few friends: A gradualist approach worked better. Speakers at an International Birth Control Conference proposed that abortion advocates hide their desire to make all abortion legal, and instead campaign for a broadening of medical indications: “One must start with the attainable, if one is to reach the unattainable.” Their goal was legalization of abortion to protect not just the life but the “health” of the mother, for if the latter could be extended to include “mental health,” the door could be open wide.
Other pro-abortionists during the 1930s proposed “socio-economic indications for legalization”—abortions for the poor—as a way to get out of the Depression. They also argued that anti-abortion laws had not done away with abortions but had driven them into back alleys and increased their cost. Even Robinson, with all his fervor for an immediate abortion great leap forward, acknowledged the usefulness of slower public relations methods: “If complete abrogation is impossible at this time, then at least a very radical modification.”
The most effective pro-abortion book of the 1930s, Dr. Frederick J. Taussig’s Abortion, attacked the “ridiculous, ofttimes incomprehensive [sic] and harsh statutes on our books.” He recommended that abortion be legal when “the mother is physically depleted by childbearing and poverty” and “clearly irresponsible.” Taussig also argued that the primary concern of doctors should not be the life of the unborn child along with the life of the mother. Instead, Taussig suggested a “freedom from religious bias” that would lead to “consideration for the health of the mother,” including mental health, and concern for the welfare of the family as a whole.
Socioeconomic and mental health rationales for abortion were radical steps that, when taken, could open wide the doors of abortion businesses. Taussig embedded such proposals in a suggestion that the number of abortions, legal or not, would always be high, so the only way to reduce the number of non-doctors performing illegal abortions was to allow more legal ones. He also argued that when the poor did not have as much access to abortion as the rich, society was at fault; the poor should receive abortion subsidies, or at least have obstacles to their use of “good” abortionists removed.
‘If there are those who choose to destroy an unformed protoplasm jeopardizing the welfare of the already living … how can we then condemn them?’ —Louis Kelley in 1938
To buttress those positions, Taussig emphasized his medical professionalism and provided a mass of statistics. Basing his calculations on the records of a New York City birth control clinic, Taussig decided that one abortion took place for every 2.5 confinements in urban areas. (He did not note that visits to still-controversial birth control clinics were hardly typical jaunts.) Taussig also postulated a rural total of one abortion for every five confinements throughout the United States. (His evidence for that were estimates by some physicians in “the rural districts of Iowa.”)
That dubious methodology suggested 403,200 abortions committed annually in urban areas and 278,400 in rural areas, for a nationwide annual total of 681,600. That figure seems high, as does his estimate of 8,179 maternal abortion deaths annually, even though a full-page review in Time magazine pronounced his book “authoritative” and accepted the statistics he arrived at after “careful figuring.” But many mothers did die, because it would be another decade before the arrival of antibiotics allowed doctors to stop infections.
Time, which was famous for snide attacks on individuals its editors did not like, simply described Taussig as “a handsome man” with a “great” family and an emphasis on “strict and meticulous” clinical work. Time also amplified Taussig’s encouragement of abortions when there were “eugenic reasons,” “suicidal tendencies,” and “economic reasons in women of high fertility.” While boosting Taussig, Time showed no concern for the unborn child.
Time also left out ethical questions in its report in 1935 of an “amazingly widespread and efficient chain of Pacific Coast abortaria,” with offices in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Hollywood, Long Beach, and San Diego, all under the authority of “a skilled operator, Dr. George Eliot Watts of Los Angeles, graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School … noted for his competency in performing abortions.”
Time seemed most interested in the efficiency of this “great businesslike abortaria chain, [which has] a Medical Acceptance Corporation to finance installment payments for abortion in precisely the way other finance companies finance the purchase of motor cars, automatic refrigerators, vacuum cleaners.” Fees for abortion were $35 for a pregnancy of six weeks or less up to $300 for a seven-month affair. Time described the problem of this chain not as abortion itself but a greedy manager who allegedly bribed a state medical examiner to pressure other abortionists either to join the abortaria cartel or get out of business.
Press sympathy for abortion also appeared in 1938 during the trial of a prominent British physician, Alec Bourne. Bourne wanted to change interpretation of Britain’s abortion law so it would allow abortion to preserve not just the life but the physical and mental health of pregnant women. He found the perfect test case when he performed an abortion on a 15-year-old girl who had become pregnant as the result of rape.
The London Times reported both sides of the argument, but American press coverage was pro-Bourne. An Associated Press report of the trial did not mention the British attorney general’s insistence that sympathy for the girl should not lead to ignoring the “fundamental difference between preserving life and preserving health.” Nor did the AP story explain how killing on top of rape would strengthen the mental health of the material victim. Instead, it played up a pro-abortion judge’s comment that Bourne had performed “an act of charity,” and emphasized reaction from Bourne’s friends when he went free: “Cheers from the crowd, including leaders of the British medical profession and socialites, greeted the verdict.”
Some articles in smaller magazines, such as one by A.J. Rougy in the American Mercury, even began arguing for legalization of abortion in all cases; Rougy said it would take too much effort to enforce anti-abortion laws that, in any case, were the result of “religious taboos.” Other writers began to justify abortion by reverting to the early 19th-century argument that the unborn child is not human. Louis Kelley, in a 1938 Forum article, asked, “If there are those who choose to destroy an unformed protoplasm jeopardizing the welfare of the already living … how can we then condemn them?” Abortion, Kelley wrote, is the “lesser of two wrongs.”
By the late 1930s, buoyed by their advances in publishing and press coverage, abortionists in New York City were circulating handbills advertising their services. With arrest unlikely and conviction rare, abortionists were scheduling appointments in advance at their own offices, confident that police would not intervene. Laws still prohibited abortion, but social attitudes were changing in a way that limited prosecution and the willingness of juries to convict.