For thousands of years, quickening was the only pregnancy test there was. Yes, there were symptoms and suspicions, but until a woman felt the fetus moving inside her, it was only speculation. In the 1700s and early 1800s, in the United Kingdom and the American colonies, abortion before quickening (which usually occurs between 16 and 20 weeks of gestation) was not considered immoral, nor was it unlawful. Children were predominately considered assets that would help work the family farms and businesses, and abortion was not popular. It was perceived primarily as the business of herbalists, prostitutes and as a recourse for the desperate.
By the mid-19Th century, however, with greater urbanization, children “were increasingly seen as a financial burden that could cause a family’s economic ruin.”
Since birth control methods had yet to be developed, many people turned to abortion to safeguard a family’s security. Rather than being limited to the destitute, now married and upper-class women availed themselves of the procedure. It is estimated that about 20 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion at this time. Prosecutions for post-quickening abortions were few and far between.
Who could have predicted that a girl-child, born in 1812 to a poor family in England, would grow up to be the most infamous American influencer on the practice of abortion in the 19th century? Anna Trow worked as maid in a butcher’s family before she married an alcoholic tailor at the age of 16. Along with their one-year-old daughter, the couple emigrated to New York City in 1831. Her husband died only a few years later. Anna took in work as a seamstress, struggling to support herself and her daughter. By 1836 Anna had met and married Charles Lohman, a well-educated freethinker and printer at the New York Herald. Charles and Anna, looking for financial stability, may have noticed the numerous advertisements for patent medicines and “women’s cures” in the back pages of the Herald. Such ads kept some newspapers and “penny presses” profitable. (Penny presses were new mass-produced tabloid papers affordable to the public.)
At some point the couple fabricated a story that Anna’s grandmother was a renowned French physician and Anna was in England training with her in the arts of medicine and women’s health. When she returned to New York, Anna had transformed into the physician and midwife henceforth known as Madam Restell. She quickly became one of the Herald’s best advertisers. In it she publicized her practice as a female physician who specialized in curing “ladies’ problems.” Charles published some pieces on the topic of contraception and helped write Anna’s ads using euphemisms like “promoting regularity” and “removing obstructions and stoppages of the female tract.”
TO MARRIED LADIES
MADAME RESTELL’S PREVENTIVE POWDERS
Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate? In how many instances does the hard-working father, and more especially the mother, of a poor family, remain slaves throughout their lives, tugging at the oar of incessant labor, toiling to live, and living but to toil? These invaluable Powders have been universally adopted in Europe, but France in particular, for upwards of thirty years, as well by thousands in this country, as being the only mild, safe, and efficacious remedy for married ladies whose health forbids a too rapid increase of family…. Price Five Dollars a package, accompanied with full and particular directions.
Even though by this time all states had passed legislation banning the practice, the business of abortion was booming. It is estimated that by the late 1800s, one-in-three pregnancies were ended by abortion, illustrating the social demand for the practice along with its potential for profit among abortion providers.
Indeed, Madame Restell’s practice not only flourished, it made her a millionaire. Her powders and pessaries, recipes containing herbs mixed with caustic solutions that had likely been passed down through the ages, could be procured in-person or by mail. Sometimes they even worked. If they did not, a ‘miscarriage’ could be obtained via the use of instruments.
She expanded her practice. She bought land at the corner of 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, ironically (purposefully?) one block over from the planned St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There she built a grand four-story brownstone that contained her residence and her practice. The upper floors became a boarding house where pregnant women could reside and give birth in secret. For an additional fee, she would even facilitate adoptions. While it is true that Madame Restell was profiting greatly, it is also true that she provided services that women not only wanted but for which they were often desperate. Victorian societal standards left unmarried mothers and their children ostracized and in danger of destitution.
But times were a-changing:
- Science and religion converged to overthrow the commonly held belief that the fetus came alive at quickening and now agreed that a potential life began at conception.
- The American Medical Association supported the criminalization of abortions performed by midwives, homeopaths, or “quacks,” redirecting the profits into licensed physician’s pockets.
- The women’s suffrage movement was threatening to allow women to move away from hearth and home to participate in politics and industry, which abortion would further facilitate.
- And the birthrate of the immigrant class was booming:
“If middle class Protestant women did not cease aborting, political and social institutions would be taken over by Irish Catholics, which would cause the collapse of American civilization.”
All these factors facilitated the criminalization of abortion by those in charge of such things. In New York State in 1845, abortion prior to quickening became a misdemeanor to which both the provider and the procurer of the abortion, whether via abortifacients or surgery, were liable to prosecution. Madame Restell’s success and her ostentatiousness (the mansion, fancy gowns and jewels, lavish horses and jaunty carriages) made her a woman of social standing – the mayor of New York officiated at her daughter’s wedding – but also a target of New York society. She was reviled in the press. That same year she was arrested for the misdemeanor of providing an abortion and spent a year in jail on Blackwell’s Island. Unperturbed, she afterwards resumed her trade, although she did stop providing surgical abortions.
Enter Anthony Comstock. The founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Mr. Comstock was a devout Christian and anti-obscenity crusader fighting against the sex trade, pornography, and birth control – which he imagined promoted promiscuity. He authored the federal Comstock Laws that prohibited, not only the manufacture and sale of contraceptives, but also the writing or distribution of educational pamphlets on the subject. (Years later, in 1916, he and Margaret Sanger went to battle when she opened the first birth control clinic in New York. She eventually outmaneuvered him in court, overturning the Comstock laws and bringing birth control – a term she coined – to the public.)
One evening in 1878, Mr. Comstock made a personal visit to Madame Restell’s establishment. He pretended to be a concerned husband fearful for the health of his wife should she bear him yet another child. He asked for her help and Madam Restell obliged by providing him with “preventive prescriptions.” Mr. Comstock re-appeared the next day with a police officer and a warrant for her arrest. A search of her premises provided additional incriminating evidence including informational brochures and surgical instruments. The printed instructions alone could result in charges of manslaughter and a prison sentence of six months to five years.
Perhaps it was the year she had spent in jail, or the potential downfall of her “empire” and her social standing. Perhaps, at 66 years old, she had tired of the fight. Whatever the motive, on April 1, 1878, Madame Restell, nee Anna Trow, ended her life. Her maids found her in the bath with the knife she had used to slit her throat.
*I find the story of Madame Restell fascinating because of the parallels it reveals between women’s reproductive health and abortion in the 19th and in the 21st centuries. Then, as now, there were justifications for and against abortion; religious beliefs impacted legislation about women’s health; women sought control over their fertility and when necessary, chose legal or illegal abortions to restrict the size of their families; powerful organizations and potential for economic gain influenced health care practice; racists voiced fears about immigrationimpact on the composition of the population; and paternalistic concerns about sharing power and influence with women motivated politics and legislation.
We’ve not come such a long way, baby…