The first time that abortion became real for me was not while reading a moral philosophy textbook or reviewing a Supreme Court decision. Rather, it followed from a discussion with a college friend who, as I learned, had visited an abortion clinic.
All of a sudden, abortion was no longer just a theoretical reality. Instead, it was a part of the story of someone I knew well—someone who sat across from me in class. The experience shifted my perception of abortion as something affecting people “out there” while leaving my own social circles untouched. As I walked away from that conversation, wondering if I had handled it sensitively, I realized that my understanding of abortion existed almost purely in the realm of ideas, policy, and theory—not flesh-and-blood people.
In the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, there was no shortage of stories about individual women. Stories of women shouting their abortions. Stories of women who chose life. Stories of clergy decrying abortion as a moral evil or praising it as something holy and sacred. And yet, we’re tempted to dissolve these individual stories into the larger abortion story, forgetting the individuals themselves.
In all our discussions of public policy and our abstract reflections on human dignity, we can often forget the real people involved in this system of death: doctors and nurses who perform the procedures and provide medication; women who seek out clinics willingly or because they feel trapped or coerced; men who may be present or absent; and children at their most vulnerable stage of life.
A new book from Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas endeavors to fill this gap, foregrounding the stories of those affected by abortion, both as an institution and a practice. Their book—The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652–2022—effectively employs an on-the-ground perspective that so often goes missing.
Olasky and Savas approach this subject as pro-lifers but also as journalists, with Olasky having served as World magazine’s longtime editor and Savas currently working as a World reporter. In good journalistic fashion, they provide a window into frontline experiences across the abortion landscape, delving into the lives of defenders and opponents, providers and victims, and the women and children who bear the deepest scars.
The book surveys a surprisingly broad historical canvas, correcting our habit of viewing the abortion debate as something that only erupted in earnest during the latter part of the 20th century. As the authors note, for instance, it’s likely that the first recorded abortion in America occurred in 1629.
Readers will be unsurprised by the conclusions that Olasky and Savas draw. Fundamentally, this is a volume dedicated to revealing abortion’s pernicious and dehumanizing effects on our culture. The authors’ sweeping history, while not an ethics text, is forthright in depicting abortion as an assault on the dignity of human beings.
Yet the power of their street-level, story-based approach lies in how it cuts through our own grand narratives about abortion. Contrary to those who loudly proclaim that abortion brings freedom and empowerment, history shows that individuals have often exploited it to further control the bodies of women and prey upon them. Many of the book’s early chapters abound with stories of women who were lied to and seduced by men with promises of marriage only to be abandoned after their pregnancies came to light. Abortion became one piece in a larger structure that allowed men to use these women as they wished.
Take, for instance, the example of Dorcas Howard, a 17th-century servant thought to have obtained the first recorded abortion in American history. According to court records the book cites, Howard told her master that she was sick and could not work. Rather than responding with care for his servant, the master suspected she was pregnant, which prompted him to threaten her with violence. Upon hearing her confess the pregnancy (and disclose the name of the father), he sent her to bed and called some women to help her.
As the authors make clear, we don’t know exactly what happened in Howard’s room, but the next morning there was a child on the floor, who another woman testified had been stillborn with a bruise on the head. Howard’s master had seen a potential loss on his investment, and he’d acted quickly to prevent it. His economic interest outweighed any concern for the mother or child.
Profit considerations also proved irresistible to those providing abortions. Consider Ann Lohman, a 19th-century woman who took the pen name Madame Restell because the French were considered the most knowledgeable about intimate matters. Taking up residence in New York City, she and her husband began advertising abortion pills and medications in their newspaper. She managed to skirt the laws of the time by speaking in euphemisms about regulating women’s menstruation or preventing menstrual blockages, coded terms for pregnancy.
The business proved quite lucrative. Madame Restell’s advertisements were a boon for the newspaper and for the couple. Her office was filled with young, desperate women, and because she was apparently capable of performing the procedure without killing patients—at least the adult patients—her popularity grew. Because of well-placed bribes, she was unlikely to face prosecution, though eventually she was tried and convicted after police found a woman willing to testify about a mistake she made that caused a woman to die. However, Restell’s short prison stay only opened the door for others to try claiming her business, and it didn’t prevent her from continuing her practice once she was released.
The stories of Dorcas Howard and Madame Restell highlight trends in abortion policy that continue to this day. In particular, they illustrate how economic interest and legislation are always intertwined. But they also pose a warning to those who would hang all their hopes on the power of law to prevent abortions.
In 1716, New York became the first state to pass an abortion restriction when the city council forbade midwives to aid or administer an abortion. By 1829, New York City had passed a law banning abortion by any means—surgical or medicinal—and imposing fines on violators. And yet, Madame Restell was allowed to operate her business with little interference because of lax enforcement. Olasky and Savas do not discount the value of legislation, and the later chapters are filled with examples of its powerful effects, but their stories do caution pro-life advocates to address issues fueling the demand for abortion, and not only its supply.
Cries of conscience
Olasky and Savas have no appetite for harshly condemning women in a culture that has held up bodily autonomy as a supreme right while often placing them at the mercy of unjust systems. Clearly, they believe that abortion has two victims: mother and child. This was straightforwardly true in the early centuries of American history, when both mother and child were likely to die from the procedure. But it is no less true in contemporary times, when abortion poses less risk (at least physically) for the mother.
With certain exceptions, the women profiled in this book aren’t seeking abortion purely of their own volition: They are trapped by circumstance, coerced by family and lovers, or deceived by those who stand to gain from the procedure. Even those who remain supportive of abortion rights describe a sense of longing and mourning for their lost children. One woman who believes she made the right choice in having an abortion also describes seeing “a very little ghost that only appears when I’m seeing something beautiful, like the full moon on the ocean.” Others describe the “whispers” they hear on the wind from children they never had.
Such testimonies reveal an ugly truth often overlooked in pro-choice advocacy: We intuitively know the procedure is wrong. Each of us recognizes on the level of conscience that something violent and horrible occurs at an abortion. Whether or not abortion is permitted by law, common sense rails against our attempts to describe the procedure in sanitized and morally neutral language.
Olasky and Savas profile one doctor who experienced this tension when he shifted from performing early-term abortions to doing a procedure known as a D&C (dilation and curettage). He had been comfortable with abortion in the abstract, but when faced with a procedure that required using medical knowledge to determine the best way to “disarticulate” a child’s body—break it apart at the joints—everything within him rebelled. His conscience would not allow him to look at an arm with a hand and five fingers as mere tissues and cells fit for the medical waste bin. The law’s approval could not overcome his God-given knowledge that this was a person possessing God-given dignity and worth.
Thinking back on that moment in my life when abortion became not just a concept but a person with a face and name, I’m reminded that so often we have to do as that doctor did, stepping outside familiar conversations on abortion to get a clearer picture of its brutalities. Olasky and Savas paint a disturbing picture of a culture that prioritizes so many things—economic prosperity, individual freedom, sexual liberty, personal reputations—over the life of a child. They confront us with the disastrous and deadly effects of abortion on every individual it touches: mother, child, father, doctor, legislator, and neighbor. But they remind us also that our collective conscience, though seared, is capable of recognizing error and striving for a culture that affirms the dignity of all people, born and unborn.
Alex Ward is lead researcher for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Mississippi.
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