While abortion is a hotly debated issue in our nation today, the history of abortion in the U.S. is rarely discussed. Yet understanding this background, especially the historical views of American physicians toward abortion, is important to the current debate because it provides us with a context and a framework for discussing this critical issue.
In his well-researched book, The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion, Frederick N. Dyer, Ph.D., provides many historical facts about abortion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was especially struck — and inspired — by the deep conviction held by most American physicians at the time that abortion destroys human life, and the strong and eloquent language they used to condemn the practice.
Foremost among these physicians was Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, a pioneer in the field of women’s health and the leader of the “physicians’ crusade against abortion.” A passionate and tireless advocate for the unborn, Dr. Storer had this to say about abortion:
Society needs a thorough awakening on this subject…the child is alive from the moment of conception, and that every interference with its being is as much a sin at one period of its existence as at another. (Ch. 9, p.86)
Almost all physicians at the time were convinced that abortion is wrong and could not be justified under any circumstances. Some of the physicians described abortion as “murder” and “homicide.” They persuaded “thousands and more likely millions” of women to not have abortions by informing them that abortion destroys human life, and by educating them about the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual consequences of having an abortion. Dr. Rosalie M. Ladova, whose efforts to educate parents “undoubtedly provided the ancestors of scores of people alive today in the Midwest,” noted the following:
Many of the people who come to us…do not know nor realize the gravity of it (abortion). We can get them reconciled to their condition, and persuade them to leave well enough alone. (Ch. 26, p. 259)
Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson once dispensed the following advice:
Think of the gravity of taking a life. You have no more right to make yourself the judge of whether it should live or not once begun…No one but a quack or charlatan would commit the deed you ask me to do…But do not place another sin upon your conscience, for your mother’s sake, or that of the unborn. (Ch. 22, p.217)
In addition to counseling parents privately, physicians educated the general public about the consequences of abortion. In his public discourses, Dr. Storer articulated the multiplier effect of abortion:
Every life lost is not an isolated one. Every life saved is, as a general rule, the precursor of others that else would not have been called into existence. (Ch. 15, p. 142)
In fact, Dyer points out that many people of Protestant lineage are alive today because Dr. Storer and other physicians helped to curb the high rate of abortion among Protestants in the nineteenth century. Consider this remarkable statement by Dyer:
If you have primarily Protestant ancestors, you can be fairly certain that your own existence was one result of the successes of the physicians’ crusade for the unborn. (Ch. 1, p.8)
Dr. Storer and many of his colleagues also lobbied legislatures to pass stringent antiabortion laws. According to Dyer, these laws were largely intact in most states in the twentieth century until they were overturned by Roe v. Wade in 1973, and were generally effective in stemming abortion.
So what do the statements and actions of these physicians mean for us in the twenty-first century?
They mean we have a model to follow when it comes to protecting the unborn. Dyer’s book can not only instruct those who use subjectivity (“choice”) to justify an objectively wrong act, but it can strengthen the conviction of pro-life people who may have grown weary, apathetic or even doubtful in a society that is increasingly indifferent and hostile to the unborn. The force of the statements made by these physicians etched more deeply into my mind and heart what I already knew to be true: that abortion is the taking of human life and must be stopped.
Unfortunately, the modern medical community generally condones abortion, sometimes for profit, and often under the guise of “compassion.” Although technology now enables physicians to see and listen to the baby’s heartbeat, some of them choose to engage in scientific sophistry to complicate the matter and create doubt. Other doctors even encourage mothers to have an abortion if it is suspected the baby might have Down syndrome or another condition.
Then there are the physicians who know abortion is wrong but are lukewarm in their conviction, or who lack the courage to boldly proclaim the truth. They fear societal, cultural and peer pressure. They fear ridicule. They fear losing their jobs. They fear everything except the loss of human life and the loss of their souls.
By contrast, physicians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed their profession through a broader lens: not within a silo, but within the larger context of life and morality. They practiced their craft through the eyes of wisdom, believing that medicine and wisdom were inseparable.
Those physicians even rallied against immoral practices that still plague our society today. Many of our current attitudes and behaviors were around back then, and many of the same reasons for procuring an abortion were used. Toxins and chemicals served as contraception and abortifacients; feminism struggled to “free” women from the “burdens” of motherhood; men wanted pleasure without responsibility; excessive population growth was feared.
Thus, so-called “modernization” and “progressivism” are neither the cause of, nor a justification for, abortion in contemporary society. Individuals have not changed, evolved, or become enlightened. We are the same as our predecessors, and future generations will be the same as we are, subject to the same proclivities that have plagued humans forever. Times may change, and technology may change how our selfish desires are manifested, but the human heart remains fairly constant.
Because abortion is both a medical and moral issue, we need guidance not only from physicians but from our religious leaders as well. Physicians such as Dr. Augustus Kinsley Gardner challenged the clergy of his day to do more, and his words still ring true today:
The pulpit of every denomination should make common cause and fulminate its anathemas against every abettor of this enormity (abortion)…Do the clergy consider this less a sin than lying, blaspheming or stealing? (Ch.17, p.57)
The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion will inspire religious leaders, physicians and all of its readers to defend the defenseless. There are, of course, some religious leaders and physicians who are already speaking out against abortion, but their voices are sparse and barely audible. Consider how applicable the words of Dr. Joseph Waggoner are to our present situation:
We, in our society meetings, have been frittering away our time as to the best means of treating disease, while this floodgate of death is rushing on, and by our silence giving consent to this wholesale destruction of life. (Ch. 24, p. 240)
The courage of Dr. Storer and his contemporaries should inspire all of us to condemn abortion. It is never too late to turn from evil, embrace God’s mercy, and fight for the unborn. As Dr. Storer pointed out, there is no cause more worthy of human effort, and no cause more urgent:
The truth is, that our silence has rendered all of us accessory to the crime, and now that the time has come to strip down the veil, and apply the searching caustic knife to this foul sore in the body politic. (Ch. 9, p.90)
Will the next Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer please stand up?
Zachary S. Krajacic is a writer in Buffalo, N.Y. His work has appeared in the Washington Times, Washington Examiner, Christian Science Monitor, Buffalo News, American Thinker, Intellectual Conservative, Catholic Exchange, Catholic Destination, and Cynic Online Magazine. He was a radio talk show guest on KABC-Los Angeles (Doug McIntyre’s morning show) and WLIP-Kenosha, Wisconsin (Frank Carmichael’s “Happenings Q&A” show). Krajacic is also a public relations professional and executive speechwriter at a health insurance company in Buffalo, N.Y. He has an MBA from Canisius College.