America’s First Abortion Wars

Our founders were just as divided as we are

Eric Weiner

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Photo: New York Historical Society

The heated debate over abortion is nothing new. It is, in fact, older than the United States.

I’ve spent the past several weeks trying to make sense of the history of abortion in Colonial America. My conclusion: it is a muddled mess, replete with half-truths, exaggerated claims, cherry-picking of facts, and intellectual dishonesty. In other words, abortion in Colonial America was as contentious as it is today though, unlike today, the rancor usually took place behind closed doors.

Some historians claim abortion was widely accepted and practiced in early America. “Ample historical evidence demonstrates that Americans knew of and followed the common law, which allowed extensive decision-making by a pregnant woman,” wrote 281 historians in an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief to the Supreme Court. Other historians insist that was never the case, and that the founding fathers were united in their opposition to abortion.

The truth is that the framers punted the issue, just as they punted the question of slavery, leaving it to future generations to sort out. Then, as now, views on abortion — and much else — differed widely from state to state, or colony to colony. As one mid-century traveler, the Englishman Andrew Burnaby, observed: “Fire and water are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies in North America. Nothing can exceed the jealousy and emulation, which they possess in regard to each other.”

There was some agreement. Early Americans focused on whether the woman had reached the stage of “quickening;” that is, if she perceived signs of life. After this stage, at about 20 weeks, abortion was widely banned, or at least discouraged.

One problem with trying to make sense of the historical record is that there isn’t much of one. That alone strikes some as evidence that abortion was widely accepted. “In an era marked by high-handed moralizing by religious leaders, birth control and abortion were rarely mentioned,” the historians note in their brief to the Supreme Court. At the time the Constitution was drafted, in the 1780s, birth rates fell, suggesting more widespread use of birth control and abortion.

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Eric Weiner

Philosophical Traveler. Recovering Malcontent. Author of four books, including my latest: “The Socrates Express.”