Abortion is, of all moral issues, peculiarly conducive to displays of bad taste. Anti-abortionists write autobiographies of week-old fetuses for Readers’ Digest and show slides of queerly inhuman creatures in sacs like spaceships. But their pro-abortion counterparts are little better: they wear T-shirts with coat-hangers printed on top of the word NO! and carry photos of botched abortionees, naked in motel rooms. The very language of both sides suggests the unease of the campaigners. Almost no one mentions the word abortion; one is prolife or pro-choice. And this jargon is effective, as all jargon is meant to be, in obscuring the issue, in bringing to one side or another the shy, befuddled partisan, unhappy with words that make the issue clear. Life and choice are, after all, not concepts anyone is likely to be anti.

These features, the excessively concrete image, the excessively abstract word, are both the result of abortion’s peculiar nature: it is a specifically physical issue which calls into question the most general moral issues. And so both physical and moral terms fall short in speaking to the questions. Is the fetus a human person or a bunch of cells with no particular significance? Is the act of abortion an act of self-determination or a crime? The terms are impossible because we have no way of thinking that describes the issue well.

The physicality of the fetus is perplexing because it is hidden; the unborn are invisible. One philosopher wonders what would happen to people’s positions on abortion if a mutation or technology made it possible for them to see a developing fetus in the womb, even perhaps to observe and to fondle it.1 The idea creates the sort of unease we feel when a beggar threatens to unwrap his ulcerated leg, and the discomfort points to the uniqueness of the issue. In what other context must one decide upon the very existence of a victim one cannot see, upon whose nature one can only speculate, whose value may be calculated only as potential.

Invisibility is not the only odd aspect of the abortion issue; there is, in addition, the question of time. In what other moral issue is time so crucial? The period of gestation is short, from beginning to end less than three hundred days. And the period in which a woman can get a safe abortion is even shorter. The decision to abort is made under doomsday pressure; there is a certain point after which it will simply be too late. Moreover, many moralists judge the seriousness of the crime by the advancement of the pregnancy; it is considered by some to be more heinous to have an abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy, most unspeakable of all to have one after the fetus is “viable.” The concept of “viability” or “quickening” has always been an important issue in the discussion of abortion. “Quickening” is the point at which the mother feels the fetus moving, and it usually occurs in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. For some thinkers, it is only after this point that the fetus is human. For them, abortion is murder after quickening, a therapeutic procedure before.

Time is an issue because we are talking about an organism in a state of rapid development; for some moralists the nature of the organism can change entirely at one quickly approached, irreversible point. One cannot think of any other putative crime in which time plays such an odd role: a theft is no more or less a theft in August than in May, nor is a lie, nor is kidnapping. The only possible exception is torture; it is clearly worse to torture someone for five months than for two. But you can see the extremes of thinking to which one is led when looking for analogies, extremes which anyone who speaks about abortion in moral terms has difficulty avoiding.

Yet whatever moralists have said or lawyers have decreed, women have always aborted simply because they have always had unwanted pregnancies. And the reason for that is largely connected to another odd physical fact: sex makes babies. There are few other causal relationships so oblique: an act of physical passion occurs and nearly a year later a child is born. The connection is, at best, extremely tentative. What genius discovered it first? How did he make anyone believe him? Anthropologists have reported the difficulty of convincing modern primitives of the link between intercourse and birth, but the causal relationship is so peculiar that even sophisticated women with ready access to contraception forget it. Linda Francke, author of The Ambivalence of Abortion, a Newsweek editor and graduate of Miss Porter’s, had an abortion as a result of a pregnancy she incurred by failing to use any birth control at all. And the testimony of the women who speak in her book indicates that her case is far from rare.


Once again, abortion is unique among moral situations. One stabs a man and he dies; the surprise is not great. One lights the dynamite fuse and the building blows up: the astonishment would occur if the sequence did not follow. But in fact most people do not have sex because they want a baby; they have sex for pleasure. “It is the future generation that presses into being by means of these exuberant feelings and supersensible soapbubbles of ours,” says the pessimist Schopenhauer, indicating the badness of the arrangement.

The invisibility of the fetus, the odd relationship of time and cause that make the nature of pregnancy and abortion so puzzling, create difficulties when one tries to make comparisons with other moral issues. Part of the difficulty lies in the terms of the discussion—“Life,” “Human”: they are so impossible to define that the only definitions that seem secure are the crudest ones: life begins at conception, a human being is a human being from that moment; therefore, to do away with this human life is a simple murder. But we do not habitually think of life as only biological existence; the problem for supporters of abortion is that the criterion of biological existence is so inexorable that it makes others (quality of life, rights of the individual) seem only vague by comparison. And anti-abortionists stress the vagueness of their opponents’ ideas, digging in their entrenching tools of syllogism and empirical data with the energy of the marginally secure.

But it is the comparison of abortion to other acts that is unsatisfactory, and it is because of the physical circumstances that the comparisons do not work. Most commonly, abortion is compared to murder; but one has no doubt that the victim of a murder is an independent person, and it is hard to believe that one created a murder victim in one’s own body when one thought one was doing something entirely different. And it is probably never true that the victim of a murder could not survive unless he were fed by blood and protected by the body of the murderer, or that it would be precisely the refusal of this protection that would constitute the murderous act. To compare abortion to murder is at best naïve. And yet there is no other human act to which it comes closer.

If one wants to think clearly about abortion as a crime, one must understand that it has been practiced and continues to be practiced by women who are in no other aspect of their lives criminal. It is estimated that over 1.2 million abortions are performed annually in the United States. The number of murders in the United States in 1976 was only a little over 17,000. Although it is not a good rule to judge the morality of an act by the number of people who commit it, the wide disparity between the number of abortions and the number of murders indicates, among other things, that at least in the minds of most people the acts are qualitatively different.

Anti-abortionists say that permissive abortion laws will lead to a devaluation of human life. But as Daniel Callahan points out, this is almost impossible to demonstrate since “there is no evidence that societies which have liberal or permissive abortion laws are societies in which the meaning and value of life in general are demonstrably more threatened than in societies which do not have such laws.”2 And there is another complication if one is examining the problem of abortion from the point of view of society as a whole. It is, after all, quite possible to argue that abortion is beneficial for society. It is difficult to imagine that the world would be a better place if the 40 million to 50 million fetuses legally aborted each year grew up to reproduce themselves at the frightening rate that adult humans seem to do.

After the dizzying and finally unsatisfactory experience of trying to pindown the nature of abortion on moral grounds, it is steadying to encounter James C. Mohr’s Abortion in America and Linda Bird Francke’s The Ambivalence of Abortion. Mohr’s approach is historical, Francke’s anecdotal, and both approaches seem more instructive than trying to determine how far along a pregnant women has to be before she must be forbidden to dance on the head of a pin.

Mohr’s book begins with the surprising revelation that

In 1880 no jurisdiction in the United States had enacted any statutes whatsoever on the subject of abortion; most forms of abortion were not illegal and those American women who wished to practice abortion did so. Yet by 1990 virtually every jurisdiction in the United States had laws upon its books that proscribed the practice sharply and declared most abortions to be criminal offenses.

Mohr’s explanation for the ability of women to practice abortion without sanction in the early part of the century is that most people accepted the idea that a fetus was not a human being until it quickened, and therefore it was not wrong to abort until the fourth of fifth month. In fact, the prevalence of abortifacients indicates that attempts at early abortion were quite common.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was difficult for anyone to determine whether a woman was pregnant or simply suffering menstrual irregularity until the woman herself had felt the child stir within her. Women often took advantage of this ambiguity to induce abortion early in their pregnancies. But increasing medical sophistication made it possible for doctors to determine pregnancy earlier and more surely. It was this same increase in medical sophistication that led to a quickly growing sense of professionalism among doctors and a strong desire that their professionalism be acknowledged by the public.

This desire for public acknowledgement of physicians’ professional status is, Mohr feels, the most important reason for the growth of anti-abortion legislation in the 1840s-1880s. It was doctors who were behind such legislation from the beginning. Among their major enemies, in the competition both for professional status and for patients, were abortionists who advertised competitively in newspapers with a brazen lack of professional decorum. Mohr contends that abortionists’ greed and competitive free-market tactics contributed to their downfall. By making themselves so conspicuous in the popular press, abortionists made themselves an easy target. But they also got themselves a good deal of business, and in part their success stimulated doctors’ interest in stopping their activity.

Among the most fascinating sections of Mohr’s book are the abortionists’ advertisements that he reproduces. Perhaps the most successful abortionist of the period was one “Madame Restell,” an English immigrant whose real name was Ann Lohman. Madame Restell’s empire spent $60,000 a year on advertising both abortifacients and actual operations; Mohr links the success of her million-dollar-a-year business to her ability to adapt modern business techniques—mail order and advertising in particular. Her advertisement in the Boston Daily Times of January 2, 1845, is a model of proto-Madison Avenue tact:

Madame Restell’s experience and knowledge in the treatment of cases of female irregularity is such as to require but a few days to effect a perfect cure. Ladies desiring proper medical attendance will be accommodated during such time with private and respectable board.

One of Madame Restell’s competitors, Madame Drunette, advertised “French Lunar Pills.” Also on the market during the week of January 4, 1845, were “Dr. Peter’s French Renovating Pills”—“a blessing to mothers…and although very mild and prompt in their operations, pregnant females should not use them, as they inevitably produce a miscarriage.” Dr. Melveau’s “Portuguese Female Pills” were likewise “certain to produce miscarriage.”

How innocent it seems at a hundred years’ remove: the diction—who could prosecute anyone who would use the term “fluoral bas” to describe menstrual problems?—the archaic print Mohr reproduces, the almost touching invocation of foreign authority and glamour. By comparison, the twentieth-century abortionists who advertise in the Yellow Pages seem much more disreputable, and certainly lacking in art. Yet, of course, illegal abortion has always been an unattractive business. Madame Restell committed suicide in 1878 after she was arrested, following the discovery of a naked woman, dead as a result of a bad abortion, in a trunk in a railway station. Madame Restell’s suicide sparked a fervid anti-abortion campaign.

The anti-abortion fever, which was largely initiated by doctors, was encouraged by the growth of Nativism. By the end of the Civil War, the medical community believed that the majority of women having abortions in the United States were married, upper-middle-class Protestant women. Thus, opponents of abortion tried to convince the legislators that allowing abortion to flourish would encourage the obliteration of the white, native-born American strain by the evergrowing foreign one. It was an effective technique; by the 1840s, the steadily climbing native population rate of the early 1800s had reversed itself, and the downward spiral of native births was beginning to cause alarm. At the same time, the presence of immigrants in large numbers was first being felt, particularly in the great cities.

As well as playing on the legislators’ and the public’s Nativist tendencies, opponents of abortion tried to link the rise in abortion (estimated at 500 percent between 1800 and 1870) to the rise of feminism. Dr. Montrose Pallen noted in 1868 that feminism was creating “insidious new ideas of women’s duties” such as the notion “that her ministrations in the formation of character as a mother should be abandoned for the sterner rights of voting and law making…until public conscience becomes blunted, and duties…are shirked, neglected, or criminally prevented.”

The feminist response was, surprisingly enough, to join with antifeminist physicians in condemning abortion. “For most feminists,” says Mohr, “the answer to unwanted pregnancies was abstinence.” The Woman’s Advocate, a feminist newspaper published in Dayton, Ohio, attributed the tragic (but understandable) necessity of abortion to husbands’ failure to “check their sensualism.” This response lends some weight to the twentieth-century feminist idea that those who oppose abortion are really opposed to female sexuality.

The liaison that one would have predicted, between physicians and clergymen, was nonexistent throughout most of the nineteenth-century abortion controversy. Until 1865 there was complete silence in the religious press, both Protestant and Catholic, on the issue of abortion. Mohr gives three reasons for this: clerical disbelief that religious women were practicing abortion; a sense that any sexual matter was inappropriate to a religious publication; and a genuine belief that abortion before quickening was an innocent act. Once again, anti-abortion legislature advocates used prejudice as an effective tactic; they taunted the tardy Protestant clergy with the Vatican’s early position against abortion at any point during pregnancy and suggested that Catholics had power to demand and to exact obedience that Protestants did not. Again, the anti-abortionists were effective; by the middle 1870s, the clerical establishment was solidly behind its medical brethren.

By 1900, abortions were illegal everywhere in America. Mohr’s book unfolds the story of the ability of relatively small groups to change radically the legislative, and consequently the social and demographic, complexion of America. He shows us a curious parade of fashionable ladies, disreputable practitioners with fake foreign names, doctors uneasy about their status, feminists uneasy about their sex. This study helps us to understand that abortion in America has had a history of uncertainty and manipulation; it is helpful to know that what is presented as an eternal verity—the criminality of abortion—has been with us for less than a hundred years. Mohr presents his facts clearly and lucidly. (Could he be persuaded not to refer to some of the more poisonous abortifacients consumed by women in their desperation as cocktails?) Abortion in America allows us to examine a perplexing question from an angle new to the issue, the historical, with its oddly calming light.

Linda Bird Francke’s The Ambivalence of Abortion falls into a category of book that is distinctly contemporary: the collection of interviews that assumes that there is something special to be learned in hearing people talk about their particular experience. The appeal of such books is, of course, that of gossip, or eavesdropping. As with both those modes of education, what is learned from anonymous interviews can also be extremely instructive. And, in the case of abortion, the technique is appropriate and helpful. For people learn, particularly in those realms in which we are most fallible, least rational, largely through imitation and identification. Reading this book, in one sense, is like being on a train where the strangers sitting next to you tell you everything. Only in this case the topic is carefully limited: everyone is talking about abortion.

Francke’s intention in writing this book is to help people understand how complicated having an abortion is. She hopes that her book will serve as a corrective to those who insist that abortion is a snap as well as to those who suggest that only a doomed life will follow. She decided to write the book after her anonymous contribution to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, which described the difficulty of her own abortion, elicited an almost unprecedented number of letters.

Francke has interviewed hundreds of American women in abortion clinics, in airports, at the dinner table. She has, in addition—and this is one of the most valuable aspects of the book—interviewed men who wait in abortion clinics with nothing to do but drink countless cups of coffee and smoke countless cigarettes. Everywhere she went, Francke talked to people about abortion until “it seemed as though every woman I met had had at least one.”

Paradoxically, the availability of legal abortion places a new kind of strain on women. Francke, for example, chose not to go on with her pregnancy because she had three children already and was just beginning to be able to work at the job that interested her. At the same time, her husband was newly able to contemplate changing the job that frustrated him; they would be able, perhaps, to go on vacation, finally. Are these sufficient reasons to terminate a pregnancy? How can one answer that question? Having gone through with the abortion, Francke found herself haunted by a “little ghost.”

What comes through in these almost addictive interviews is the very peculiar responses women have, not only to abortion, but to pregnancy as well. One woman got pregnant because she thought diaphragms were bad karma, and another was happy to find out she was pregnant because “a lot of times on TV if you ever notice nobody can have children easily.” One young woman told Francke that if her parents were dead she’d have the baby. One woman was made pregnant in the 1930s by a Hungarian diplomat and found out on vacation with her father in England that her nightmare abortion had not been successful. After having an abortion some women get dressed and go to Burger King and some want to die. Many women think they will be punished by never being able to have children, and others plan to have a child next year. Some women are proud of their courage in taking their lives into their own hands, some mothers cannot admit that their daughters, yards away from them in a treatment room, have had sex. Francke has a good eye for detail, as when she notes that the teenager who pops gum and does not cry is wearing a T-shirt with poodles embroidered on the front.

Francke tells us, finally, that there is every conceivable response to abortion, but that nearly all of them are neither clear nor simple, that the women she talked to who had abortions, even multiple abortions, are neither monsters nor fools, and that one out of three abortions in the United States is obtained by a teenager. We also learn that one out of four pregnancies in the United States is now terminated.

It is to Francke’s special credit that she does not pretend that abortion is an easy issue. She hopes for greater advances in birth control, but knows that even perfect technology will not do away with human uncertainty and the ambivalence surrounding the creation of new life. She suggests that more extensive “counseling” would be beneficial, but is realistic about its limits. This is a book that was written to be helpful but, unlike most helpful books, it does not suggest salvation. It does offer, to both men and women, some sense of the universality of a predicament that many of us find distressing if not impossible to comprehend.

This Issue

July 20, 1978