WASHINGTON, DC, February 17, 2013 - Abortion was common in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. James Mohr devoted a complete chapter in his 1978 book, Abortion in America, to “The Great Upsurge of Abortion 1840-1880,” estimating that at least 20 percent of pregnancies were ending in induced abortion at the time. Mohr’s evidence that abortion was frequent came largely from articles and books written by physicians. One, The Great Crime of the Nineteenth Century, by Edmund Hale, claimed two-thirds of pregnancies ended in induced abortions.
A Boston physician, Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D. (1830-1922),** was particularly concerned about the high rate of abortion occurring primarily for married Protestant women. In 1857, he noted abortion’s frequency in his own married patients and learned that many other physicians were experiencing the same phenomenon. Over the next year-and-a-half, Storer carried out extensive research that included “comparisons of the present with our past rates of increase in population.” He concluded in the 1859 American Medical Association Report on Criminal Abortion “thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives are thus directly at stake, and are annually sacrificed.”
The American Medical Association created its Committee on Criminal Abortion in April 1857 at Storer’s request and made him Chairman. The Committee’s Report and Recommendations were accepted unanimously at the 1859 Annual Meeting. The major Recommendation was for the Association to request state and territorial legislatures to improve laws against abortion. The Association also asked state medical societies to lobby their legislatures to enact anti-abortion laws. These physician lobbying efforts were tremendously successful. Connecticut responded with a new law in a few months and the other legislatures followed suit. From 1860 to 1880 nearly every state and territory passed stringent anti-abortion legislation.
The laws provided penalties to physicians for performing abortions and made poorly-educated physicians aware of the conception origin of human life. Physicians increasingly persuaded women requesting abortions to have their babies. Such persuasion received a major boost in 1864 when the American Medical Association “offered a premium for the best short and comprehensive tract calculated for circulation among females, and designed to enlighten them upon the criminality and physical evils of forced abortion.” Dr. Storer won the prize and was authorized to publish his essay. He gave it the title, Why Not? A Book for Every Woman. Over the next century, scores of physicians wrote about their successes in convincing women to continue pregnancies. Several used Why Not? for this purpose.
The stringent new laws and the physician persuasion the laws supported prevented abortions. Historian Mohr noted that abortions had declined sharply by 1900. When the laws were overturned, abortions increased. The number went from 898,600 in 1974, the full year following Roe v. Wade, to 1,497,700 in 1979. Even minor restrictions on abortion passed by state legislatures since Roe v. Wade have reduced abortion. When some of these were struck down by courts, abortions returned to pre-legislative levels.
When women seeking abortions changed their minds, children were born. What are the chances that one or more of your direct ancestors were born because of the “physicians’ crusade against abortion,” i.e., because of the laws against abortion that Dr. Storer and the AMA demanded and the widespread physician persuasion of women to continue pregnancies that these laws supported? You may be surprised.
Assume that only 3 percent of the children born during a single generation from 1870 to 1900 were children who survived pregnancy because of the “physicians’ crusade.” This 3 percent figure could result if, prior to the new laws, 15 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion with 85 percent of pregnancies going to term. If only 17 percent (one out of six) of these women seeking abortion changed their minds, this would leave 12.45 percent of pregnancies ending in abortion and 87.55 percent of pregnancies going to term. The ratio of 87.55 to 85 is 1.03, i.e., there would have been 3 percent more children being born as a result of the crusade.
Approximately 56 million children were born during the generation from 1870 to 1900. If 3 percent of these were born from unwanted pregnancies that went to term because of the physicians’ crusade, this would amount to 1,680,000 children whose lives were saved. Storer wrote in 1869: “Every life saved is, as a general rule, the precursor of others that else would not have been called into existence.” A soldier saved during the war in 1944 was located in 1999 by the Atlanta resident who had saved his life. The soldier had recovered from his severe head wound, had married, and had 23 living descendants. Not every life saved mushrooms to 24 people alive in two generations, but the number of “others” “called into existence” in the four or five generations since these 1,680,000 children were saved in the nineteenth century is enormous.
The number of currently living descendants of these 1,680,000 saved lives is best illustrated by discussing the 97 percent of children who were not bornbecause of the physicians’ crusade. By chance, those children who were not such unwanted pregnancy survivors as adults would marry other children who were not such unwanted pregnancy survivors at the rate of .97 (males) times .97 (females) which equals .9409. This means 94.09 percent of the next generation would not have had unwanted pregnancy survivors as parents. But it also means that 5.91 percent of that generation would have had one or both parents who were such physicians’ crusade survivors.
By chance, the .9409 proportion without “crusade survivor” parents would marry each other at the rate of .9409 times .9409, which, when rounded, equals .8853. This means that 88.53 percent of the next generation would not have had one or more “crusade survivors” for a grandparent, but 11.47 percent would. Similar calculations show that in the next generation, 21.6 percent of children would have had one or more of “crusade survivors” as a great-grandparent, and 38.6 percent of the next generation (approximately our current generation) would have one or more of “crusade survivors” as a great-great-grandparent.
However, the abortion reductions produced by the “physicians’ crusade” were not limited to a single generation and three percent is a low estimate for the number of additional children born because of the crusade. If one assumes five percent for only two generations beginning in 1870, the 38.6 percent figure for our current generation becomes a whopping 71 percent! This too, however, is an underestimate, because anti-abortion laws and physician persuasion continued to cause unwanted pregnancies to be completed for every generation up to 1973. If you have primarily Protestant ancestors who lived in the U.S., you can be fairly certain that your own existence was one result of the successes of Storer’s “physicians’ crusade.”
You may be asking why Dr. Storer was not acknowledged for his huge life-saving efforts earlier. The answer is that abortion was an incredibly taboo subject. Even a biographer who praised Storer in the March 1917 Catholic Convert did not specifically mention Storer’s efforts against abortion, referring only to Horatio’s “recognition of high principles of morality with regard to the many questions where medicine touches morals.”
Abortion no longer is such a taboo subject and it is high time that we recognize Storer for his immense contribution to the current makeup of our population. May 3 of each year would be a logical celebration date since May 3, 1859 was when the American Medical Association accepted Storer’s Report on Criminal Abortion. Storer was born on February 27, 1830, and February 27 would be another appropriate holiday, given Storer’s key role in founding the physicians’ crusade and in spearheading both goals of the crusade for more than a decade.
Although those who view the restrictive abortion laws overturned by Roe v. Wade as abominations would be reluctant to admit it, Horatio Robinson Storer may have been the most important person in the United States in the nineteenth century.
Frederick N. Dyer obtained his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology in 1968. He retired after a career that included teaching psychology at the University of Alberta and Auburn University, and research on training as a civilian research psychologist for the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. He is the author of Champion of Women and the Unborn, Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D. and The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion (Science History Publications/USA; www.shpusa.com).
**The website, http://horatiostorer.net/ , provides extensive writing and links related to Dr. Storer and the Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion.
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