Marvin N. Olasky and Leah SavasFeb 11, 2023
The Story of Abortion in America
A Street-level History, 1652-2022
Abortion is an issue like no other. Our attitudes towards it and how we define when life begins determine the very words we use when discussing abortion. We don’t even agree about how many people are involved in the matter of abortion. Two people—the mother and the baby? Or only one—the mother? And here, even the word “mother” is avoided by many, who prefer “woman.” Or, in some quarters, “pregnant person.” Is it a “baby” or a “fetus?” Has abortion always had the tacit approval of most Americans and only been criminalized by powerful societal forces (which can change sides dramatically over the decades, as is the case with much of the medical establishment)? Or is it something that has been regarded as abhorrent for centuries and only very recently been treated as not only necessary but a badge of pride for the modern woman? How was abortion portrayed in the pages of American publications c. 1830, 1870, 1920 or 1940 and in the media diet of our own day?
These are among the many issues discussed in the 2023 book, The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652–2022 (Crossway, 2023) by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas.
This book is riveting reading but is not for the fainthearted—much of the material is graphic. It will interest those in such fields as legal history, women’s history, the history of journalism, the history of medicine, political history and history in general and readers with an interest in biography and true crime.
The latter term is not inappropriate here given the book’s fascinating account of how many news stories in much of the 19th and early and mid-20th centuries reveled in lurid details of attractive young women murdered after botched abortions or accidentally killed during one and then dismembered and discovered later due to the ineptitude of the abortionist and the men who had impregnated the women and who feared scandal or marriage to the women they had seduced.
The authors also provide detailed accounts of the enormous amounts of money that some female abortionists (such as the notorious Madame Restell 1812 –1878) made and the flashy lifestyles and prison sentences that punctuated their lives. The authors show that male jurors were often reluctant to convict abortionists given many a juror’s own complicity in such events and the immense political power that the abortion trade wielded via graft.
The book tells heartrending stories of women who underwent abortions and traces how the popular press moved over the decades from referring to two victims in such cases to only the woman to eventually hardly covering at all cases when abortions created female and infant victims (as in the infamous case of the physician Kermit Gosnell), many reporters and editors preferring to stick to the narrative of female empowerment via abortion.
No matter where one stands on the issue of abortion, it cannot be denied that this book movingly, authoritatively tells the story of the women whose lives were shaped by it, as the title says, at “the street level.” It is model social history and engrossing reading for the general reader and scholar alike.
Let’s hear from one of the two authors of the book, Leah Savas.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.