THE BLOG
09/29/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Abortion: Four Centuries & Counting

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Was the abortion debate really going on four hundred+ years ago? Indeed. And who knew?

As it turns out, Donald Foster knew. Foster, Jean Webster Chair Professor of English at Vassar College, knows a lot about an astonishing range of things -- Jon Benet Ramsey's possible murderer, the "Anonymous" author of Primary Colors (Joe Klein), Unabomber Ted Kacynzki, Shakespeare -- and women's medicine in the sixteenth century. The first three of those instances of Foster's endeavors -- he provided expert help on all three cases -- explain his sometime ID as a "forensic linguist;" the fourth relates to his day job. His day job also covers almost all things literary.

This writer's esteem for the distinguished professor is of course unrelated to the email he sent which began, and I quote, "Let's hear three cheers and see three billion readers for Perilous Times." Well, maybe just a teeny bit. But an opportunity to reinforce the argument for women's reproductive rights with the scholarly writings of a Vassar professor is not to be ignored.

This essay, henceforth, is shamelessly lifted from an attachment to the above email, excerpted from Volume 2 (pp.355-360) of Foster's four-volume Women's Works, a study of the issue covering the years from 900 to 1650.

Abortion, which was decidedly a part of women's works, was also part of the debate all those centuries ago, beginning (if not earlier) with the "herb-wives -- women who supplied the herbs and spices used for health care." Women not only nursed those who were ill, we learn from Foster's extensively documented studies, "they supplied much of the medicine, or physic." They passed along their knowledge and skills from generation to generation, and were appreciated more by some than by others. Foster quotes Robert Green's Quip for an Upstart Courtier in which a poor man mocks a wealthy lord: "I make my wife my doctor, and my garden, my apot'ecary shop -- whereas Master Velvet-Breeches cannot have a fart awry, but he must have his purgations, pills and clysters or evacuate by electuaries..." (It gets worse, but you'll have to read the book.)

Getting to the specifics, Foster tells us "It will come as a surprise to some modern readers that there was enormous demand, throughout the medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods, for abortifacient herbs, with many effective recipes and a plentiful supply." As reported in John Gerard's Herbal (1597), a handful of herbs seemed to have taken care of the conception needs of barren women, whereas there were "more than sixty herbs used to induce menstruation after one or two missed periods. Not all of the treatments that he names were reliably effective, and some were dangerous, bringing a risk of hemorrhage and death if taken in too strong a dosage."

Does this sound familiar? If not, we respectfully refer you to the stories in Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before -- and after -- Roe v Wade, of women in 20th and 21st - century America who, denied access to safe procedures, wind up dying in back alleys or emergency rooms. The abortifacients have, sometimes, fancier names in the case of contemporary drugs, but taken without proper advice or supervision can leave women with unwanted pregnancies today just as dead as their sisters in Tudor England.

In the same Volume 2 of Women's Works, Foster offers an historical perspective of the root of the abortion debate, which seems unchanged over the centuries: do rights of the fetus prevail over those of the woman, and whose theology says what? "For the first seventeen centuries of Christianity," he writes:

no authority of record, either Catholic or Protestant, taught or suggested that the fetus during the first two or three months after insemination was a human being. Ensoulment or quickening was an act of God: in His own good time -- typically, in the third or fourth month -- God infused the dormant seed with a human soul, created ex nihilo.

About the ensoulment business, Foster adds, "it was deemed an essential point of Christian ontology that the individual life was created by an act of the Almighty in Heaven and not by a horizontal act of the parents."

God, in other words, probably wouldn't back the 20-week ban. This writer is disinclined to get into theological argument (despite wishing today's politics could be dictated by medical science rather than conservative religion.) But you are again referred to the "What's God Got To Do With It?" chapter of Perilous Times. Or to pages 357 - 360 Vol. 2 of Women's Works, for a fascinating overview of how assorted popes and Anglicans ("About the sixth month the immortal soul is infused," wrote Rev. Christopher Carlile in the 16th century) changed the rules and differed in opinions. Which also sounds familiar.

In 1856, Foster tells us, "Dr. Horatio Storer organized a national drive by the American Medical Association to end legal abortion altogether." His efforts resulted in actions by the various states and territories to strengthen laws against abortion, and by 1880 there were restrictive laws and practices virtually everywhere mandating that a woman, once impregnated, had no safe or legal means to alter the course of what was going on with her body.

Leaping ahead to 2014, has any progress been made in the name of women's reproductive justice?