In this post, I’ll talk some about Kristin Luker’s narrative about historical perceptions of abortion in her 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.
Luker goes back to the difference of opinion between the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and the Stoics. According to Luker, the Pythagoreans held that “abortion is wrong because the embryo is the moral equivalent of the child it will become” (page 11). The Stoics, however, did not think that abortion was “tantamount to murder”, although they acknowledged that embryos had “some of the rights of already-born children (and these rights may increase over the course of the pregnancy)” (page 11). So, even in ancient times, there was reflection about the extent to which an embryo was a full human being, with human rights.
Luker also looks at ancient and medieval Christianity. While she acknowledges that early Christianity opposed abortion and other “barriers to procreation” (i.e., contraception, homosexuality), she states that “the church’s sanctions against abortion were almost never as severe as the penalties for the murder of an adult person” (page 3). For years, a prominent idea was that abortion was wrong after quickening, “the point at which the woman can feel the embryo move within her, an event that occurs during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy” (page 4).
In the nineteenth century, however, doctors in the United States were attempting to establish their medical authority, for there were long-standing factors that challenged it: the lack of a medical guild, the absence of licensing laws, competition in the field of medicine from the domestic sphere (i.e., home remedies, midwives), and the fact that medical schools could not restrict their admissions to the cream of the crop because they needed enough students who could pay tuition. According to Luker, to establish their medical authority, a number of physicians claimed that they knew something that many did not know: that life began at conception, and so both early and also late abortions were problematic.
Luker narrates that physicians favored anti-abortion laws, but these laws did not ban abortion. Rather, they allowed abortion when physicians deemed it to be necessary to save the life and health of the mother. Some physicians were strict in their application of this principle, and some were more liberal. Essentially, the authority of the medical profession was established and upheld, and, during this time, lawyers, philosophers, and religious bodies usually did not weigh in on the abortion issue, for they regarded it as the territory of the medical profession.
Over time, however, that changed. With medical advancement, there came to be very few cases in which childbirth would threaten the physical health of the mother. And yet, there were physicians who allowed abortion when (according to them) it would help the mother’s mental health, and one rationale was that this would save the mother’s life by preventing her from committing suicide. When mental health became more accepted as a justification for abortion, others felt free to weigh in on the abortion issue—-churches, for example—-perhaps because abortion appeared to be no longer solely a medical issue.