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formed without leaving a long, sad and public trail of female corpses. Thankfully, the historical record reveals no such trail. In short, abortion in the nineteenth century was too dangerous or too ineffective to have been as commonly resorted to as it is today. The nineteenth century was also the age of the anti-abortion statute. Every American state except one (Kentucky) enacted an antiabortion statute by 1900. These laws received little opposition, as there was no discernible “pro-choice” movement. Early on, some of these laws prohibited abortion only after quickening—that is, the point in pregnancy when a woman first felt the fetus move, usually at about four months’ gestation. But as the century wore on the laws increasingly punished abortion performed at any stage of pregnancy, first with lesser punishments for prequickening abortions but then with equal punishments for abortions at any gestational stage. Typically, the abortionist was punished, not the woman, who was regarded as a victim of the crime rather than one of its perpetrators. The anti-abortion laws received the support of American physicians, who were motivated by a growing appreciation of the humanness of unborn life from conception onward. For in their time the science of human embryology made stunning advances. Since the seventeenth century, medical science had begun to overturn ancient and medieval paradigms of human reproduction, and the nineteenth century was the heyday of this revolution. Sperm had been discovered in the late 1600s, but the mammalian egg was definitively identified in 1827. The uniting of sperm and egg was first observed in 1875. Around the same time, research into unborn life after conception culminated in the brilliant work of the German Wilhelm His, who obtained miscarried embryos, some of them just a few weeks old and only a few millimeters in length, and by careful examination created a credible sequence for embryonic development. All of these developments persuaded physicians that there was no stage in human gestation that marked a transition from a non-human or less-thanfully human life to a human one. Rather, the unborn were human from conception onward. Today the friends of legal abortion revolt against this humanizing of unborn life. Their quarrel arises first with the advances of the nineteenth century. But for all this—the low abortion rate, legal protection of the unborn, and the new embryology—two features of the nineteenth61

The City: Winter 2009  

The City: Winter 2009 edition, a publication of Houston Baptist University

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