The BLOG: Voices

A 19th-century Boston physician’s efforts to reduce abortions

This is a continued series of blog entries on important historical events that began in Boston and led to strict laws against abortion throughout the U.S. (Read Part I here) Most of these laws remained until overturned by the Supreme Court’s in 1973. For a century they reduced abortions and the babies who survived typically grew up, married, and in many cases became our direct ancestors.

Readers probably will be surprised to learn that induced abortion was common in the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century. The major cities were the principle places and there is strong evidence that Boston was the city with the most abortions. It thus is not too surprising that Boston became the site of the nation’s first effort to reduce abortions not only in Massachusetts but in the U.S. A remarkable Boston physician, Horatio Robinson Storer (1830-1922), headed what has been termed, “the physicians’ crusade against abortion.” He was not the first New England physician to be concerned about abortion. This appears to have been the Greenville, Rhode Island physician, John Preston Leonard (1819-1851), who published an article, “Quackery and Abortion,” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in January 1851. It included:

Besides these bills of mortality, the records of criminal courts will furnish sufficient proof that this crime is every day becoming more prevalent. It is humiliating to admit that there are a class of physicians who, Herod-like, have waged a war of destruction upon the innocent. Though their motives are not the same as those which instigated that cruel king, they are no less murderers for that. If there is any difference, they are worse than Herod. He was influenced by popular clamor and bigotry; these quacks do all for money, and such could be hired to burn out the eyes of infant princes.

Dr. Leonard may have been influenced by Horatio Robinson Storer, despite the fact that Horatio was just a first-year medical student in January 1851. This will be discussed in a future blog entry, but if you can’t wait check out, go here.

Another early Boston physician who was concerned about abortion was Horatio’s father, Dr. David Humphreys Storer, a professor at the Harvard Medical School (See his portrait by F. P. Vinton on the 5th Floor of the Countway Library). In a final section of his November 1855 Introductory Lecture to the medical students he condemned the frequent practice of abortion. It may be appropriate to conclude this first blog entry with quotes from David Humphreys Storer’s Lecture:

I should be unworthy the confidence or esteem of my brethren did I refrain, while referring to this subject, to enter my solemn protest against the existing vice; to express, emphatically, the universal sentiment of horror and indignation entertained among the upright men of the profession in this community. Of horror, that the female can so completely unsex herself, that her sensibilities can be so entirely blunted, that any conceivable circumstances can compel her to welcome such degradation! Of indignation, that men can be found so regardless of their own characters, so perfectly indifferent respecting those of their cotemporaries, as to lend their services in such unholy transactions.

To save the life of the mother we may be called upon to destroy the foetus in utero, but here alone can it be justifiable. The generally prevailing opinion that although it may be wrong to procure an abortion after the child has presented unmistakable signs of life, it is excusable previous to that period, is unintelligible to the conscientious physician. The moment an embryo enters the uterus a microscopic speck, it is the germ of a human being, and it is as morally wrong to endeavor to destroy that germ as to be guilty of the crime of infanticide.

A final comment. There is no question about David Humphreys Storer’s opposition to abortion, but his son Horatio’s recent return to Boston from study abroad may have been a factor in David’s inclusion of these anti-abortion comments and this will be discussed in a future blog entry.

Frederick N. Dyer

Frederick N. Dyer

Dr. Frederick N. Dyer obtained his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Michigan State University in 1968 before applying his research skills to the history of abortion in the U.S. He has authored the books “Champion of Women and the Unborn: Horatio Robinson Storer, M.D.” and “The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion.”